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.
Divers hands and motives
Empire as an activity rather than an entity
Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain
by John Darwin
Allen Lane, $45 hb, 492 pp, 9781846140884
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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.
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