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Locals are still paying for the mess the British left behind in Hong Kong and Kashmir.

British expansion, particularly in Asia, was facilitated by the construction of trading posts set up by the East India Company, a London based trade business. In the face of increased competition from the French East India Company, the organisation expanded its territorial claims in India with the use of a private army of more than , men, until the Indian Rebellion of saw the British Crown assume direct control of the Indian subcontinent - the epicentre of the Empire. From India, further expansion was undertaken through Asia, and by the British Empire was the largest to have ever existed.

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While proponents say it brought various economic developments to the parts of the world it controlled, critics note the massacres, famines and the use of concentration camps by the British Empire, The Independent writes. For good or ill, it brought new language, sport and religion to different parts of the globe. The campaigns it waged in Europe, Asia and Africa virtually bankrupted the UK and the subsequent debt it acquired severely comprised its economic independence; the foundation of the imperial system. In India became independent following a nonviolent civil-disobedience campaign spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi.

The empire dreamt back

Britain had lost the jewel in its crown, and this kickstarted a domino effect across the Empire. Ghana became Britain's first African colony to reach independence in By more than 20 British territories were independent. Little remains of British rule today across the globe, and it is mostly restricted to small island territories such as Bermuda and the Falkland Islands.

However, a number of countries still have Queen Elizabeth as their head of state including New Zealand, Australia and Canada - a hangover of the Empire. British Empire: how big was it and why did it collapse? Jun 1, Getty Images. How did the empire come about?

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For those of us who burrow away at the subject academically, this last is probably the best we can hope for. It's not an option available to Paxman, however, who is too famous to be ignored.


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In fact it's difficult to say where he stands in the great pro- or anti-imperial debate; but that's to the credit of the book, especially if it can put over to readers that the question is not a simple one. Judgments come thick and fast, but they are not all on one side. The worst atrocities of British imperial rule are properly highlighted and deplored. The horrors of the slave trade, for example, "should be engraved on the national conscience. It is one of the most disgraceful episodes in British history.

Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Few of the leading "builders" of the British empire — heroes to a previous generation of imperialists — escape Paxman's scorn. The early ones were mostly pirates and freebooters. Clive of India was mainly a fortune-seeker, "scheming, and devious in business". General Gordon was "half-cracked".

Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, By Jeremy Paxman | The Independent

Cecil Rhodes was "the most sabre-toothed of all empire-builders". Kitchener was a monster. Lawrence of Arabia was romantic, but again "half-cracked". Churchill may not have been "quite sane" when it came to India. Lord Meath, the creator of Empire Day, is described as looking "a bit like Father Christmas", with "a bald head, a red face and an enormous white beard"; he had some silly ideas about instilling "duty and discipline" into working-class ne'er-do-wells.

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David Cameron might like to look him up. Others were mostly hypocrites, or "self-deluders" at best. The last includes Gladstone and "more recent moralists in Downing Street". On the other hand, the book also describes atrocities committed by the colonised in, if anything, even more gory terms: the "Black Hole of Calcutta", for example, "a horror story to rival anything among the Gothic tales which swept Britain" at the time. Paxman isn't too keen on the Mahdi, Gordon's nemesis, either, with his "usual jihadi stuff" and the regime of "slavery, institutionalised paedophilia, hand-loppings and floggings to death" instituted under him.

So there's a certain balance here. More importantly, there was "another side to colonialism". Britain's most admirable imperial agents were her ordinary administrators, who Paxman thinks have been unfairly ridiculed; they were generally good eggs, and — crucially — incorruptible. The British empire was also prone to periodic spasms of moral self-questioning, which is unusual for empires, one of which in the end got rid of slavery.

The postwar transition to self-government was managed "peacefully" in the main, though "in a handful of places the British fought nasty little campaigns".


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I'm not sure that many Kenyans, Malayans and Cypriots would accept that "little". Overall, "if you had to live under a foreign government," then the British empire "was better than many of the other possibilities". That "if you had to", however, is a crucial caveat. If you have to have a popular introduction to British imperial history, too, this book could be said to be better than many of the other possibilities, in particular it is far preferable to Michael Gove's "patriotic" approach. It's a very engaging account, built mainly around dramatic incidents in exotic places just right for the forthcoming TV series , and the lives of fascinating people, with a good sprinkling of jokes, funny nicknames and sexual references.

Paxman makes some very sharp points, and writes well. Here's an example, towards the end: "The British empire had begun with a series of pounces.

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