Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997

Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997

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by Piers Brendon

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After the American Revolution, the British Empire appeared to be doomed. Yet it grew to become the greatest, most diverse empire the world had seen. Then, within a generation, the mighty structure collapsed, a rapid demise that left an array of dependencies and a contested legacy: at best a sporting spirit, a legal code and a near-universal language; at worst, failed…  See more details below


After the American Revolution, the British Empire appeared to be doomed. Yet it grew to become the greatest, most diverse empire the world had seen. Then, within a generation, the mighty structure collapsed, a rapid demise that left an array of dependencies and a contested legacy: at best a sporting spirit, a legal code and a near-universal language; at worst, failed states and internecine strife. The Decline and Fall of the British Empire covers a vast canvas, which Brendon fills with vivid particulars, from brief lives to telling anecdotes to comic episodes to symbolic moments.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Karl E. Meyer
[Brendon's] book is in no sense an apologia; it is history with the nasty bits left in. Not one massacre, civil war, famine, racist outrage, covert trick or egregious human-rights abuse is passed over. His chronicle thus serves as a useful counterpoint to the generally upbeat accounts of Britain's imperial era, notably Harvard professor Niall Ferguson's well-written yet almost nostalgic encomiums. Brendon supplements but does not supplant Jan Morris's irresistibly readable Pax Britannica trilogy, published in the 1970s, the critical yet fair-minded standard by which new entries should be judged. This Decline and Fall is strongest in its details; the author seemingly has scoured every available memoir for devastating quips, nicknames, anecdotes, rumors and shrewd assessments.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

At its height, the British Empire covered nearly a quarter of the world's land and ruled over 400 million people. Yet as illustrated in this well-researched book by Brendon (Fellow of Churchill Coll., Cambridge; The Dark Valley), throughout much of its existence this powerful entity was suffering a slow process of decay. Tracing the history of the empire from its loss of the American Colonies to the handover of Hong Kong, he examines the contradictory nature of its principles and actions. Founded on the ideas of caretaking and eventual liberty for those colonized, the empire was all too willing to expand beyond its means and stifle attempts at independence in order to retain its own global superiority-a process that only hastened its inevitable downfall. While the scope of the subject is vast, Brendon handles the material with skill and provides a sharp and grim contrast to more positive studies of the topic. The narrative is enhanced by the inclusion of fascinating anecdotes-sometimes amusing, sometimes appalling-about the worlds of the colonies and the lives of those who ruled them. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. (Illustrations not seen.) [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/08.]
—Kathleen McCallister

Kirkus Reviews
A richly detailed, lucid account of how the British Empire grew and grew-and then, not quite inexorably, fell apart. Historian Brendon (Eminent Edwardians: Four Figures who Defined their Age: Northcliffe, Balfour, Pankhurst, Baden-Powell, 2003, etc.) opens on October 17, 1781, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington's troops at Yorktown. That date, by Brendon's account, is the beginning of the end of the empire, "an unbeaten revolt of children against parental authority" and the first such rebellion in modern history, though not the last. Brendon adds that it was merely the first growth of what he calls the "libertarian commitment to trusteeship," the British administration's preference for some form of local autonomy that nearly always resulted in the demand for independence. Brendon leisurely tours one imperial outpost after another over the course of two centuries, ending with the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese rule by way of stops at New Zealand (which, he writes, once contemplated petitioning the United States for admission as a state), Canada, the Transvaal, Palestine and elsewhere across the globe. The imperial impulse, the author observes, was not all bad; one fine moment came when Britain exercised its considerable power to demand that the Greek government compensate a Jewish man born in Gibraltar for damage done to his property during an anti-Semitic riot in Athens. Perhaps thanks to such nobler impulses, many nations seemed glad to join the empire, which, in the first part of Victoria's rule, "grew on average by 100,000 square miles a year." Yet many others were eager to shed that rule, especially toward the end, when Britain behaved poorly in places such asSouth Africa, India and particularly Kenya, and when outposts such as Cyprus became milieus of what Brendon, quoting Lawrence Durrell, describes as " 'blameless monotony' conducted in an atmosphere of 'suffocating inertia.' "A comprehensive rejoinder to the work of Niall Ferguson and other modern students of British imperial history.
From the Publisher
“A masterpiece of historical narrative.”–Literary Review

“The conquest of one quarter of the world’s surface was, as Piers Brendon shows in disturbingly entertaining fashion, a story of massacre, famine, rape, torture and loot on a grand scale.”–Scotland on Sunday

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The World Turned Upside Down

