What if Britain tried again to build an empire

Great BritainHow an empire arises and falls apart

"I, Docemo, give, transfer, grant to the Queen of Great Britain and all her heirs and successors the port and the island of Lagos as direct, full and absolute rule and sovereignty of my own free will, completely perfect and absolute."

It was on August 6, 1861 that the island of Lagos, which is now part of the capital of Nigeria, was given over to the British government. What the contract of assignment, from which we have just referred, did not contain the words of King Docemo, who complained the following day that the captain of the warship Prometheus had urged him to sign the contract.

"And if I refused, he would be ready to shell the island of Lagos and destroy it in an instant."

The British Empire as it came into being - John Darwin, Lecturer at Nuffeild College, Oxford, wrote about "The Unfinished Empire". Empires are his special topic. Three years ago his work "The Imperial Dream" was published in German, in which he examined the history of great empires between 1400 and 2000. At that time he had described their dynamics, how they arise and perish and, above all, how they perceive opportunities in competition with one another or openly fight one another.

Of course, the British Empire had already been mentioned in this book, and now the author is devoting his own monograph to it.

"Empires were not created by faceless committees doing great calculations and making plans. That was certainly true of the British Empire. It was anything but the mere work of kings and conquerors, but largely a private-sector empire, creation of traders, investors, settlers and missionaries (among many others). "

Seen in this light, it is futile for Darwin to look for a state or national conception that could explain the expansion of his island over much of the globe. No, the British empire was created by private entrepreneurs who believed they saw opportunities and made their fortune or profit. John Darwin works bit by bit through the individual chapters of the land grabbing on foreign continents. As a rule, it began with a bridgehead, which was gradually expanded.

"By force one could acquire land and recruit workers, often both at the same time. Colonial rule was the means for the white ruling class to shape and control the local economy in their favor. When black Africans were kicked or beaten to death by whites, What was not even seldom happened, the white jury gladly found a "chronic enlargement of the spleen" as the cause of death - which was obviously a common occurrence among black people - and acquitted the defendants. "

The conditions in the empire, the technique of exercising domination by binding a small, local layer of collaborators through privileges: all of this is already known from other publications. Consider the motherland - why was it worth maintaining an empire?

"The rise of Glasgow to a great commercial metropolis, the active part that Scottish businessmen had in India and Africa trade, the imperial campaigns in which Scottish regiments served, all had a double effect. They were a reminder that Victorian Scotland was without the Empire would have been a poor partner of England. And they produced a tremendous boost in Scottish self-confidence: the conviction that Scotland could survive as a separate national community with its own way into modern times. "

It seems doubtful whether one would have read a similar argument - let's say from a Brandenburg regiment that distinguished itself in Hitler's wars of conquest and thus given the Brandenburgers self-confidence for the years after '45 - whether one would read such an argument as naively as Darwin she wrote. After the Second World War, actually after the First, the disintegration of the Empire began. One reason was the geostrategic fragmentation, which required a lot of effort if you really wanted to keep all positions under control. Britain no longer had the strength for it after '45.

Darwin explains in great detail how, from the 1960s onwards, the illusion of a world empire Great Britain that could operate on an equal footing with the two great powers of the time, the USA and the USSR, was atomized by reality. These are probably the most exciting chapters of the book, in which Darwin again describes with sarcastic comments the agony of British politics, which was often marked by a deep, arrogant misunderstanding of the colonies. Darwin emphasizes very much the British empire-critical voices that have existed over the centuries, but does not explain why these voices never received so much weight as that the crown repelled or reduced the world empire. He explains that the Asian countries rose up against London's empire because of their culture, but does not explain why the African countries followed suit with others a little later. He devotes himself in detail to the misjudgments of British post-war policy towards the dissolution of the Empire. Knowledge can even be gained from their behavior.

“Because they show that predicting historical change is a downright risky endeavor. They also remind us that empires rarely decay at a predictable rate, and even less so in predictable ways. So it was hardly surprising that the British leaders could not correctly predict the future of their country. In fact, no one else did either. "

John Darwin: "The Unfinished World. Rise and Fall of the British Empire 1600-1997", campus, 482 pages, price: 39.90 euros, ISBN: 978-3-593-39808-2