Piers Brendon: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

When did the British empire end? Was it on the night of August 15 1947, when India and Pakistan gained independence, and devastated Britons felt (as Enoch Powell later remembered) as if their world was "coming apart"? Was it in the autumn of 1956, when Britain invaded Suez only to withdraw its forces in humiliation within a week? Was it in April 1980, when Margaret Thatcher teared up in front of a television set in Westminster, watching the transfer of power in Rhodesia? Or in June 1997, when Chris Patten wept on camera as the union flag came down in Hong Kong? Rather like a chap found dead in a club chair, nobody seems able to say quite when the British empire expired, but everyone agrees it is no more.

Even while the empire expanded, some were forecasting its decline. A 1774 issue of Lloyd's Evening Post published a futuristic fantasy set in 1974, describing a tour by two men from "the empire of America" through the ruins of London. No less unwittingly prescient was Edward Gibbon, the first volume of whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire rolled off the presses early in 1776. His sales could only have been helped when the American Declaration of Independence was signed a few months later.

Pudding-faced Gibbon, "with his chubby cheeks ... and his weakness for puce-coloured velvet suits and orange zig-zag dimity waistcoats", provides a touchstone for Piers Brendon throughout his sumptuous chronicle of the British empire. The spectre of decline and fall, he suggests, haunted empire-building from Gibbon's age onwards. Where most accounts of British imperial collapse concentrate on the 20th century, Brendon begins his story on the battlefield of Yorktown, in 1781. It was there that Britain suffered its first major anti-colonial defeat, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington, effectively conceding American independence. Rather than portraying Yorktown and subsequent setbacks as anomalies in an arc of imperial ascent, Brendon uses this novel point of entry to reinterpret the British empire as an enterprise whose validity was persistently challenged, from within and without.

What follows is a compelling and spectacularly detailed retelling of imperial "rise" as well as fall, from Yorktown to Hong Kong. Not since Jan Morris's Pax Britannica trilogy has anyone recounted these events with such sustained panache. Brendon's empire is a ramshackle affair, managed for decades out of a Colonial Office that boasted "an assortment of rickety chairs and old, baize-covered tables," a basement "so damp that it had to be pumped out twice a day" and an attic that doubled as a fives court. Virtually every page offers up some memorable observation. Brendon gleefully traces the career of that characteristic imperial accessory, the moustache. British cultivation of the hairy upper lip was inspired, he suggests, by Indian ideals of virility, and would decline in proportion with the empire's reach: Harold Macmillan was "the last British prime minister to sport a moustache". The book also doubles as an extended meditation on Britain's fraught love affair with ancient Rome. Brendon peppers his pages with contemporary allusions to the Roman empire, and they were legion. British rulers were steeped in the classics, from Richard Wellesley, who filled Calcutta's Government House with "the busts of a dozen Caesars", to George Nathaniel Curzon 100 years later, who "lisped in Gibbon". Such training meant that even as they gilded and gloried in their empire, Britons always worried about intrinsic tendencies towards decline.

Necessarily, blood flows freely through this book. At Cawnpore in 1857, where nearly 200 British women and children had been notoriously slaughtered by the Indian mutineers, the British forced suspected perpetrators to "lick blood from the slaughter-house floor before they were hanged". At Isandhlwana in 1879, British soldiers were shredded by Zulu iklwas blades, "so named in imitation of the sucking sound they made when pulled from human flesh". But it was mass slaughter, 20th century-style, that would truly bring the empire down. During the Boer war 160,000 white civilians would be rounded up into ghastly concentration camps - creating a precedent explicitly cited by the Nazis. The first world war carried Canadians and Indians to "the bone-chilling, gut-wrenching, soul-destroying shambles of the western front", and Australians and New Zealanders to the hell of Gallipoli, where relentless firing turned "their trenches into cemeteries".

With the end of the first world war, even as Britain acquired new protectorates, the imperial patchwork was undeniably coming apart at the seams. It was as if, in Beatrice Webb's words, the empire began to suffer from "a sort of senile hypertrophy", reaching new heights of brutality with the Amritsar massacre of 1919 and new peaks of decadence in expat enclaves from Kenya to Shanghai. The second world war accelerated the crash. On hearing the Japanese bombing of the causeway that linked Singapore to the mainland, the headmaster of Raffles School asked what all the noise was. "That," replied Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's future prime minister, "is the end of the British empire."

He was not far wrong. As Brendon shows, the chaos of war made it virtually impossible for Britain to retain India and Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, all of which gained independence by 1948. "To save the empire", Labour ministers observed, required "giving the colonies self-government". In Malaya Britain did try to hold on, only to face insurgent attacks. It responded by declaring a state of emergency and pursuing a bitter campaign against Chinese "communist terrorists". This would gain cruel resonance in Kenya, where the imposition of a state of emergency in 1952 provoked intensified insurgency and the British rounding-up of tens of thousands of Mau Mau suspects into horrific detention camps. In central Africa, too, decolonisation was born in violence: worst of all in Rhodesia, where savage conflict erupted between the black majority and the fiercely racist white leadership which had unilaterally declared independence in 1965. Set against such blood-stained operations, Britain's most recent imperial war - in the Falklands - appears relatively tame. (Though sadly the West Indies, once Britain's most valuable colonial territories, rate little more space in this book than those desolate isles.) Brendon conducts his comprehensive tour of empire's fall with characteristic flair, but what depressing sights it offers.

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