The American Revolution and the Slave Trade

At about ten o’clock in the bright morning of 17 October 1781, a lone drummer boy dressed in shabby bearskin and red coat scrambled on to the ruined earthworks outside Yorktown and beat for a parley. From their trenches, which encircled the little tobacco port like a noose, George Washington’s forces could see him through the smoke of battle. But they could not hear him because of the thunder of their hundred guns. Firing incessantly were 24-pound siege pieces which smashed the fortifications, 8-inch howitzers which dismembered their defenders, lighter cannon whose balls splintered the clapboard houses along the bluff overlooking Chesapeake Bay and sometimes skipped over the water like flat stones, and heavy French mortars whose 200-pound projectiles—black bombshells clearly visible in daylight, blazing meteors after dark—made the whole peninsula shake. Then, behind the boy, a British officer appeared, waving a white handkerchief. He bore a message from Lord Cornwallis, whose battered army had no means of escape, proposing to end the bloodshed. The barrage ceased, the emissary was blindfolded and the terms of the British surrender were negotiated. Washington, unbending in his role as the noblest republican of them all, administered a severe blow to imperial pride. Cornwallis’s 7,200 troops were to become prisoners of war. They were to march, flags furled, between the ranks of their foes drawn up along the road from Yorktown, which passed through fields white with ripe cotton bolls, and lay down their arms.

It was a “humiliating scene,” watched in dead silence by the Americans, clad in ragged homespun, some “almost barefoot,” and their French allies, plumed and often mustachioed, immaculate in white uniforms and black gaiters, their pastel silk banners decorated with silver fleurs-de-lis. King George III’s German mercenaries marched past steadily but the British “lobsters” (as the Americans called them) were less dignified. Some were the worse for rum—the largest single item of expenditure borne by the British Army during the war. Others were disdainful, others defiant. A few flung down their heavy, smooth-bored Brown Bess muskets as though to smash them. Lieutenant-Colonel Abercromby, who had led the only serious sortie from Yorktown, chewed his sword in impotent rage. According to an American witness, the British officers behaved like whipped schoolboys. “Some bit their lips, some pouted, others cried,” hiding such emotions beneath their round, broad-brimmed hats. Cornwallis himself remained in Yorktown, pleading indisposition but perhaps unable to face the triumph of revolution. Meanwhile, the bandsmen of his captive army played a “melancholy” tune on drums and fifes. It was the dirge of the British Empire in America, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

The Old World did regard the New World’s victory as an ominous inversion of the established order. It was an unbeaten revolt of children against parental authority—the first successful rebellion of colonial subjects against sovereign power in modern history. How could a rabble of farmers in thirteen poor appendages, with a population of only 2.5 million, defeat the trained might of the mother country? Americans were divided among themselves and thinly spread along an underdeveloped eastern seaboard which shaded gradually into isolated pioneer settlements and virgin wilderness. They were opposed not only by white loyalists but by black slaves and “Red Indians.” Washington’s recruits, in a spirit of democratic “licentiousness” (his word), were disinclined to take orders without discussion: as one senior officer complained, “The privates are all generals.” Their auxiliaries, until the advent of the French, were wholly undisciplined. The militia consisted of summer foot soldiers on furlough from the plough and, wrote one witness, a cavalry of round-wigged tailors and apothecaries mounted on “bad nags” who looked “like a flock of ducks in cross-belts.” These were supported at times by tattooed and buckskinned frontiersmen with tomahawks in their belts, bear grease in their hair and coonskin hats on their heads.

Yet this motley array often proved effective, particularly in guerrilla fighting. After the “shot heard round the world” which had opened hostilities at Lexington in 1775, the redcoats made such a “vigorous retreat,” quipped Benjamin Franklin, that the “feeble Americans could scarce keep up with them.”On other occasions British generals proved dauntlessly incompetent. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne distinguished himself less as a professional soldier than an amateur dramatist—when his play The Bloodbath of Boston was performed the audience at first thought that American shelling was part of the show—and in 1777 his histrionic recklessness led to the British capitulation at Saratoga. By contrast, George Washington, though by no means a military genius, was a great leader. Tall and stately in his familiar buff and blue uniform, with a long pallid face dominated by a jutting nose, a broad mouth and steely grey-blue eyes, he looked the part. And he played it with courage and canniness. Formidably self-possessed, ruthlessly single-minded, incomparably tenacious, he made small gains and avoided large losses, staving off defeat until he could achieve victory.

Before Yorktown, after six years of war, that outcome still appeared remote, despite the support of Spain and Holland as well as France, which the Earl of Chatham described as a “vulture hovering over the British Empire.” Redcoat bayonets dominated the battlefield and Britannia still ruled the waves. General Clinton had an iron grip on New York. From there he wrote to Cornwallis in March 1781:

Discontent runs high in Connecticut. In short, my Lord, there seems little wanting to give a mortal stab to Rebellion but a proper Reinforcement, and a permanent superiority at Sea for the next Campaign without which any Enterprize depending on Water Movements must certainly run great Risk.

