Piers Brendon has written a splendid popular history of the British Empire, illustrating yet again the continuing nostalgia for and ambivalence about the glory days of the United Kingdom, when it ruled a quarter of the globe: fifty-eight countries, four hundred million people, fourteen million square miles.1 One way to obtain a quick calibration of where Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997 fits among acclaimed British assessors of empire is to compare the reviews in English periodicals quoted on the back of his book with those on the back of Lawrence James’s The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, published in 1994 and reprinted five times in paperback.

James wrote a “superb history of a mammoth subject” (The Times); it was “outstanding…. An intelligible introduction to a grand subject” (The Spectator Books of the Year); and

James’ epic is not only a first-rate narrative, but also a penetrating portrait of the British…. Having largely, if often inadvertently, selfishly or ham-fistedly, engineered the world we live in, we need the courage now to face up to our record as coolly and intelligently as Lawrence James has done.

(Times Literary Supplement)

For Brendon the praise has been equally enthusiastic, but with a different lilt:

Brilliant…. An enthralling mini-series of colonial adventure…. [Brendon’s] book is stuffed with…myriad spectacular examples of human vanity, folly, depravity and greed—and is all the better for it.


[A] sumptuous chronicle of the British empire…. A glittering panoply of decadence, folly, farce and devastation.

(The Guardian)

A narrative masterpiece. The settings are exotic, the cast of thousands full of the most eccentric, egotistical, paranoid, swashbuckling players you are likely to meet in any history…. An endlessly engrossing and disturbing stream of anecdotes and vignettes that Brendon tells with extraordinary flair and sympathy, warts and all.

(The Sunday Telegraph)

“Warts and all” about sums it up. Brendon is indeed a brilliant narrator, but whereas James’s “epic” has a heroic cast to it, with perhaps a dying fall, Brendon’s conclusion seems to be that the empire was a colossal piece of luck and was doomed from the start:

The British Empire had a small human and geographical base, remote from its overseas possessions. In the late eighteenth century it gained fortuitous [sic] industrial, commercial and naval advantages that rivals were bound to erode.

He may well be closer to the current zeitgeist; Niall Ferguson, in his Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, quotes an eminent historian, whom he says encapsulated the conventional wisdom, asking on BBC-TV: “How did a people who thought themselves free end up subjugating so much of the world?… How did an empire of the free become an empire of slaves?” Brendon, for his part, detects a different drummer, “the unhealthy neo-imperialist climate of today,” in which the seamy side of the empire is apt to be played down, though his British reviews gainsay that. As a result, he sets out his project as placing less emphasis “on triumphs than on the disasters that undermined the fabric of the Empire.” The litany of topics in his introduction confirms this:

the slave trade, the Opium Wars, the Indian Mutiny, the Irish Famine, the Boer War, Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge, defeat in the Far East, the struggles for Irish and Indian independence, the morass in the Middle East, the Palestine imbroglio, the retreat from Suez, the Mau Mau uprising, the flight from Africa, and the imperial epilogue in the Falklands and Hong Kong.


Notwithstanding this list of failures, the popularity of books like Brendon’s confirms that the British want to cling to the glories of their past. They are into nostalgia. Films about World War II or TV costume classics for onward dispatch to PBS can be sure of good audiences. And there’s always James Bond, punching above Britain’s weight. Maybe nostalgia conveniently cloaks a continuing inability to find a role between the Channel and the Atlantic.2 Tony Blair was declaredly a passionate European,3 but his solidarity with Washington got him classified as an American poodle both at home and on the Continent. Or maybe it’s because Brits are not quite sure whether an empire transmuted into a commonwealth conveys special status or is just a nuisance, as Mrs. Thatcher seemed to think.4 Piers Brendon agrees, disparaging the Commonwealth as

increasingly ramshackle and riddled with anomalies…largely defined by negatives. It had no racial or cultural identity. It had, by 1962, no common citizenship. It possessed no religious or linguistic coherence. It was not a military coalition, or a diplomatic alliance, or a customs union…. The fundamental motive behind official attempts to “sell” this nebulous body was to sustain British prestige by concealing the decay of British power…. The Commonwealth was a phantom of former glory.

