Divers hands and motives

Empire as an activity rather than an entity

Divers hands and motives

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

by John Darwin

Allen Lane, $45 hb, 492 pp, 9781846140884

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.

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a subscription to ABR Online, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are a single issue subscriber you will need to upgrade your subscription to view back issues.

If you are already subscribed, click here to log in.

Robert Dare

Robert Dare

Robert Dare was educated at the University of Melbourne and at Oxford, where he was one of A.J.P. Taylor’s last doctoral students, preparing a thesis on the British Labour Party. He taught British, European, American, and Australian History at the University of Adelaide, and was the inaugural head of its School of History and Politics before his retirement.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.