Cornwallis himself was subjugating the south. He was assisted by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who boasted of having “butchered more men and lain with more women than anybody”—he should have said ravished, remarked the playwright Sheridan, since “rapes are the relaxation of murder.” Washington’s forces had scarcely recovered from their winter agonies at Valley Forge and Morristown, where, as one soldier wrote, “It has been amazing cold to such a Degree that I who never flinched to old Boreas had t’other day one of my Ears froze as hard as a Pine gnut.” In the spring of 1781 Washington wrote,

our Troops are approaching fast to nakedness and . . . we have nothing to cloath them with . . . our hospitals are without medicines, and our Sick without Nutriment . . . all our public works are at a stand . . . we are at the end of our tether . . . now or never our deliverance must come.

It came with French men-of-war.

In August, Washington heard that Admiral de Grasse was sailing with a fleet of twenty-eight ships of the line and bringing three thousand more regular soldiers to reinforce the five thousand commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau. Washington seized his opportunity. In great secrecy he disengaged from Clinton and marched his army south through New Jersey. When he heard that de Grasse had reached Chesapeake Bay, cutting Cornwallis off from outside help, Washington abandoned his usual reserve. He capered about on the quay at Chester, waving his hat and his handkerchief, and embraced Rochambeau as he arrived. The young Marquis de Lafayette was even more effusive when he met Washington at Williamsburg. He leapt off his horse, “caught the General round his body, hugged him as close as it was possible and absolutely kissed him from ear to ear.” The news was a tonic to the whole army—it even cured General Steuben’s gout. For everyone except the British believed that Cornwallis would be “completely Burgoyned.” “We have got him handsomely in a pudding bag,” wrote General Weedon. “I am all on fire. By the Great God of War, I think we may all hand up our swords by the last of the year in perfect peace and security!”

Washington personally ensured that his “mouse-trap” snapped shut. He made meticulous preparations, even going so far as to pay his troops (with French gold). He surveyed Yorktown’s defences from an exposed position where “shot seemed flying almost as thick as hail.” With a pickaxe he broke the ground for the opening trench and he put a match to the first gun in the cannonade. Washington pressed forward fast, puzzled by the sluggishness of the enemy. Although erratic, Cornwallis was an able commander. He was brave, tactically adept and adored by his men, whose hardships he shared. But apart from shooting starving horses and expelling hungry slaves (many of them ill with malaria, smallpox and dysentery), he took few initiatives at Yorktown. This was because, as he told Clinton, his army could only be saved by a successful naval action. However, de Grasse had seen off the British fleet in an indecisive battle on 5 September and Washington persuaded him to remain on guard. By the end of the month Clinton informed Cornwallis: “I am doing everything in my power to relieve you by a direct move and I have reason to hope from the assurance given me this day by Admiral Graves that we may pass the Bar by the 12 October if the winds permit and no unforeseen accident happens.” But the Royal Navy was in no state to break the French hold on Chesapeake Bay.

It was ill led by Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, who, the philosopher David Hume complained, spent several weeks trout-fishing at Newbury with “two or three Ladies of Pleasure . . . at a time when the Fate of the British Empire is in dependance, and in dependance on him.” It lacked necessities: in the West Indies Admiral “Foul-weather Jack” Byron had “a fleet to equip without stores, to victual without provisions, to man without men.” It also suffered from less obvious defects. Among them was a hidden canker caused by the new system of sheathing the bottoms of wooden vessels in copper. This eliminated marine growth, crustacea and plants which slowed ships down, and the teredo worm which honeycombed their oaken keels in tropical waters. However, until a technical solution was found to the problem (as it was in time to defeat the French during the 1790s), the copper rapidly corroded underwater iron fastenings. This sometimes led to sudden disasters: merely by firing her seventy-four guns during the action against de Grasse, the Terrible almost shook herself to pieces and the following day she had to be scuttled. So for a time England was evicted from “the throne of Neptune.”

The naval situation determined both the fate of the thirteen colonies and the shape of the British Empire. If Cornwallis had been evacuated the French and perhaps even the Americans might have sued for peace on George III’s terms. As it was, his First Minister, Lord North, spoke for nearly everyone in Britain, except the contumacious King himself, when he exclaimed on hearing the news of Yorktown: “Oh God! it is all over!” He repeated the words many times, throwing his arms about and pacing his Downing Street room “under emotions of the deepest agitation and distress.” In relative terms Yorktown was a small defeat but its significance was great: it threatened to eclipse “the empire on which the sun never set.” The famous phrase was apparently first coined by Sir George Macartney in 1773 and down the years endless variations were played on it, often with gloomy emphasis on the final stage of the solar trajectory. Lord Shelburne, long a fierce opponent of coercing the colonies, feared that their independence would end imperial greatness and “the sun of England might be said to have set.” In his first comment on Cornwallis’s debacle he adorned the image. Shelburne told parliament that the King had “seen his empire, from a pitch of glory and splendour perfectly astonishing and dazzling, tumbled down to disgrace and ruin which no previous history could parallel.”

