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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

3.98  ·  Rating Details ·  343 Ratings  ·  43 Reviews
John Darwin's "After Tamerlane," a sweeping six-hundred-year history of empires around the globe, marked him as a historian of "massive erudition" and narrative mastery. In "Unfinished Empire," he marshals his gifts to deliver a monumental one-volume history of Britain's imperium-a work that is sure to stand as the most authoritative, most compelling treatment of the subje ...more
ebook, 416 pages
Published February 12th 2013 by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (first published 2012)
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Dec 03, 2012 Andrew rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In 1953, two Oxford historians in their early thirties published a paper called "The Imperialism of Free Trade." The paper broke new ground by suggesting that far from being a government-led "project" aimed at cultural and economic dominance (as Marxist historians were insisting), the British Empire had been created by informality and trade. In other words that the Empire had been driven by merchants and entrepreneurs seeking their fortunes on the open seas more than bureaucrats and politicians ...more
Mar 23, 2013 Don rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(FROM MY BLOG) Some of us can remember the old pull-down World maps at the front of our classrooms, maps on which half the countries were colored pink. Those pink lands made up the British Empire.

Empires aren't fashionable these days -- except, perhaps, with neo-cons like Dick Cheney -- but the British Empire has receded far enough into history to exert a nostalgic pull on our affections. We think of explorers (like Dr. Livingston) opening up new areas in Africa and Asia. We visualize military o
Jun 30, 2014 Martin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent overview of the age of Empire and how Britain conducted itself in its major acquisitions. The book appears to me as well-balanced in its analyses. It does not subscribe to the view that Britain brought culture and industry to backwards peoples, although it does point out its positive additions to a country. Not does the book take the post-colonial view that the British were horribly invasive, greedy and left devastation in their wake, although the book does say as much when the occa ...more
Dec 27, 2013 Mike rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is about as academic a book as I've read since college. Dense, far-reaching and ambitious, Unfinished Empire attempts to offer something of a grand unifying theory behind the rise and fall of the British Empire (1588-c1970).

In keeping with its subject material, Unfinished Empire is nebulous at times, and can be difficult to keep up with. Darwin brings to bear an enormous knowledge of British history, and the demands on the reader are considerable as he jumps from India to South Africa to S
“The book is divided into thematic chapters, covering such topics as first contact, possession, settling and fighting, and the roles of commerce, rebellion, and religion”, notes Duncan Bell, which is a very apt description of the structure of the book. In twelve chapters, John Darwin manages to explore the inner workings of the British Empire, spanning throughout three centuries in a very detailed and informed manner. “What readers are offered”, mentions Anthony Horton in a very accurate stateme ...more
Jan 14, 2017 Tomlikeslife rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library
The books provides you with a different view of the English Empire from its beginning to collapse. For all history buffs, well worth the time.
Tim C
Dec 16, 2012 Tim C rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, phd
For anyone with a general interest in the era of Western Imperialism this is a 'must-read' book. It provides an admirably balanced overview of the rise, eminence, and disintegration of the British Imperial system and is written in a clear and accesible, uncluttered style.

John Darwin, who currently seems to be at the height of his powers as a historian, examines the British Empire through a series of themed chapters, each looking at a different aspect of imperialist agency - highlighting the fac
Mar 06, 2013 Leah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Accessible, edifying and enjoyable…

For the non-academic reader, any history book has to be first and foremost readable and this one most certainly is. Darwin has taken the huge subject of the British Empire and broken it down into a series of themed chapters that makes it accessible and enjoyable reading. For example, one chapter is devoted to Traffic and Trade, while another discusses Ruling Methods. This method allows Darwin to show how similarities and differences in the approach to controlli
Jan 08, 2014 Marks54 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Louise Miller
I generally enjoyed it. While I didn't really learn anything new, it was on the whole quite enjoyable and easy to read. I would have preferred a few more quotes to break up the text, but the biggest issue I had with it was that he tended to repeat himself - a lot. And while this is potentially ok if that's the only thing you've read about the British Empire, it does get a little tiresome after a while and I did find myself shouting 'get to the point'. That being said, it is a good reference book ...more
Chris Csergei
Jun 21, 2016 Chris Csergei rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I thought this was a fair and even handed review of the British empire. The trend these days is to blame empire for all of the problems and issues that former colonies are having, and to debase the motives of all involved in the creation of empire.
John Darwin takes a more honest look at the creation of empire and does an admirable job of presenting the motives and events that lead to the creation of empire.
This book is an overview, so occasionally lacks depth in some areas, and assumes a lot of
Casey Mahon
Mar 17, 2016 Casey Mahon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good analytic history of the British Empire, from its medieval origins to the present. This was not a strict chronological narrative but instead a process assessment of the many component parts, political, social, and economic, which made up the Empire. Though not a defense of Empire, the book did a good job of laying out the many characteristics of British Imperialism which cause revulsion and fascination today. I especially liked the emphasis on migration within the Empire, how the flow of p ...more
Laura Jordan
Finally. Finished. This book.

Ok, maybe that's a bit unfair. There were parts that were pretty interesting and I think Darwin made a solid case for the idea that the British Empire was not a monolithic entity, but rather an amalgamation of various political, economic, religious, military, and cultural interests, many of which were in direct conflict with one another. Ultimately the idea of empire was a far more concentrated and centrally-directed thing than the actual reality.

