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4.0 out of 5 stars"Anarchic individualism"
Reviewed in the United States on March 28, 2013
Kwasi Kwarteng`s case studies of six former British colonies (Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria, and Hong Kong) are a fascinating critique of the British Empire`s management style, if such a phrase can be used. He describes this style as "anarchic individualism" and shows how each of the six former colonies suffered in later decades from the lack of coherent policies on the part of the empire`s administrators. As I was reading, I thought of the descriptive terms "ramshackle" and "catch-as-catch-can" to describe those policies, but I think the anarchic individualism phrase captures it best. Colonial Office personnel sent out from London were generally given very wide latitude to run things as they pleased, with very little direction or interference from the Secretary and his immediate staff. Mr Kwarteng`s point is that too often, a colonial administrator`s policy would be reversed by a successor, leading to confusion, alienation, ethnic rivalry, and much worse. The book causes the reader to want to follow up on what exactly is occurring in each of these countries, and allows a much better understanding of why recent events have come to pass. Highly recommended.
5.0 out of 5 starsVery worth while adventure of Modern History
Reviewed in the United States on June 29, 2014
The author does an excellent job both in his research and narrative in presenting his argument to the influence of the British Empire upon todays events. Much of the information I had read or known about. The manner in how he explained different colonies and the depth in detail was superb. His ability to tie it together as he went along, especially in the conclusion assisted me in my understanding today's foreign affairs problems and miscalculations The only down side was the author could have short the part on Hong Kong. It seemed to drag. After reading this book and having experienced some similar events, the book should be mandatory reading for the White House staff regardless of party affiliation
2.0 out of 5 starsThe ghosts of an empire recently deceased
Reviewed in the United States on February 10, 2012
I originally posted this review at the time the book was published. I took it down a couple of years later when I was purging a few of my older reviews. Now, in June 2016, Britain has become the major international story due to its "Brexit" vote, which will be held tomorrow. The "Brexit" vote reminded me of how important Britain still is in the world, so I was moved to re-post this review of a specifically-British book:
To Americans the British Empire conjures up cartoon-like images of 19th Century upper-class Englishmen tramping through the steaming jungles of Asia and Africa, shouting to native porters in an Oxford accent to bring up the silver for afternoon tea. It’s difficult to remember that as late as 1940 the British Empire wasn’t a cartoon at all, but a formidable global empire ranked superior to the United States in deployable “boots on the ground” military power and global economic influence.
The British did not recognize their loss of world hegemony until the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 when the world’s other powers, including the USA and Canada, blocked their bid to retake the Suez Canal that had been nationalized by their former colony of Egypt. The British Empire is thus a recently deceased empire. During the three hundred years between the mid-1600s and the mid-1900s it was the most powerful political entity on the planet.
The legacy of the British Empire is as complex as its power. The British profited from the labor of dark-skinned peoples, but they also took the lead in abolishing slavery in their Empire, outlawing it decades before the American Civil War. They seized territories in Africa and Asia but worked with the United States to make sure that none of the Western Hemisphere republics would ever be recolonized by any European power, including them. Their empire is said by some, including this author, to have been anti-democratic, and yet they left a legacy of democracy in countries of unimaginable demographic diversity like India.
The Brits were said to jealously guard their empire, and yet they refrained from instigating hopeless bullheaded wars against aspiring native peoples in their last remaining colonies the 1950s and 1960s like the French did in Algeria and Indochina. The Brits were said by some to be racist, and yet they welcome the dark-skinned peoples of their empire into their homeland with open arms.
To Americans the Brits have been like an eccentric but benign uncle. When they recognized our independence in 1783 they had the foresight to understand that their foes in the future would most likely be rivals in Continental Europe, not the United States. Except for the 1812 War they accommodated our rising ambitions in the world, an effort that saved their country and our common cause of democracy and human rights in the 20th Century World Wars and the Cold War. Canadians, and I suspect Aussies and Kiwis, view the British Empire like a beloved old mother who no longer plays a role in the lives of her children who have grown up to live in their own houses.
So what about the REAL colonies of the British Empire --- the ones in Africa, the Middle East, India, Asia, and the Caribbean? What do the dark-skinned people of these colonies who hewed the wood and drew the water for their White masters, who sometimes fought for the Empire and sometimes rebelled against it, perceive to be the legacy of the British Empire?
