Sunday, October 21, 2007

Piers Brendon's The Decline and Fall of the British empire

Two reviews, here and here, of a sweeping new work of history by Piers Brendon, which chronicles more than a hundred years of the British Empire. And it doesn’t appear to be a boring history - consider this wonderful nugget from Maya Jasanoff’s review:
Brendon gleefully traces the career of that characteristic imperial accessory, the moustache. British cultivation of the hairy upper lip was inspired, he suggests, by Indian ideals of virility, and would decline in proportion with the empire's reach: Harold Macmillan was "the last British prime minister to sport a moustache."
But, more seriously, the business of empire was of course a ghastly affair as this excerpt reminds us:
Necessarily, blood flows freely through this book. At Cawnpore in 1857, where nearly 200 British women and children had been notoriously slaughtered by the Indian mutineers, the British forced suspected perpetrators to "lick blood from the slaughter-house floor before they were hanged". At Isandhlwana in 1879, British soldiers were shredded by Zulu iklwas blades, "so named in imitation of the sucking sound they made when pulled from human flesh". But it was mass slaughter, 20th century-style, that would truly bring the empire down. During the Boer war 160,000 white civilians would be rounded up into ghastly concentration camps - creating a precedent explicitly cited by the Nazis. The first world war carried Canadians and Indians to "the bone-chilling, gut-wrenching, soul-destroying shambles of the western front", and Australians and New Zealanders to the hell of Gallipoli, where relentless firing turned "their trenches into cemeteries".
A glimpse there of the disparate peoples that were affected. And that's one reason why a book like this could be very useful: it could help us understand the legacies - dubious or otherwise - the British left behind in different parts of the world.

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