The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997

In This Review

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997
By Piers Brendon
Knopf, 2008
816 pp. $37.50
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Only a very confident historian with a massive, comprehensive, and thoroughly researched manuscript would willingly invite comparisons with the British historian Edward Gibbon. Brendon, a Cambridge historian, fits that bill -- and has no reason to apologize for giving his study the only title that would suffice. Starting his tale in 1781, with General Charles Cornwallis' surrender to George Washington, and ending it with the British transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, he shows how the British Empire "ended as haphazardly as it began." Some territories fought their way to freedom, others mixed limited violence with negotiation, and still others cooperated with colonial authorities to arrange smooth transfers of power. Unlike Rome, of course, the United Kingdom did not end in domestic collapse, but the British Empire's decline and fall surpasses Rome's in terms of its scope and speed: between 1945 and 1965 alone, the number of British colonial subjects fell from over 700 million to five million. Although noting the differences between the two empires, Brendon does point out that the British colonialists were very familiar with the Roman precedent. Indeed, the first volume of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, just as the British Empire was starting to erode, and thus it "became the essential guide for Britons anxious to plot their own imperial trajectory." With the United States in the midst of the worst economic news since the Great Depression, and fighting global insurgents and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some American readers may be tempted to read this book in a similar fashion.