This book discusses the British Empire from these people’s perspectives. But it does have limitations in its presentation:
1. It’s more like a collection of term papers than a book. It should be titled: “An essay on the British administration of Iraq, Hong Kong, and a few other obscure countries most people can’t locate on a map.” To be fair, the author tells us up front that it is an “unusual book about the British Empire” perhaps acknowledging that it is a collection of snippets, or micro-views of the British Empire rather than a higher-level view of the whole. Sometimes the microcosm approach works well in illuminating the larger picture, but in this case the microcosms aren’t particularly well-chosen.
2. Lack of objectivity. It is heavy-handed in trying to link the modern-day American Republican Party’s “neo-conservatives” to the 19th Century British Imperialists. When politics is mixed with history one has to suspect that the author is trying to mask a political rant as a history book, which a lot of them do. The author also characterizes the British Empire as being “anti-democratic.” How, then, does he explain that India, with a fantastically diverse population of over a billion people, is the world’s largest democracy? I don’t know that every Third World country in the British Commonwealth is a true democracy, but many are.
3. Insufficient organization. The starting point should have been a dramatic event like the Suez crisis of 1956 which broke the back of the British Empire. This would have succinctly encapsulated the positives and negatives of what the Empire was all about from the perspective of the Third World colonies. Instead we get droning recounts about the British Empire in 19th and early 20th Century Iraq, Nigeria, Kashmir Burma, Sudan, and Hong Kong. The multi-chapter essays on Iraq and Hong Kong were modestly interesting to me, the rest not at all.
4. Turgid writing. The writing is long-winded in mundane details and all-too-brief in telling the IMPORTANT stories of the British Empire in these regions, stories such as the Suez Crisis; the liberation of the Indian subcontinent and its partition between India and Pakistan; the return of the Jews to British Palestine; the World War II battles in Burma when the British and the natives fought together to defeat the Japanese.
5. Lack of perspective on the colonial peoples. The author portrays the British as being cartoonist old fogeys. What about their subjects? We know that many of subject peoples of the British Empire in Asia, India, and Africa were loyal to the Empire, while others fiercely opposed it. Where are their stories? There ARE mundane stories about minor characters, but where is the major story line? This book is about the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent, but it mentions Gandhi only a few times, and only then tangentially.
6. The conclusion is a let-down. It is the summing up of the details of British administration polices rather than any big picture conclusion about the actual impact of the British Empire on its subject peoples. What, if anything, did the Brits do to improve the lot of the peoples they governed in their Third World colonies or to prepare them for ultimate independence? One suspects they must have done SOMETHING positive, otherwise most of these former colonies wouldn’t still be associated under the British Commonwealth. It would also have been interesting to compare the peaceful dissolution of the British Empire in the 1950s with the violent dissolution of the French Empire.
The book takes one of the most interesting empires in human history and makes it look small. It’s like looking at an elephant through the wrong end of a telescope and imagining you are seeing an ant.
This book may be of interest to persons who are studying the history of the British colonial administration of Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Nigeria, Sudan, and Hong Kong. It may be of interest to academics who are researching history from an anti-imperialist view, or to those who seek data that will help them make comparisons between modern-day American “Neocons” in Iraq and British Imperialists in the 1920s.
The main argument of this engaging account of the British Empire is that the British Empire never had a coherent central policy to guide its colonies that were spread all over the world.
Kwasi Kwarteng visits six different colonies (Iraq, Nigeria, Kashmir, Hong Kong, Burma, and Sudan), in which he reviews how the British administration governed those colonies. He reaches the conclusion that the British Empire was ruled by individuals and, therefore, each colony was ruled differently without any consistencies between them. Moreover, Kwarteng argues that even policies within the same colony tended to change when the governor was replaced by a new governor.
Although I was rather convinced by Kwarteng argument, I still cannot stop to think why he chose these specific colonies. And he failed to address the fact that central governments tend to change their policies all the time. Nevertheless, regardless if you agree or disagree, "Ghosts of Empire" is filled with very insightful and interesting information to be highly appreciated by every history fan out there.
5.0 out of 5 starsRefreshing re-examination of the past
Reviewed in Canada on May 16, 2014
Some long over-due research and reflection on the on-going legacy of British imperialism. This book is about colonies run to support business interests but it is relevant to settler colonies like Canada and the United States. It gives background we need to understand modern politics.