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National Observer Home > No. 61 - Winter 2004 > Book Reviews

A History of Britain, Volume 3: the Fate of Empire 1776-2000

Robert Forrest

By Simon Schama

London, B.B.C., 2002, 576 pages, $64.95

This is the third (and final) volume published to accompany the B.B.C.2 television series of the same name. Perhaps because it is based on a television series, the volume's content is somewhat superficial and idiosyncratic in choice of themes. To be fair to the author, he acknowledges as much in his Preface to the work where he concedes that he has employed a "frankly interpretative reading of modern British history" and made "subjective judgments" as well as having no "pretence at all to comprehensiveness".

The author attempts the difficult task of bringing together the imperial and domestic history of Britain with special attention given to the relationship of India and Ireland with Britain. This is a challenge which results in an imbalanced perspective. It is curious that although the work is subtitled "The Fate of Empire", the Empire, apart from India and Ireland, is hardly mentioned at all.

A quick glance at the index discloses that Australia is mentioned three times, Canada four times and New Zealand not at all. Yet the United States is mentioned no fewer than eighteen times. Why is this so? It appears that by concentrating on perhaps Britain's two most troubled colonies and largely ignoring the rest, the author is able to enlarge on his theme of unalloyed failure which permeates the entire volume. Presumably the existence of former colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have evolved into relatively prosperous and stable nations, would tend to detract from the doom and gloom which the author associates with his discussion of the Empire. Perhaps this stems from a subconscious (or even conscious) aversion to the "white settler colonies/dominions" established under the Empire which ultimately survived the Empire's dismemberment.

It is possible that the author's apparent liberal-left viewpoint may not be willing to accept that along with the failures and shortcomings of the Empire (of which there were many), there may be an equal obligation to discuss its successes and benefits. No doubt a response to this proposition by a person holding such a viewpoint would be to point to the treatment of indigenous peoples by the colonists but, in all fairness, that would lead to a sharper political tone than the author has chosen to adopt. Instead, by largely ignoring Australia, Canada and New Zealand (and, of course, many other former colonies), the author has attempted the familiar device of ignoring inconvenient facts.

At times Schama tends to rely on the "great man (or woman)" view of history reminiscent of Thomas Carlyle. Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and George Orwell have a great many pages devoted to them. This may be a consequence of the volume being based on a television series and therefore compelled by that medium to concentrate on individuals to the detriment of other subjects.

The post-1945 history in the final chapter is very disappointing. In the Preface, Simon Schama states that this period "is deliberately treated with essay-like breadth and looseness - partly, at least, because I have trouble treating any period contemporary with my own life as history at all". While this may be an understandable reason, the reader may be forgiven for asking, if this is the case, why the author did not stop his history at (say) 1945 or even 1940?

Despite the shortcomings of this book, there is an excellent selection of photographs and paintings included in the volume which no doubt reflect the author's occupation as University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. There are also interesting discussions of little known individuals such as the Crimean War nurse, Mary Seocole.

This is not a history text book. It is a highly idiosyncratic selection of the last two hundred years of British history. The author's attempt to bring together the domestic and imperial history of Britain is an interesting concept but one which seems to be highly selective in its execution. Whilst the discussion of individuals that mainstream history has ignored is estimable, this may be seen by some as a modish attempt to provide an "alternative" history. The author's views in politics are a matter of taste; readers of a conservative viewpoint will find the general tenor uncongenial.

National Observer No. 61 - Winter 2004