Book Review

Book cover image
The British Empire 1558-1995, 2nd Ed.

T. O. Lloyd
Oxford University Press, 2001, 455 pages
(Short Oxford History of the Modern World)


A ccording to T. O. Lloyd, it used to be said that the policy of the Colonial Office was that no British colony should have a constitution exactly like that of any other. This comment reflects the fact that Britain's flexibility and sometimes neglect in ruling its vast empire reflected the minimalist nature of British colonialism which, to a far greater degree than the Spanish Empire that preceded it, was driven by economic forces and the need for economic and political stability more than a desire to populate other continents. Both empires were natural outgrowths of the monarchical system of government and flourished during the long transition from the end of feudalism to the beginnings of nationalism; according to Lloyd, when the new concept of nationalism asserted itself in various colonies starting in 1776, displacing the concept of subjugation to a distant, aloof monarch, the Empire broke into a collection of smaller nations, many of which became stable democracies.

At its height, the commercial interests that drove the British empire were so powerful that "The Company" was able to declare war in the colonies in order to create a new company state. In the era before the pre-eminence of nations and national military forces, corporations could often mint their own currency and possess their own military forces to facilitate the introduction of their products into a resistant customer market. In those days an ambitious entrepreneur could go off half-cocked, armed with a charter and some troops, and conquer large chunks of Africa. The military, although always in the background, usually intervened only when it became necessary to bail the adventurers out of trouble.

British military power was so superior to that of other nations that in 1903 one of its generals in India made a wrong turn and conquered Tibet almost by accident. The British characteristically apologized and returned the country to its former ruler, but they had unknowingly set off a chain of events that 48 years later ultimately cost Tibet its existence as an independent country. This story is just a footnote in The British Empire but is told in greater detail in the excellent book A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State by Melvyn Goldstein.

T. O. Lloyd's solidly-written book, while not offering many profound insights, fills its role well in providing a overview of the history of the British empire that is not usually taught to students of America's worthless educational system. Events are necessarily described from a British-centric point of view. Lloyd's steadfast avoidance of polemics and apologetics has the side-effect that some events caused by passions instead of economics, such as the Indian Mutiny, which is better described in India: A History, and the seemingly irrational behavior of the Boers, are described only in vague, sweeping outlines. Similarly, the reasons Lloyd gives for the War of 1812 are a caricature of the true causes, which are far more complex than the simple instinct for territorial aggression which Lloyd attributes to Henry Clay and the other Midwesterners. And Kitchener, who in some ways is something of a role model for the American military these days, gets less coverage than he deserves, as do topics like Hong Kong, Burma, Iraq, and Arabia, and Britain's stormy relationship with Ireland. The Oxford History of the American People by Samuel Eliot Morison is an excellent resource for more detailed and accurate information on the War of 1812.

On the other hand, The British Empire 1558-1995 contains none of the embarrassing and self-righteous attempts sometimes made by other authors to apply modern-day values to past historical events or to make political judgments to further an anti-colonialist or anti-Eurocentric agenda; the facts are explained with the aim of understanding the truth about an earlier era. That this even needs to be said says more about the decline and fall of historians as repositors of collective wisdom than about this excellent book. One need only read other books on imperialism and colonialism, such as Philip D. Curtin's The World and the West: The European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire or the god-awful book Rethinking World History by Marshall Hodgson to find examples of how far the once-admired respect for impartiality has crumbled among historians in this dark age of political correctness.

May 27, 2002 Back