[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
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.]
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.