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Ends of British Imperialism

Review by: Bryan S. Glass, University of Texas at Austin

Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonization , Wm. Roger Louis (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 1065 pages

Professor Louis’ collection of essays contains a number of interrelated themes on the downfall of the British Empire beginning with the Scramble for African colonies in 1882 and concluding with the withdrawal of British troops east of the Suez Canal in 1971. Louis states that the formal British Empire began to rapidly unravel after the Suez debacle in 1956. However, this did not signal an end to British informal influence in the region. In the Cold War era, the British played the crucial role of negotiating informal ties with many of their formal colonies in Africa and the Middle East for strategic purposes. Thus, strategy held a prominent place in the formal annexation of territory at the end of the nineteenth century and the ensuing switch to informal empire in the 1950s and 1960s. Accordingly, the move to informal empire in the 1950s and 1960s, with the support of the United States, mirrored the formal Scramble for African colonies at the end of the nineteenth century.

Of the essays on the Scramble for Africa, the biographical selection on Sir Percy Anderson, the Foreign Office official who shaped the outcome of the European conquest of the African continent, exemplifies the strategic concerns of the British to maintain control of the Suez Canal, Egypt, and the Nile. The obsession of Anderson to control eastern Africa points to the value of the route to India, “the Jewel in the Crown.” Anderson’s actions illustrate that Africa’s main attraction to the British Empire revolved around its importance as a gate to the East. Once India became independent in 1947, the ensuing focus on consolidating control in northeast Africa and the Middle East underscored, in addition to the region’s strategic importance, the British need to maintain the prestige of its Empire. This need would lead them to humiliation at Suez. However, the strategic importance of the Empire would not dissipate in the midst of the Cold War. Instead, the United States’ aversion towards colonialism, as focused on in numerous essays throughout the book, forced the Empire to transform into one of informal influence.

When studying the process of decolonization, the role of the Americans in the eventual demise of the formal British Empire cannot be overstated. Following the Second World War, Louis explains that the Americans propped up the British Empire out of necessity to combat the spread of communism in southern and western Asia. The financial, and seemingly moral, support of the United States provided the British with the impetus needed to restore the Empire, starting with the Middle East. In this pivotal chapter of the book, written with Ronald Robinson and entitled “The Imperialism of Decolonization”, the strategic nature of British Imperialism from 1882 through the 1960s becomes apparent. According to the authors, in the late nineteenth century the British Imperial strategy centered on keeping hostile powers away from the Upper Nile region and the Horn of Africa to protect the route to India and the East. Following the Suez Crisis of late 1956, the British set their sights on stopping Nasser’s drive southward along the supposed “trans-African lifeline to Aden and Singapore.” While the United States refused to participate in the British, French, and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956, they wholeheartedly encouraged the implementation of informal influence to stop the spread of communism. Consequently, the British, encouraged and funded by the Americans, used the medium of subsidies in Ethiopia and the promise of independence for Somalia to gain compliance from their respective leaders. The British continued this process over the next fifteen years by offering independence to their remaining possessions in exchange for informal influence. Thus, this imperialism of decolonization created alliances for the West among former colonies, which proved useful for combating the Red Menace. In the end, the United States’ refusal to support formal British Imperialism at Suez led to its demise. The Americans chose, instead, for the British to follow the route of establishing informal influence through the imperialism of decolonization.

Professor Louis’ selection of essays serves as an intellectual tour de force for understanding the numerous complexities surrounding the final decades of British Imperialism, not least of which proves to be the ascendancy of American power following the Second World War. Moreover, Louis’ reputation as an indefatigable researcher emerges from every page of this monumental tome. With The Ends of British Imperialism , Roger Louis solidifies his place as the foremost historian of the British Empire in his generation.

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