During the five centuries in which the British came astonishingly close to ruling the world, it was often said, to the point of cliche, that “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” extending as that empire did literally around the globe. In this remarkable history of the empire, John Darwin goes an important step further: “ ‘Once the British Empire became world-wide,’ it was once shrewdly remarked, ‘the sun never set on its crises.’ ” That may have been merely a scholarly witticism, but it succinctly summarizes the central theme of “Unfinished Empire”: that rather than a carefully assembled and cleverly operated system controlled out of powerful offices in London, the empire was a tatterdemalion construction fashioned in great measure by accident, improvisation and luck, one that came under never-ending challenge by crises both internal and external.

Darwin, who teaches at Nuffield College, Oxford, and is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of empire, is no Churchillian sentimentalist when it comes to the British Empire that is now irretrievably lost, but neither is he among those “historians of empire [who] still feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it.” He does not regard empires as inherently evil, indeed believes their formation to be a natural outgrowth of basic human instincts: possession, control, territoriality, domination. Empires have almost always been with us — since World War II there has been an American empire, consisting more of military presence than of possession — and if the common tendency is to see them as exploitative, Darwin argues that they can be productive as well, helping places develop their trade relationships and internal economies.

Assembling an empire, though, is anything but an orderly process. The “decisive act of imperial expansion” may be “the annexation of territory,” but in the case of the British Empire it was accomplished not only by the government, but also by individuals and organizations that had their own interests foremost in mind. At times they were at cross purposes, and it was often the role of London to sort them out and keep them more or less under control:

“It is not always clear what possession actually meant, both for those who rushed to exploit its promise and those on whom possession was imposed — sometimes . . . without their knowledge, let alone their consent. The results of taking possession — so often presented as creating order from chaos — were often extremely untidy, a mass of loose ends, contradictions and unfinished projects. Empire-building was always a work in progress, like a house extension in which the design, the builders and even the building materials were constantly changing.”

Though there were many in London who sought to maintain the empire as a manageable undertaking — not only in government but also in banks, trading companies and other private enterprises with interests in overseas investments — it was rarely possible to do so in a calculated and efficient way. Both empire building and empire management were surprisingly reactive processes in which the conquerers (if that really is the word for them) had to deal with the unforeseen and the unwelcome. Whether the territory in question was a small island in the Caribbean or an expanse as vast and heterogeneous as India, each one presented its own problems from the moment of first contact:

’Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain’ by John Darwin (Bloomsbury)

“Settling in was a fraught and uncomfortable process racked with doubt and uncertainty. The sometimes traumatic experience of migration was only a start. Claiming the land, exploiting the spoil, remaking the landscape, putting down roots, excluding all rivals were all stressful endeavours: scruples were costly and doubts might be fatal. The hard racist edge of settler society was the product of fear and anxiety as well as of arrogance. It reflected the pressure, all but relentless, to move restlessly forward in case stagnation set in and the experiment failed. ‘Populate or perish’ became a political cry in one settler society. As a populist motto, it fitted them all.”

Empire building was often a forceful act, but at least as carried out by the British, it was far less often a violent one. As a rule, violence was resorted to only when all other alternatives failed. Thus when English explorers first landed in North America, they tried to establish peaceful relations with the native population and managed to do so in various locations in New England and the South. But as the settler population grew both in numbers and in territorial ambition, Indian resistance was met firmly and eventually, in some cases, violently. This, however, was violence initiated by the settlers rather than a deliberate policy mandated by London, another instance of a difficulty, or crisis, that neither Whitehall bureaucrats nor trading-company managers could have anticipated.

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.


The Global Expansion of Britain

By John Darwin

Bloomsbury. 478 pp. $35