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Churchill and Empire: A Portrait of an Imperialist

Churchill and Empire: A Portrait of an Imperialist

by Lawrence James

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An illuminating and often surprising new biography of Churchill, focusing on his contradictory relationship with the British Empire.

One of our finest narrative historians, Lawrence James has written a genuinely new biography of Winston Churchill, one focusing solely on his relationship with the British Empire. As a young army officer in the late nineteenth


An illuminating and often surprising new biography of Churchill, focusing on his contradictory relationship with the British Empire.

One of our finest narrative historians, Lawrence James has written a genuinely new biography of Winston Churchill, one focusing solely on his relationship with the British Empire. As a young army officer in the late nineteenth century serving in conflicts in India, South Africa, and the Sudan, his attitude toward the Empire was the Victorian paternalistic approach—at once responsible and superior.

Conscious even then of his political career ahead, Churchill found himself reluctantly supporting British atrocities and held what many would regard today as prejudiced views, in that he felt that some nationalities were superior to others, his (some might say obsequious) relationship with America reflected that view.

This outmoded attitude was one of the reasons the British voters rejected him after a Second World War in which he had led the country brilliantly. His attitude remained decidedly old-fashioned in a world that was shaping up very differently. This ground-breaking volume reveals the many facets of Churchill’s personality: a visionary leader with a truly Victorian attitude toward the British Empire.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
James (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire) offers a fresh, welcome perspective on the exhaustively-analyzed Churchill by focusing narrowly here on his "ardent and unswerving faith in the British Empire." Throughout his long life, Churchill paternalistically and blindly believed that white Anglo-Saxon Britain was preordained to humanely rule an empire consisting predominantly of backward peoples who could not rule themselves. For him Britain was a civilizing force, war was an unavoidable outcome of imperialism, and the subjugation of India and maritime supremacy made Britain a global superpower. As a young officer at the Battle of Omdurman, Churchill reveled in the romance of a cavalry charge but was dismayed by Britain's slaughter of wounded Dervishes. As James points out, Churchill's passion for empire fostered interventionist impulses. Similarly, his unyielding support of WWI's disastrous Gallipoli campaign was rooted in his belief that the Turks' proclamation of jihad irreparably threatened Britain's prestige in South Asia and the Arab world. The WWII surrender of Singapore dealt a death blow to Churchill's empire; and ironically, the supremacy of America—Britain's partner in the "special relationship" nurtured by Churchill—eclipsed the British Empire as Nazi imperialism never did. James's complex, engrossing, and multifaceted portrait sheds new light on a flawed but brilliant man. Photos. (June)
National Review
“[A] brisk, thorough, and revisionist study … James has a gift for narrative. … Churchill and Empire is a thoughtful, searching look at British imperial rule and its most eloquent champion.”
“Scholars usually reject Churchill's view of the British Empire as an essentially beneficent and civilizing force as self-serving hypocrisy. But James does not superficially endorse this view. Careful readers will find an account that reveals genuineness to the dilemma he faced: whether the process of bringing civilization to those who lacked it was compatible with their coercion.”
The Washington Post
“Should enlighten and entertain readers who wish to learn more about an empire that was more extensive and arguably more influential that that of Rome.”
The New York Times Book Review
“This is a stylish, intelligent, and readable book.”
The Financial Times
“James has a gift for writing generally pithy prose.”
Library Journal
There seems always to be more to say about this fascinating statesman. Author James (Raj) has produced a well-crafted study of Winston Churchill's lifelong commitment to maintain into the 20th century the empire so painstakingly created by his Victorian predecessors. The author details Churchill's various political and military adventures beginning with his postings in Afghanistan and Africa and moving through his years as first lord of the admiralty during World War I and then his vigorous leadership of Britain during World War II. Churchill ended his second term as prime minister in 1955; by that time the devolution of the empire was under way, but he never lost his firm belief that these kinds of governments were a good thing for citizens and that the mother country often knew best. The Victorian world that shaped Churchill's views, however, was long gone. VERDICT James helps flesh out this aspect of Churchill's life and thought, making his well-written book complementary to existing studies. It should appeal to anyone interested in Churchill and 20th-century British history.—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Kirkus Reviews
An intriguing new look into both imperialism and a fascinating historical figure.Prolific historian James (Aristocrats: Power, Grace and Decadence—Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present, 2009, etc.) homes in on the tumultuous years between 1898 and 1955—the span of time in which Winston Churchill (1874-1965) started as a staff officer and finished his last day of his second term on Downing Street. The author filters a vast amount of information into a brisk narrative of volatile geopolitics, and he punctuates it with anecdotes and personal moments from Churchill's life. While examining the Dardanelles campaign, James pauses to consider Churchill's nightly routine, "during which, fuelled by champagne and brandy, he expounded his views on the war and his vital part in its direction." Just as the histories of the colonies are enlivened by Churchill's quick wit and powerful persona, the motivations behind his political agendas and battle strategies take on interesting new dimensions through this colonial lens. James eschews a traditional biography, referencing Churchill's upbringing and past only when necessary. What he does highlight is the man's antiquated belief in "empires as the engines of progress that were adding to the sum of human happiness." James deftly sprints through the long list of battles during Churchill's career, focusing particularly on his struggles in Palestine, India and the complex aftermath of both world wars, when he found himself "trapped between his instinctive urge to hammer the enemies of the Empire into submission and the need to uphold its moral character." This results in a book that is more analytic than informative, more likely to question grand notions of liberty and duty than to inform readers on the basics of the two historical forces in its title.Exciting but very specific, this work will appeal most to those already knowledgeable about the subjects and looking for fresh insights.

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Meet the Author

Lawrence James was a founding member of the University of York and then took a research degree at Merton College, Oxford. After a distinguished teaching career he became a full-time writer in 1985 and has emerged as one of the outstanding narrative historians on the subject of empire, including The Rise and Fall of the British Empire and Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist. He lives in England.

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