Friday, April 08, 2016

Review: The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

There's something extraordinary about the British Empire. If you look at a world map, and visit England, you can't help but wonder how such a tiny nation with such seemingly gentle people built an empire where the sun never set. Even now, there's an argument to be made that the sun still has not set on all British territories.

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire is a great courses audio book about this history, and it covers roughly the events from the 1600s to the post world war 2 era. It is an astounding 18 hours long, and is extremely detailed. Let's see if I can summarize the salient points:

  • The British Empire was more or less accidentally created, not by intention, but by the founding of various companies which were given charter to exploit trade with various territories. These companies ended up dominating India, Africa, and various other territories, but had no desire to actually rule people, and so eventually the job of ruling was given over to the country itself.
  • That meant that the Empire was actually built very cheaply, and the early conquests were made primarily through technological superiority, not through hard-fought battles.
  • The corollary to this is that England could never rule any part of continental Europe, and never had any pretensions about doing so. Ironically, this meant that a single-minded focus on the Royal Navy served both as defense and as an extension of the empire's reach.
  • Early on in the history of the Royal Navy, an execution of a British sea captain for not engaging with the enemy when the opportunity arose, led to a culture within the Royal Navy of being aggressive in its actions. This led to a positive feedback loop culminating in the Royal Navy's dominance of the waters.
  • Unlike many other empires, the British Empire learned its lessons from the American Revolution, which led to a self-rule amongst its white colonies and eventual independence of countries like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
  • The African, Indian, and Asian colonies, however, agitated for independence after World War 2, and the British were in a hurry to get rid of them as well. Not only was the public sentiment against retaining the empire, they were also costing the empire money which the public wanted to put into Britain's welfare state. These hurried exits rarely turned out well in Africa, where Botswana's the only one that has had a continuous democracy. South Africa itself had a terrible history with apartheid, while the rest of the former British colonies became ruled by dictatorships.
  • The British empire was the first (and only) country to abolish slavery without a (civil war) like in the US. It abandoned slavery even though it had a strong monetary incentive to continue with the institution, and used its navy to blockade slave shipments across the Atlantic. The British continue to be very proud of this, justifiably so.
  • The British was over-stretched by World War 2, and quickly had to be second place to the Americans by the end of the war, taking orders from the American government rather than dictating the terms of engagement. In particular, Roosevelt determined that Americans should not fight to help Britain maintain its empire.
As you can see, a study of the British Empire quickly turns into a history of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Singapore and even parts of China. It's a monumental undertaking and I think Prof. Alitt did a great job. The only weakness I can find is that I wish he'd organized the themes better, rather than the whole audio book being a chronological narration of events.

Regardless, however, this is a massive info dump, and contains many titbits that I wasn't aware of before, including details of Mahatma Ghandi's life and the Indian independence movement. I recommend it, but after coming from the science-oriented courses, it does feel a bit of a slog and I'm glad I chose to be a computer scientist instead of a historian.

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