Empire : What Ruling the World Did to the British, Paperback

Empire : What Ruling the World Did to the British Paperback

4 out of 5 (2 ratings)


From the bestselling author of "The English" comes "Empire", Jeremy Paxman's history of the British Empire accompanied by a flagship 5-part BBC TV series, for readers of Simon Schama and Andrew Marr.

The influence of the British Empire is everywhere, from the very existence of the United Kingdom to the ethnic composition of our cities.

It affects everything, from Prime Ministers' decisions to send troops to war to the adventurers we admire.

From the sports we think we're good at to the architecture of our buildings; the way we travel to the way we trade; the hopeless losers we will on, and the food we hunger for, the empire is never very far away.

In this acute and witty analysis, Jeremy Paxman goes to the very heart of empire. As he describes the selection process for colonial officers ('intended to weed out the cad, the feeble and the too clever') the importance of sport, the sweating domestic life of the colonial officer's wife ('the challenge with cooking meat was "to grasp the fleeting moment between toughness and putrefaction when the joint may possibly prove eatable"') and the crazed end for General Gordon of Khartoum, Paxman brings brilliantly to life the tragedy and comedy of Empire and reveals its profound and lasting effect on our nation and ourselves. "Paxman is witty, incisive, acerbic and opinionated...In short, he carries the whole thing off with panache bordering on effrontery". (Piers Brendon, "Sunday Times"). "Paxman is a magnificent historian, and "Empire" may be remembered as his finest work". ("Independent on Sunday"). Jeremy Paxman was born in Yorkshire and educated at Cambridge.

He is an award-winning journalist who spent ten years reporting from overseas, notably for "Panorama".

He is the author of five books including "The English". He is the presenter of "Newsnight" and "University Challenge" and has presented BBC documentaries on various subjects including Victorian art and Wilfred Owen.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: British & Irish history
  • ISBN: 9780670919598



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Showing 1 - 2 of 2 reviews.

Review by

It is sad that Paxman never answers the questions his subtitle poses: What Ruling the World Did to the British? would have been a wonderful topic. He actually starts fine - in an Irish variant to Yali's question: "Are you a Brit?" Uttered angrily in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, it could have made Paxman think about why some of the conquered weren't so happy about British rule. Instead, in classic Englishman now abed fashion, he only dreams about the adventures of empire-building. What follows is mostly a chronological Flashman-inspired tale of fops, conquerors and explorers coloring the map of the world red (with the native's blood and the United Kingdom's poor).Paxman fails to understand it, but it is demography that dooms the British Empire. The inexhaustible fount of Irish, Welsh, Scots and Northern English could easily send battalion after battalion abroad, the progress in medicine in the undeveloped countries meant that suddenly they had a competitive edge against the British. The local upper class also learned that kicking out the few colonial administrators would allow them full access to the local wealth (instead of sending it to the mother country).Today, it is China which could easily send a few millions of its surplus young men abroad to develop the unchartered parts of the world, leaving the Brits to dream about glories past (if one can speak about glory). Paxman seems to think that the phantom pain of the empire is holding back the country: "The most corrosive part of this amnesia is a sense that because the nation is not what it was, it can never be anything again. If only the British would bring a measure of clarity to what was done in their country’s name, they might find it easier to play a more useful and effective role in the world." To the horror of Mr Paxman, the dismantling of the empire isn't finished yet. Scotland and Wales (as well as Northern Ireland) are still looking for more autonomy - until the question "are you a Brit?" makes no sense at all.

Review by

The writing style is breezy and very accessible. It gets the broad sweep of history right and is reasonably good on mentalities. However I found the detail work suspect. I am not expert on most of the periods and places but found nagging little errors on the ones I do know cold. Nothing that ruins the book, but do not use it as a source to win bar bets or correct wikipedia articles.