Or as a leading Tory MP quoted by Brendon once put it, “a sticking plaster for the wound left by the amputation of empire.” It is almost as if Brendon has to kill off the Commonwealth in order to confirm that the empire really has fallen. Gibbon did not have a commonwealth to worry about.5


Ramshackle the Commonwealth may be, but that surely is its strength; Brendon gives no thought to the possibility of benefit from a mélange of ethnicities sitting down together to discuss mutual problems away from the hothouse of the UN General Assembly. Nor does he note how extraordinary the emergence of the modern Commonwealth was. Had India when it became a republic not agreed to stay in the Commonwealth, there surely would not have been a commonwealth or at least not one on its present scale. All Brendon has to say on the subject is that India “only remained in the Commonwealth because that body, the ghost of empire, could change its shape at will.” Perhaps so, but tribute is due to Patrick Gordon Walker, then a British junior minister, later briefly foreign secretary, who devised the formula whereby India would be an independent republic but acknowledge the Queen as the head of the Commonwealth.
Brendon has hitherto been known primarily as a biographer who gives his subjects so thorough a scrubbing that we get to know them like their valets did: Ike (“common decency with uncommon deviousness”); Churchill (“his vices were simply his virtues in exaggerated form”); Our Own Dear Queen; the Windsors; British press barons; Eminent Edwardians in emulation of Lytton Strachey. His last book, the widely praised The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s, was his first work of general history.
The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997 carries his talent triumphantly forward. Its vast panoply of characters, vividly brought to life in often devastating sketches, like the expanse of the history itself, is the product of enormous learning and research into sources official and unofficial, published and unpublished. Indeed, the author should have bullied the publisher for a full bibliography as a guide for future travelers along this trail, for inevitably there will be some. As its title suggests, this book also has a model, but the wordy justification for the Gibbonian overtone in the introduction is unconvincing, even if British proconsuls did regularly measure themselves against Rome. Perhaps it was just that a more appropriate title, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, had already been taken.


The benefit of nostalgia is that Commonwealth can flash back into Empire, past can trump present. For Brits it focuses particularly on India, the “jewel in the crown.”6 The TV series based on Paul Scott’s four novels on the end of the Raj was a great hit. Since the independence and partition of the subcontinent in 1947, there has been a regular flow of reminiscences and popular histories, even into the twenty-first century.7 But ambivalence complicates nostalgia. Should Brits be proud or ashamed of having had an empire? Or should one just laugh it up as in the British film Carry On Up the Khyber?8

Academic historians with their smaller and more specialized audiences can afford to be highly critical or just academic. Since 1947, many have criticized the way that India was conquered, the way it was ruled, and the manner and haste of Britain’s hand- over of power and the terrible bloodshed that accompanied it. The historian Yasmin Khan has recently written:

It was a plan that went catastrophically wrong…. Even those inside the limited loop of political information in 1947 were shocked by the speed with which Partition was imposed, the lack of clarity and reassurance provided to those living along the borderlines, the paucity of military protection written into the plan, the complete abnegation of duty towards the rights of minorities and failure to elucidate the questions of citizenship…. If not entirely responsible for the contending nationalisms that emerged in South Asia (which it certainly contributed to), the British government’s most grievous failure was the shoddy way in which the plan was implemented.9

Brendon concurs, mainly blaming the viceroy, Admiral Lord Louis (“Dickie”) Mountbatten, whom he describes in one of his most devastating miniportraits as “reckless, flamboyant, egotistical, outspoken, ingratiating, vain, shallow, flagrantly handsome and pathologically ambitious.” He was “a brilliant self-publicist, flashing his medals, polishing his [royal] genealogy and burnishing his myth at the expense of the facts.” Someone once said to him, “You’re so crooked, Dickie, that if you swallowed a nail you’d shit a corkscrew.”

Mountbatten said that speed was essential to save India from “complete breakdown” but it actually helped to precipitate a holocaust. The Viceroy promised to nip “trouble in the bud.” He would use tanks and aircraft if necessary to ensure that any communal violence was “utterly and ruthlessly crushed.” In the event the very imminence of Indian independence gave him an excuse to avoid effective action.

A Labour MP, Hilary Marquand, became very popular in Karachi for telling Pakistanis that the British “made two mistakes in India: impeaching the first viceroy [Warren Hastings] and not impeaching the last.”


