Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Fall of Imperial Britain in South-East Asia

Book Cover

Book Title

The Fall of Imperial Britain in South-East Asia. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1993


Tarling, Nicholas


The first line of investigation of the book is into the decline and fall of the British empire. The concept of empire requires definition and it is largely related to the context of Britain's strength vis -à-vis other major powers. In Britain's case, empire does not refer solely to Britain's power in the mid-nineteenth century in terms of territorial possession, but also in the trade it had monopolized, which had brought upon their economic success. Britain's interests were worldwide, but most often than not they were more substantial in areas where it did not possess formal control than in areas where it did. Hence, the concerns of Britain, whether it is economically or security for Britain itself would receive different emphasis at different times, in different areas and circumstances.

The other line of investigation in this book concerns itself with the development of British connections with the polities in Southeast Asia. The diversity of formulas Britain had employed enhances the effectiveness of using Britain's colonial territories as a focus for studying Britain's empire and its decline. In this way, the book offers the context of Southeast Asia as the outlines of a narrative of British policy in the country or territory in the regional and larger world context as well.

In pursuing these two lines of investigation and juxtaposing them, Tarling aims to gain a better understanding of both the decline and fall of the British empire, and of the emergence of new Southeast Asian polities in the twentieth century.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The chapters are designed to follow the two lines of approach and their juxtaposition through a chronological sequence. Each chapter covers a particular phase: the mid nineteenth-century, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the inter-war period, the Second World War, and decolonization. The chapters attempt to discuss the changing position of Britain's interests in the world, to outline the evolution of Britain's policy in respect of Southeast Asian territories and to point out the connections between these main points.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book undertakes the ambitious task of pursuing two lines of approach and juxtaposing them. The aim is a better understanding both of the decline and fall of the British empire, and of the emergence of new Southeast Asian polities in the twentieth century. The assumption is that both are part of world and thus are best explained in that context. The study of the British empires will also bring out the contrasts and similarities with other empirical powers that had been present in Southeast Asia.

Tarling hopes that by juxtaposing the role of Britain in the making of modern Southeast Asia, and adopting the Southeast Asian perspective, as well as placing them in a larger global and regional context, he may diminish the risk of exaggerating the role of the British, or of distorting any perspectives of British rule in Southeast Asia.

In his conclusion, Tarling proposes the argument that Britain's plans for post-war Southeast Asia were unrealistic, and there existed a mismatch between the resources Britain could apply and those that was necessary. Britain thus engaged in a process that is always difficult for an imperial power to undertake, since she was compelled to shift from one set of collaborators to another. While it was not difficult to find new collaborators, the core of the matter was that there was no guarantee that they had or could acquire or sustain the necessary popular support. Thus, Tarling asserts that the power that the British had to transfer was one that was largely limited.

Annotated by Michelle Djong