Yet in truth the ramshackle imperial edifice had never been securely based. From the first, when the English began haphazardly planting colonies and setting up trading posts overseas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the mother country’s sway had been challenged. Settlers, traders, conquerors, dissenters, preachers, trappers, explorers, freebooters, treasure-hunters, lawbreakers and others who ventured abroad were obviously wedded to independence. Moreover they carried its seed with them. At least as warmly as their kith and kin at home, they cherished the ideal of “English liberty.” And they cited natural law, scriptural authority, ancient precedent and modern philosophy (notably that of James Harrington, John Locke and David Hume) in defence of their freedom. They also worked for it, electing assemblies to control the purse strings and to rival the mother of parliaments in London. These “little Westminsters” sought to dominate colonial Governors, who were disparaged as grasping rogues—here a “needy Court-Dangler” or “a hearty, rattling wild young Dog of an officer,” there an “excellent buffoon” or a fellow who had distinguished himself “in the profession of pimping.” Bad government or no government at all—known as “salutary neglect”—the Americans could endure. But after 1765 the conviction that they had become the victims of tyranny overcame their instinctive feelings of loyalty to the old country and its King, dubbed by Tom Paine in his celebrated pamphlet Common Sense, “the Royal Brute of Great Britain.” The Stamp Act, which Boston greeted with flags flown at half mast and muffled peals of bells, was viewed less as a fiscal imposition than as a measure of political oppression. “No taxation without representation” became the rallying cry of Americans determined to enjoy “the rights of Englishmen.” Many at Westminster concurred, among them Chatham, Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, who appeared in what looked like an American uniform, toasted Washington’s forces as “our army” and spoke of an English victory as “terrible news.” Fox’s quasi-treasonable vehemence reflected his commitment to a “tradition of liberty” which led to “the final undoing of the entire colonial project in America.” Imperium et libertas later became the watchword of British imperialists and the motto of the Primrose League; but as W. E. Gladstone would famously point out, the phrase was a contradiction in terms. In the last resort, liberty was at odds with empire, its ultimate solvent.

There were other reasons for anticipating imperial decline and fall. Like the sunset, it seemed a natural phenomenon. It was part of a process of individual and cosmic decay that had been regarded as inevitable since the fall of Babylon, perhaps since the fall of Adam. Hesiod had even visualised that in the old age of the world babies would be “born with greying temples.” The logic of the process was confirmed by the recurring metaphor of maturity: Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and many others had said colonies were “children” which, as they grew up, might expect to separate from their parent kingdom. In similar vein, the French economist Turgot compared colonies to fruits which detach themselves from a tree when they are ripe, as provinces did from Rome. Both Joseph Addison and James Thomson compared ancient Rome and modern Britain, contrasting their glories with the decadence of contemporary Italy. Empires clearly evolved, vigorous new growth replacing rotten old fabric. What is more, as Bishop Berkeley memorably prophesied, “Westward the Course of Empire takes its way.” It advanced from corrupt Europe to pristine America—where, in a reverse version of the conceit, Thomas Jefferson said that a journey eastward from the frontier to the coast was “equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day.” The idea that progress followed Apollo’s chariot was heard from “Horace to Horace Greeley.” And its transatlantic course was dramatised in a futuristic jeu d’esprit published by Lloyd’s Evening Post in 1774. It was set in 1974 and featured two visitors from “the empire of America” touring the ruins of London. These resembled Piranesi prints of Roman ruins—empty, rubble-strewn streets, a single broken wall where parliament once stood, Whitehall a turnip field, Westminster Abbey a stable, the Inns of Court a pile of stones “possessed by hawks and rooks,” and St. Paul’s, its dome collapsed, open to the sky. The sun had set on British greatness and, thanks to the exodus of merchants, artisans and workers, it had risen over “Imperial America.” After the loss of the thirteen colonies, the British did indeed fear that their Empire, however wide its bounds, was vulnerable to expanding America. They looked with apprehension and fascination at the Great Republic, seeing it as the wave of the future. That astute gossip Horace Walpole pronounced that “The next Augustan Age will dawn the other side of the Atlantic.” Casting “horoscopes of empires” in the manner of Rousseau, he forecast that travellers from the New World would “visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul’s.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Uffda_Gevalt More than 1 year ago
An excellent account of the British Empire, from the get-go nagged by the lamentations of a power in decline - this, long before its height would ever be reached.  A fine read for anybody who loves history, or has a particularly long flight ahead of them.
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Bliokh More than 1 year ago
Absolutely brilliant narrative so awash in grandiloquence as to lose much of its power (816 pages in all). After reading this book I am in much more confusion as to the reasons of the decline and fall of British Empire than before I took it up. This and other reviews can be viewed at