Though Brendon is definitely not into nostalgia, as a popular historian— with a gift for catching the moments of history that people treasure—he reports that many Indians said that

parting with their former rulers was such sweet sorrow. The feeling was mutual. It was displayed at many farewell ceremonies, notably the exodus of the last regiments: the Black Watch from Karachi on 26 February 1948, the Scots “blubbing like babies,” and the Somerset Light Infantry from Bombay two days later. That parade was an emotional affair with guards of honour, slow marches, royal salutes, flags raised and lowered, formal presentations and speeches about “the manly comradeship existing between the soldiers of our two countries.”

Finally, the colour party and escort of the Somersets, dressed in green berets, drill shirts and shorts, white belts and gaiters, trooped the colours through the Gateway of India. Witnesses “could see tears in everyone’s eyes.” The band played “Auld Lang Syne,” the Scottish refrain being taken up by thousands of Indian voices, as the English embarked on the Empress of Australia and sailed home for good.

But Brendon is not an author to linger long in maudlin sentiment. “Yet such nostalgic valedictions…could not hide the fact that the British Raj had ended in blood as well as tears.” While he blames Mountbatten in the short term, the longer-term blame he attributes to the character of imperial rule, in particular dividing and ruling.10 “Far from quitting India with honour and dignity, the British left amid the clamour of homicide and the stench of death.”


Popular historians do not have the same latitude as academics, not if they wish to remain popular. They have to grapple with pride, prejudice, and political correctness. British readers have long been inured to the black clouds that shadow much of imperial history, but there has to be a silver lining somewhere. Sometimes, as Brendon shows, it can be done with verbal legerdemain. Consider another instance where the British could be said to have left amid the stench of death: Kenya and the four-year struggle between the British and the Mau Mau rebels before independence. An academic historian, David Anderson, has made a series of excoriating comments:

Contrary to public perception, only thirty-two European settlers died in the rebellion, and there were fewer than two hundred casualties among the British regiments and police who served in Kenya over these years….

Rebel losses were far greater than those suffered by the British security forces. The official figures set the total number of Mau Mau rebels killed in combat at 12,000, but the real figure is likely to have been more than 20,000….

In all, at least 150,000 Kikuyu, perhaps even more, spent some time behind the wire of a British detention camp during the course of the rebellion…. Draconian anti-terrorist laws were introduced suspending the human rights of suspects, imposing collective punishments, facilitating detention without trial, permitting the seizure of property of convicts, and vastly extending the death penalty to a wide range of offences…. The Kikuyu districts of Kenya became a police state in the very fullest sense of that term….

In all, over the course of the emergency, 1,090 Kikuyu would go to the gallows for Mau Mau crimes. In no other place, and at no other time in the history of British imperialism, was state execution used on such a scale as this…. British justice in 1950s Kenya was a blunt, brutal and unsophisticated instrument of oppression.11

The Harvard historian Caroline Elkins, also condemnatory, entitled her study of the Mau Mau rebellion Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.12

Jan Morris, whose tripartite history of the empire basically ends with South Asian independence, barely mentions the “enigmatic and murderous Mau Mau” but does talk of “a ruthless and sometimes brutal operation” subduing the rebellious Kikuyu. Lawrence James, who called the Mau Mau a peasant jacquerie, described the war as “savage and one-sided” because of the colonial power’s superior troops and weapons, referred to prisoners being shot dead while trying to escape, mentioned cases of others being tortured, gave a figure of only 150 hanged (perhaps on the basis of older evidence), and admitted that the incarcerated guerrillas underwent “a form of brainwashing designed to release them from the magic of their oaths.” Niall Ferguson, despite spending a few childhood years in Kenya, does not deal with the Mau Mau in his Empire.

Brendon, on the other hand, has his cake and eats it. He is as devastatingly scathing as Anderson and Elkins, whose work he uses. But—here comes a minuscule silver lining—he criticizes them for their use of the term “gulag” as exaggerated, agreeing with Ronald Hyam that this is “abuse of language” and that there must be words left “to denounce the worst evils of all.”13 And Brendon gives Britain’s record in Africa as close to a pat on the back as he ever gives, saying it was “better than that of other European states and on the whole, once in place, its yoke was easy.”


Some popular historians like Niall Ferguson boldly list great gifts disseminated by the British Empire: the English language; English forms of land tenure; Scottish and English banking; the Common Law; Protestantism; team sports; the limited state; representative assemblies; the idea of liberty. Others like Lawrence James rely on the former colonial subjects for the appropriate imperial epitaph:

Few empires have equipped their subjects with the intellectual wherewithal to overthrow their rulers. None has been survived by so much affection and moral respect.

