Imperial history told “as no historian has done before”—Britain's Empire reviewed


There was no year, between 1750 and 1860, in which the history of the British Empire was not tainted by "conflicts, large and small wars, uprisings, repression and reprisals of astonishing brutality." This is what the reader can learn from Richard Gott's Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, Richard Drayton writes in a review for the Guardian. In his words,

Gott's achievement is to show, as no historian has done before, that violence was a central, constant and ubiquitous part of the making and keeping of the British empire.

Such a searing, detailed critique of imperial history is "newer than it seems," Drayton points out. Apologist historians have never stopped "to profitably sell happy stories of the empire to the British public," and the only other book that has rigorously challenged their narratives is John Newsinger's The Blood Never Dried (2006).

In Drayton's view, Britain's Empire is not just a well-researched book, but also an enjoyable reading:

readers with interests in grand strategy and war, or students searching for vignettes to anchor essays, will derive as much pleasure and benefit from Britain's Empire as those reading for the drama of situation and personality.

Richard Gott does not limit himself to collect an impressive number of outrageous stories of imperial oppression; he also emphasizes the possibility to stand up and resist oppression, as in the case of a

dazzling series of extraordinary men and women - Pontiac in North America, Tacky and Nanny in Jamaica, Papineau in Quebec, Wickrama Sinha in Ceylon, Myat Toon in Burma, Lakshmi Bai in India.

Their example has not only fostered later waves of anti-colonial resistance; but it is still relevant today, in the former imperial Metropolis, for it can help British people move beyond an Empire-centered national identity:

today's Britons can, if they dare, choose to identify with the rebels rather than the conquerors, and to claim Lakshmi Bai and Gandhi, rather than Victoria and Churchill, as spiritual ancestors.

Visit the Guardian to read the review in full.

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