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March 09 , 2011

Unfinished Empire

The Global Expansion of Britain


John Darwin won the Wolfson History Prize for his book After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires. In Unfinished Empire he examines the enormous influence of the British Empire. It has shaped the world in countless ways: repopulating continents, carving out modern nations, imposing its own language, technology and values. For perhaps two centuries its existence, expansion and final collapse were the single largest determinant of historical events. Now that it has gone, it seems to us baffling that such a strange entity should ever have existed.

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What was the dynamic that led to English-speakers standing on the shores of the Pacific, controlling the world's sea transport and creating a financial system that revolutionized the world's economies? John Darwin's provocative and richly enjoyable new book is an attempt to make us see anew how diverse, strange and in many ways chaotic the British Empire really was, controlled by a range of interests often at loggerheads with each other and as much driven on by others' weaknesses as by its own strength.

By understanding the different phases of imperial conquest, the wildly different types of colonist (with soldiers and farmers, merchants and government officials often barely on speaking terms), and what made the Empire ultimately collapse in ruins, Unfinished Empire is a surprising, original and often critical account of an extraordinary phenomenon.


'John Darwin's Unfinished Empire surpasses even his own previous work to give an unmatched overview of imperial Britain's rise and fall' Stephen Howe, Independent BOOKS OF THE YEAR

'A breadth of perspective few other imperial historians can boast. The British Empire really does look different in the light of it ... Breadth of vision, fizzing ideas and a brilliant style as well as superb scholarship ... It deserves to supplant every other book on this topic, including - though my publisher and bank manager won't thank me for saying this - my own. It is British imperial history at last without hang-ups; the one we've been waiting for' Bernard Porter, History Today

'A brilliantly perceptive analysis of the forces and ideas that drove the creation of an extraordinary enterprise ... Bringing together his huge erudition, scrupulous fairness and elegant prose, Mr Darwin has produced a wonderfully stimulating account of something that today seems almost incredibly yet was, in historical terms, only yesterday. It is also a much-needed antidote both to the leftish consensus of the past 50 years that Britain's empire was unrelievedly awful ... and the recent triumphalist revisionism of more conservative historians' Economist

'Engrossing ... What Darwin adds to this [subject] is a rare, wonderful capacity for comparison ... Seeing the imperial experience in the round like this does gives us a clearer, more subtle appreciation of the range of power and violence at play. It raises the historical writing on empire to another level' BBC History Magazine

'Balanced, original and impressive ... Subtle ... intelligent' Literary Review

'Comprehensive ... Darwin's erudition allows him to skirt around the narrow orthodoxies of apologist v critic and provide an insightful account of Britain's unlikely period of global hegemony' Sunday Times

How incredibly refreshing it is when as distinguished an historian as John Darwin ... writes something as thoughtful, well-researched and persuasive as Unfinished Empire, which explains the half-millennium-long expansion of Britain across the globe in terms that genuinely make sense ... The author's deep familiarity with all the key sources of this vast subject allows him to pluck examples for his arguments from across the centuries and continents ... Best of all ... is the thought that Darwin's book might at long last herald the victory of the post-Marxist phase of imperial historiography, and not a moment too soon' Andrew Roberts, Sunday Telegraph Book of the Week

About the author:

John Darwin's interest lies in the history of empires, both their rise and fall. He has written extensively on the decline of Britain's empire and teaches imperial and global history at Oxford, where he is a Fellow of Nuffield College. Most recently he is the author of After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, which won the Wolfson History Prize, and The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970.

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