This is not to say that the empire was a benign institution — though it certainly did have benign effects in some of the places where it established itself — but that the motivations behind it were at least as much commercial as territorial and that commerce does not thrive in violent circumstances. As Darwin writes, “It was coal, cotton and capital, not derring-do or district officers, on which Britain’s world empire was built.” Elsewhere, he says, empire was not merely “the assertion of dominance by imperial officials (or settlers) and the experience of oppression by indigenous peoples.” There was more: “If rule was to work it required a second dimension: in almost all cases, both sides came to rely on a form of political bargain, or what has sometimes been called ‘collaborative politics.’ ”
What made the empire possible and then held it together was British sea power, established conclusively with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, reinforced by Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805 and maintained until the end of World War II, when the empire began to disintegrate — most importantly with the extremely badly managed granting of independence to India. By 1968, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson “announced the end of Britain’s East of Suez commitment,” the empire was effectively over, but three “colonial possessions” continued to give the United Kingdom severe difficulties: Rhodesia, the Falkland Islands and Hong Kong. Darwin argues that in the early years of World War II the British suffered “great geostrategic defeats” that led not to an immediate collapse of the empire but to “a kind of unraveling, in which failure in one sector sets up intolerable strains in other parts of the system.”
It wasn’t so long ago — perhaps three-quarters of a century — that around the world the familiar words were sung: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves/Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” Today that seems positively prehistoric, but “at its zenith” Britain’s empire was “perhaps the largest in world history,” enduring “for more than 500 years if we include (as we should) its medieval foundations.” There have been other empires, but none extended so far as this one — by the early 20th century it embraced “more than one hundred separate political units” — and none was so ingeniously, if inadvertently, adaptable: “The hallmark of British imperialism was its extraordinary versatility in method, outlook and object. . . . The British imagined different kinds of empire, sought different kinds of relations with client peoples and subjects, and pursued a wide range of interests that were sometimes in conflict with one another. They were able to appeal to the self-interest or sympathy of a multitude of partners, allies, compradors, collaborators and converts in different parts of the world.”
Darwin explores all these themes in a book that is closely argued and based on what appears to be a lifetime’s worth of research. “Unfinished Empire” is not always easy going, in part because its arguments can be dense and in part because Darwin has chosen to arrange it thematically rather than chronologically, but it is immensely important and useful. As an Englishman, Darwin declines to be either boastful or self-lacerating about the empire his country presided over, but simply examines it with a clear eye. This he has achieved to a laudable and indeed remarkable degree.