Even moreso than the last review I did, of David Harcourt’s Everyone Wants To Be Fuhrer, Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 only has a limited relation to New Zealand. Coverage of this country is largely restricted to a third of a chapter on the settler colonial societies of Australia, Canada, and NZ; and about another third of a chapter on the role of colonial armies at the WWI battlefields of Iraq, Flanders, Gallipoli, and Vimy Ridge. Yet Brendon’s overview of the largest empire the world has ever seen does a stellar job of contextualizing the long period of over-extending British power followed by a sharp and bitter collapse which lasted just fifty years.
And it is in the shear breadth of this overview that Brendon’s broad 216 year sweep of British colonial history shines. Even for a book of over 650 pages the detail given to an incredibly diverse hodgepodge of colonies, dominions, protectorates, mandates, and dependencies (covering almost a quarter of both the Earth’s land area and the total population) is impressive. Anyone living in an ex-British country could do well to understand the global context in which important events in their own colonial history occurred. For us in New Zealand, the true scale of British military deployment during the colonial wars of the 1840s-1870s is made much clearer when understanding that it occurred at a time of both great strain and major expansion for the empire. Concurrent to those wars the empire was embroiled in Crimea, humiliated during the First Anglo-Afghan War, engaged in the titanic Indian Mutiny, both Opium Wars occurred; along with a host of colonial wars of expansion in India, South East Asia, Abyssinia, and West Africa.
As such, the book does well for any student of NZ history seeking to situate the conflict and dispossession which raged across NZ from the first New Zealand Company activities in the 1820s to the Dog Tax War of 1898 in the context of global empire. Where the book falters for NZ readers is the section on NZ itself. The characterization of both colonial and Maori society during the early colonial period is weak, along with this the Musket and Land Wars are barely explored. Brendon likewise depicts Maori as a ‘warlike people’ at the outset, a vision of Maori society intended by European immigrants as a compliment (the British had a particular fetish for ‘warlike races’ wherever they found them in the Empire) but which reveals itself as no more than noble savage mythology upon inspection.
Of more interest is the particular focus Brendon has for the introduction of Christianity and the quick adaption of Maori society to modern commerce, especially with the Australian colonies. As with much of the book he makes no attempt to portray the dispossession or immiseration of Maori at the hands of early whalers and later of settlers in anything but cold, grim reality. He quotes the Rev. Sam Marsden in his condemnation of New Zealand settler society consisting entirely of “wanton cruelties, robberies and murder of the natives.”
On a final note perhaps one of the most interesting recurring themes throughout the book, Brendon returns again and again to the comparison the British ruling class made of itself to the Roman Empire. From the military disaster at Yorktown right through the peak of British power to the rapid fall of the empire post-WWII, the supporters of colonialism seemed to view every single reverse (and even many victories) as a herald of the imminent collapse along the lines of that which plagued the Romans. This constant touchstone, primarily driven by the popularity among the educated of Edward Gibbon’s six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, would send the imperial believers into paroxysms of anguish at the ‘imminent fall’ of the empire time and again through the late-18th and much of the 19th century.
As such, while I wouldn’t by any means call Decline and Fall of the British Empire a necessity for NZ socialists, I do recommend it as an interesting read and a fantastic cursory survey of the majesty and brutality of the largest empire the world has ever seen.