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The Empire Project

Review by: Bernard Porter, University of Newcastle

John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System 1830-1970, (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Few of us who admired John Darwin’s massive After Tamerlane. The Global History of Empire Since 1405 (Bloomsbury Press, 2007) will have expected another even bigger book by him out so soon; but The Empire Project has obviously been gestating for longer than that. One can see the marks of Tamerlane on it, however. The best British imperial historians are those who have both laboured at one or more of the empire’s coalfaces, as Darwin has too, and taken in its wider geographical and chronological context, which is what that earlier book did so magnificently, and so fruitfully for the present work. General histories of British imperialism before now – and I include my own efforts here – have too often sought to explain its ‘decline and fall’ (or whatever you like to call them) mainly in terms of an internal dynamic of its own. In fact, writes Darwin, 

the success and survival of British connexions depended on something far vaster than tactics and stratagems of British agents and interests. Economic and political change in Asia, the Qing crisis in China, the geopolitical shape of post-Bonaparte Europe, the unexpected success of the settler republic on the American continent, patterns of consumption, religious renewals and the movements of people in migrations and diasporas: all these (and more) opened the way for British expansion, and widened the scope of British connections – but prescribed both their limits and their duration in time. If the British system was global, its fate was a function of the global economy and of shifts in world politics which it might hope to influence but could hardly control.

It is this much broader perspective that is this book’s major novelty in this genre, and a huge contribution to our understanding both of the nature of Britain’s imperialism, which was not always as ‘imperialistic’ as our normal understanding of that word might suggest, and of the factors – ‘unique conjunctures’ he called them in his earlier book – that influenced its origins, developments, many stages (he counts four successive ‘British empires’ in all), and eventual dissolution; as ‘the imperial idea’ – in one of his typically illuminating phrases – ‘sailed away to the Coast of Nostalgia’.

Darwin treats us to an exhilarating ride through these 140 years of British imperial history, albeit a bumpy one, overturning dozens of popular (‘nostalgic’) assumptions as it goes: such as that ‘nationalism’ was the natural opposite of ‘imperialism; some of the cruder views of ‘popular imperialism’; the idea of ‘imperial overstretch’; the myth of ‘managed decline’ (in the 1960s); the crucial effect on the ‘official mind’ usually credited to the Suez fiasco; and, more generally, the idea that because something happened in the past it was bound to – Darwin is scathing about ‘hindsight’ views. Which of course adds even more ‘contextual’ material: to be able to consider the events of British imperial history against the quite plausible counterfactuals that this approach implies.

In a way this could be considered the first truly post-imperial imperial history: no longer weighed down by most of the baggage that attached to earlier efforts, especially moral judgments but also the semantic associations that came with the ‘i’-word; and able to view the phenomenon in all its ambiguous complexity. In other ways it is a little old-fashioned, in its concentration on broad movements of history, in the kind of way that up to now has been mainly confined to American (or US-based) historians (it’s probably a function of America’s own world role); and on how British imperialism waxed, mutated and waned rather than how it worked out on the ground. There is almost nothing here about ‘native’ administration, for example: just three lines (I think) on ‘indirect rule’, and those mainly in connection with its propaganda value to the ‘imperial project’ overall. But that after all is fairly indicated by the subtitle: ‘the British World-System’ (not ‘empire’). Early on in the book Darwin questions whether ‘system’ is really the right word for so chaotic a phenomenon, before deciding that, yes, it’s OK, because ‘a system emerged’ – from the chaos – ‘nonetheless’. Whether the same kind of argument can be said to justify his main title, however, may be far more doubtful. The dictionary definition of a ‘project’ is ‘a planned undertaking’. Darwin took the word from Adam Smith, who meant by it that the empire was only a ‘project’, not yet finished. The whole purport of this book, however, is to show that it was not even that. Indeed, this was one of the empire’s strong points; as it is of the book also – to explain it so well. The title aside, this is the best general history of British imperialism to date; a tremendous achievement.

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