View from the Center: John Darwin’s The Empire Project

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

This review has been a long time coming. Ever since reading John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire and studying in his master’s program at Oxford, I have slowly been working my way through his catalog. At long last, I’ve come to perhaps his most historically significant work, perhaps even his magnum opus. I’ve read John’s take on modern history from an imperial perspective in After Tammerlane; his synthesis on building the British Empire in Unfinished Empire; even his survey of port cities in the age of steam globalization in Unlocking the World (reviewed here on Concerning History); now, however, I have had the pleasure of reading his contribution to the historiography of the structures and strategies of the British Empire in The Empire Project.

In one of, if not the, most important classes in our program in general and my own specialty in particular, my comrades and I familiarized ourselves with the long historiography of what can best be described as “imperial theory:” the explication of the causes and course of European overseas empire, especially concerning its greatest incarnation in the British Empire. No less a personage as Vladimir Lenin helped begin these discussions with his argument that capitalism was simply the final stage of imperialism. John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson later argued for the global, cohesive nature of the British Empire and, in so doing, the importance of its informal influence as much as its direct rule. Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins later argued more for the importance of the gentleman capitalists in London in driving forward the engine of imperial expansion. Darwin in his turn rejects any of these traditions as a single explanation, instead fusing all these lines of argument into a much more contingent, and in my opinion much more reasonable, thesis. The Empire Project’s core argument is that it was precisely the combination of direct (and then indirect) British authority in India and its dominions combined with the economic and industrial might of the home island and the city of London that not only built the greatest empire in world history but instituted a world system of diplomacy, finance, and geopolitical power. 

And yet, in Darwin’s treatment, this behemoth comes off as extremely fragile and based on the shifting sands of circumstance. This of course includes the usual explanations of how much of Britain’s expansion was fueled by men on the spot rather than any official policy, but Darwin goes further. Britain’s imperium, he argues, was based on a number of global conditions: absence of war in Europe, a passive Asia, control of the Indian subcontinent (and, later, Suez), support of its white settler colonies (later the Dominions), and the global mercantile and financial primacy of London. All of these combined led to Britain’s ability to sprawl across the globe, seizing territory only in the face of minimal resistance and running it all on a shoestring budget (subsidized in large part by the tax revenues of its Indian Raj, where the majority of British forces were stationed on the eve of the First World War). While this policy resulted in massive profits for the imperial center, it also produced an incredibly vulnerable, decentralized imperium that would prove difficult to defend in the case of this system’s breakdown. When that breakdown came in 1914 with the collapse of peace in Europe, each other pillar would soon follow, including and especially the loss of Britain’s financial health due to the enormous cost of fighting the Great War. While given the chance to catch its breath in the interwar period, the British Empire would never regain its pre-1914 strength, and the Second World War would thus nearly spell its ruin.

Darwin’s analysis is highly persuasive, especially with his focus on economic statistics, and argues forcefully for discarding many of the usual explanations of decolonization I was taught in my undergraduate capstone seminar and elsewhere. The idea that common citizens demanded an end to empire in favor of funding domestic welfare cannot be accurate, as Britain’s financial strength depended on its overseas holdings and investments (a vicious cycle that would ultimately prove its undoing). Empire was not abandoned for its cost to the government, either, for precisely the same reason. Nor does a shift in international opinion play much of a role, at least not in the traditional idea of American hostility to imperialism; indeed, Darwin’s implicit argument that America cared more for its own geopolitical strategy than national self-determination fits very well with the United States’ dubious actions during the Cold War. Even the surge in nationalist movements and insurrections after the Second World War get recast in this light: far from being long-simmering powder kegs, it was Britain’s efforts to revitalize these previously-lightly ruled colonies into economic powerhouses to replace India after 1947 that galvanized popular resistance and ultimately broke apart the Empire over the course of the next two decades.

If all this sounds highly Eurocentric and geopolitical, that’s because it is. The Empire Project is every inch a study of the British Empire’s “official mind” and the grand strategy of its officials at the highest levels. While this gleans valuable insight in how the Empire operated, it also gives short shrift to the agency of indigenous peoples as mentioned above, the only exception being that of India (which would be nearly impossible to ignore). Though this is admittedly not Darwin’s focus, such a blindspot could unintentionally reinforce misguided ideas of Britain’s imperial liberalism and even benevolence (though it should be said that Darwin does not shy away from British brutality when it enters his narrative). For this reason I cannot quite bring myself to call The Empire Project my definitive history of the British Empire, but it certainly comes the closest of any I’ve read so far. John certainly remains my historian laureate, however, and I cannot recommend his works highly enough to those looking to gain insight into one of the most influential political organisms of modern history.

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