Nevertheless, even such authors who clearly feel that the British Empire did much good have to admit that the British were capable of “ruthlessness and rapacity”; or that, as Ferguson writes:

No one would claim that the record of the British Empire was unblemished. On the contrary, I have tried to show how often it failed to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty, particularly in the early era of enslavement, transportation and the “ethnic cleansing” of indigenous peoples.

The black clouds are visible, even though the silver lining shines.

For Brendon the black clouds and such silver linings as one may discern were present at the creation. Following Gibbon, Brendon argues that the initial subjugation is invariably savage and the subsequent occupation is usually repressive. Imperial powers lack legitimacy and govern irresponsibly, relying on arms, diplomacy, and propaganda. But there was a silver lining, the ultimately fatal ideological bacillus that the empire carried from its birth: Edmund Burke’s doctrine that colonial government was a trust and the subject people would eventually attain their birthright, freedom. Britain’s was a liberal empire:

Its functionaries claimed that a commitment to freedom was fundamental to their civilising mission…. And in the twentieth century, facing adverse circumstances almost everywhere, the British grudgingly put their principles into practice.


It might seem churlish to ask for more when Brendon has laid such a rich feast before one, albeit some dishes seem more like that deadly delicacy of the Japanese, the poisonous fugu blowfish. But though he lists P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins in his bibliography, he has not really jousted with their major new concept of “gentlemanly capitalism” and the idea that the financial dealings of the City of London are the key to understanding imperial expansion. As Brendon admits, his text is only “lightly burdened with economics.” Undoubtedly the boardrooms of London were not as exotic as the smells and sounds of tropical colonies, and possibly he felt that company directors were less piratically venturesome than the Clives and Lugards who helped build the empire, though recent news from Wall Street and the City of London calls this into question. But a little more attention to the cash nexus would have been helpful, even if as gristle among all the red meat.

Another issue is the impact of empire on the national psyche. Brendon quotes viceroys being angered that “English people only listened to talk about India out of politeness,” or that Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was both ignorant about India and content with his ignorance. He quotes intellectuals who claimed that while the writings of Kipling, Rider Haggard, and G.A. Henty were sympathetic to British rule, they no more won converts to the cult of empire than Gothic melodrama inspired a “belief in ghosts.” Yet by the twentieth century, the empire had had a profound impact on the nature of Great Britain’s ruling elite.

The turning point was probably in the 1850s. The decade began with the great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, which demonstrated Britain’s economic and technological leadership to the world and was the “high-water mark of educated opinion’s enthusiasm for industrial capitalism.”14 It ended with the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the transfer of rulership from the East India Company to the British government in 1858. In 1876, Disraeli compounded the emerging problem by declaring India an empire and Victoria its empress. The problem was that empire changed the aspirations of the leaders of the industrial revolution for their progeny. At a time when Britain should have been striving desperately to hang on to its industrial lead against the competition from Germany and the US, the ethos of its industrial elite turned toward running an empire. Just as Chinese mandarins were beginning to grasp that perhaps they needed to study Western science and technology more than they did Confucius, the British elite were being transformed through an increasing number of public (i.e., private) schools into a mandarinate whose guides were the classics of Rome and Greece.15

For the foot soldiers of empire, army privates and their NCOs, for instance, who did not always take to heat and dust, and did not enjoy the perks of the pukka sahib, the payoff was different: status. The British upper classes did not buy them off with the ill-gotten gains of imperial looting as Lenin supposed, but by placing them in a privileged position above subject populations. This master-subject relationship was bad for both proconsuls and privates, often turning ordinary decent human beings into petty tyrants. But for the privates it was at least a measurable step up from the bottom rung of the English class system, which is presumably why the Labour opposition found to its dismay that a sizable section of its urban voters supported the abortive 1956 Anglo-French Suez invasion, hoping it would teach the “gyppos”—whom many would have known through World War II service in North Africa or in the postwar garrisons of the Suez Canal zone—a lesson, and why their children were aroused by what Brendon describes as a “crescendo of neo-colonial chauvinism” during the victorious 1982 Falklands War against Argentina.

Fortunately, it does not look as if there will be any more occasions for moments of “imperial atavism,” as the historian E.P. Thompson put it. Britons will have to be content with nostalgia and ambivalence in films, on television, and in books like Brendon’s, though it will probably be some time before anyone will think of trying to surpass him.

This Issue

September 24, 2009