Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin

Reviewed by
December 2013–January 2014, no. 357
Robert Dare reviews 'Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain' by John Darwin

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

by John Darwin

Allen Lane, $45 hb, 492 pp, 9781846140884

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin

Reviewed by
December 2013–January 2014, no. 357

The main title of John Darwin’s new book is simple but mischievous. Its primary purpose is to announce that he sees empire as an activity rather than a thing. People, millions of them, made it, and remade it constantly, over long stretches of time; it was always in progress, always being finished. They built empire from a variety of motives, some commercial, some geopolitical, some religious, some vainglorious, but for most as a way of building a better life. Darwin wants to give us less a taxonomy of the British empire – what its bits consisted of – than an account of how it was built. He depicts the empire as constantly in flux. ‘Empire-building,’ he writes, ‘was always a work in progress, like a house extension in which the design, the builders and even the building materials were constantly changing.’ The secondary purpose of his title is thus a playful one. Wouldn’t we suspect that a finished empire was one already in decline, the victim of irresistible entropy – finished in both senses? Empires are restless, or they are dead. The play in the title, then, is that the British Empire is unfinished because it finished.

Robert Dare reviews 'Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain' by John Darwin

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

by John Darwin

Allen Lane, $45 hb, 492 pp, 9781846140884

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