That being said, t
Jeff Schauer
The parts are more than their sum in this book. Ostensibly a major historiographical intervention to demonstrate the harried, unsystematic, and disorganized fashion of the British Empire, Darwin's book seems organized (thematically) to deliberately make causation and the work of interests and institutions difficult to trace.
That said, the observations and interpretations around many themes and events in the various chapters are both useful and thought-provoking, and stylistically it is a reader-
Haythem Bastawy
Feb 23, 2014 Haythem Bastawy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Darwin tries to present a rather objective version of the story of Britain's Empire. He starts from the invasion of Ireland and finishes by the break up of the empire in the post war era. He argues that the empire was continuously in a state of arbitrary and unsystematic expansion motivated primarily by economic reasons and pioneered by individuals and make-shift armies. Unfinished Empire is a refreshing read, it tries to refute almost all other theories successfully and unsuccessfully in order ...more
Nishant Pappireddi
This book explains how the British Empire was not a monolithic force where dictates in London would be followed in the colonies. Instead, each possession was rules in a unique way, based on local circumstances and pressures. Darwin charts the full chronology of Empire, from its conception and beginnings to its demise. Each chapter deals with a theme rather than a particular location or time period, and along the way, we get to see all the different ways in which British rule was implemented.
Tony Thomson
Oct 04, 2013 Tony Thomson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: lovers of narrative history
Recommended to Tony by: Economist Magazine

Unbiased, packed with original and well-documented facts yet reads like a great novel. We live in the shadow of the British Empire - our laws, our constitutional thought, our economic worldview are all products of the British imperial diaspora.

This book explains what happened without apology for past wrongs and without trying to rationalize the accidental nature of the whole enterprise.
Jul 04, 2014 Tom rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not really a "non-fiction book" Darwin's brilliant survey is more of a thesis or text, highlighting nuances and proposing ideas only a fairly well educated scholar on the topic might I appreciate. I found his effort both far reaching and far seeing, a true "study" of a complex topic, neither transecting to the "politically correct" nor the reactionary "neo-con!" If you'd like to spend some time in edifying conversation with a real student of The Empire, you'll find Darwin is your man!
Unfinished Empire is not a history of the acquisitions of new territories for Britain, or the intricacies of these possessions, but a wider view on how this large and scattered Empire came to be the dominant force on Earth, and then how it fell apart. There are many far-reaching reasons in this book, all of them well researched and very interesting. This book is more on how Empire's are made and broken than anything, and it is a very engaging read.
Mar 09, 2013 Henry rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a tough one to review. The second half of the book moves along well and is insightful, but the first half of this book is a struggle. The author finds several ways of saying the same thing (that there were many different structures that comprise the notion of "The Empire", that the British were flexible, opportunistic and so forth. I nearly gave up, but was glad I held on.
Excellent overview of developments in the West since the beginning of the Modern Age. Much information here about World History organized from the perspective of London. The British Empire was pluralistic before anyone knew what the word meant. Several kinds of empires existed, including an invisible empire, language, which exists today.
Jun 04, 2013 Yasmin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An amazing book about the British Empire that is not known, not even close to being taught in schools. It is a very concise and excellent account of the history of Britain, what made them empire and how it was lost. Highly recommended reading.
Little Henry
As an emigrant to the UK, John Darwins piece has provided me with a deep and balanced view of the last three hundred years of Great Britain as a growing power first, then as the worlds dominant empire for two hundred years before its geopolitical disassembling during the 20th century. ...more
Recommended for readers with interest in broad anglophone histoy, great for introductory courses

Full Review here:
Blake Helms
Jul 08, 2014 Blake Helms rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What can I say, if you want a soup to nuts overview of the history of the British empire this book is for you. While at times the author could be excruciatingly verbose overall I found the book to be very interesting.
Sep 29, 2013 Pat rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very even handed account on the rise and decline of one of the great, if not greatest empires the world has ever seen.
Interesting for today's citizen to contemplate how free trade was a vehicle for growing the empire.
Nov 10, 2014 DiscoSpacePanther rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well written, readable and well balanced overview of British imperial history. Only missed out on getting 5 stars because it is too short to go into any real depth about any of the individual aspects of the empire.
Jun 04, 2013 Jbondandrews rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was quite a good book. I have read other Empire books in the past I didn't really learn anything new although it was interesting to find out that a small expeditionary force sent by Napoleon reached Wales.
Feb 03, 2013 Edmund rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Really enjoyed this; a magisterial work of synthesis that's beautifully written and compelling throughout. Judicious and complex in its judgements but doesn't shy from the appalling record of imperial Britain in so many regards
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Historian, currently Beit Lecturer in the History of the British Commonwealth at Oxford university, whose research interests include: The history of European imperialisms; the British empire circa 1880-1970 and the history and politics of decolonisation.
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“Since histories were first written, the aim of the writer has invariably been to ‘correct’ our view of the past, and to align it more closely with the writer’s view of the present, and the way it was reached.” 0 likes
“the British ruled India (population 250 millions) with an administrative cadre of under 1,000.” 0 likes
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