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Posted December 22, 2008
Schama presents Britain¿s history through a series of portraits ¿ Wordsworth, Churchill, Orwell ¿ like a stroll through the gallery of a stately home. <BR/><BR/>He calls Britain ¿the nation that had been born from imperial wars and sustained by imperial profits¿, as if the British people had not created Britain in their own land by their own efforts. This explains why he spends so much time on the empire, run by just tens of thousands of expatriates, and so little on the industrial civilisation built by tens of millions that made Britain the workshop of the world.<BR/><BR/>Yet his chapters on the Empire are useful. He quotes Charles Trevelyan of the treasury, who said that the Irish famine of 1845-49 was ¿the judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people, and as God had sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated.¿<BR/><BR/>But the ruling class learnt nothing from this. In 1860 two million Indian people died of famine, in 1866, 800,000, in 1877-8, seven million. ¿the Government decline to import rice ¿ If the market favours, imported rice will find its way into Pooree without government interference which can only do harm.¿ The Lancet wrote that India¿s excess deaths from famine and disease were more than 19 million in the 1890s. Between 1901 and 1905, three million people died of bubonic plague and another three million died of cholera. The British-run Indian government spent just 4% of its revenues on public works like irrigation, and 35% on the army and police.<BR/><BR/>Schama notes that the empire was built on selling drugs. In 1851, 40% of India¿s exports were opium. As late as 1900-10, opium profits yielded a sixth of the Indian government¿s revenues.<BR/><BR/>However, Schama¿s comments on foreign affairs in the last century are obtuse. He writes that Churchill was `prophetic or optimistic¿ on Ireland, the Middle East and the blockade of Germany - it would be nice to know which. He thinks that Churchill¿s `diagnosis of what had happened in Russia in October 1917 was exactly right¿. Schama repeats the old slur that Spain¿s communists were `more interested in hunting down heretics like the anarchists than in taking on General Franco¿s fascists¿. He calls the USA¿s 1953 coup against Iran a `defensive¿ response to Iran¿s nationalisation of its oil industry.<BR/> <BR/>But he makes a few shrewd comments, writing, ¿immigrant labour was exploited to drive down wages.¿ He notes that the Conservative politician Harold Macmillan in 1938 proposed abolishing the Stock Exchange. And he concludes, ¿what post-imperial Britain has going for it is precisely its resistance to the chilly white purism of Euro-nationalism.¿Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.