Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A History of Britain #3 by Simon Schama

  • THE BOOK
    • A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire 1776-2000 by Simon Schama
    • Published December 18, 2002
    • Other works by author include A History of Britain, parts 1 and 2; Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution; Rough Crossings; and The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE-1492 CE. Part 2 of The Story of the Jews will be published in October 2016.
    • He has also hosted several BBC TV shows on history which sometimes air in the United States on PBS. I watched "The Story of the Jews" in 2013 and "A History of Britain" in 2000.

  • THE PREMISE
    • Between 1776 and 2000 Great Britain developed an empire and lost an empire.
      • It is still possible that Scotland might break away from the United Kingdom or that Northern Ireland might reunite with the Ireland. It is also possible that neither of these things will happen.
    • Britain had control of the American colonies (the U.S.), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Iraq, Palestine (Israel), Egypt, South Africa, Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, Ghana, Fiji, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Cyprus, Pakistan, Yemen, Zambia, Tanzania, Botswana, Nigeria, Malta, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, United Arab Emirates, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Brunei, Uganda, Barbados, Falkland Islands, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Kenya, Sudan, Gambia, Trinidad & Tobago, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Bahamas, Antigua & Barbuda, Saint Lucia, Ireland, Lesotho, Dominica, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland, Grenada and parts of Antarctica.
      • A handful of these are now part of the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state, but each are individual nations in all other respects.
    • This book tells the story of how the Empire was created and the reasons it all fell apart.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • According to my Good Reads records I apparently started reading this book last year and then put it down while I wallowed in a multitude of library books. My library queue is at a standstill right now so I had time to pick this book up again. I have already read the first two books in the series and they have since been donated for others to read.
    • It was interesting to see how decisions made up to 150 years ago have created repercussions felt up to the current day. Some of these decisions were made after the world wars.
      • Changing the fuel of the navy from coal (which Britain has much of) to oil (which the middle East has much of) during World War I caused the Middle East to get carved up to suit the Empire, thus keeping the oil flowing.
      • The Irish really just wanted "Home Rule" whereby Irish governed the Irish while Britain took care of foreign policy. The prime ministers and ruling aristocracy (Protestants) chose to deny this request (WWI didn't help) because the Catholic majority might mess things up for the ruling class. 
      • In India the British took over from the East India Company after the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
        • One cause of the rebellion --- the last straw for the Indian soldiers --- was the fact that rifle cartridges needed to be greased with fat and bitten into to load them. Muslims don't eat pork and Hindus don't eat beef. But the cartridges were rumored to be covered in pork and beef fat (rather than acceptable mutton fat or beeswax). The British officers dismissed the soldiers complaints.
      • The racist attitudes of the times often dictated how the "natives" were treated: as untoward children who needed the British Empire to take care of them. In most cases this was due to skin color but the Irish Catholics were also treated this way. It was racism combined with arrogance and superiority.
        • Indians would, for example, obtain a British education (only the boys, of course) but then still be barred from the best jobs. They couldn't rise any farther than lowly clerk, say.
        • Another fun tactic was to forbid or undercut an industry, then tax the people who now couldn't afford to pay because they had no jobs.
          • The cotton fabric (calico) that India was famous for was undersold by cheap fabric made in England which the Indians were now expected to buy.
          • Salt was forbidden to be processed in India unless it was purchased from British imports. Mohandas Gandhi led the salt march in 1930 and the excessive salt taxes weren't repealed until 1947.
        • During times of famine the British leaders expected the starving Irish or Indians to stand on their own two feet or pull themselves up by their bootstraps or some such pithy saying. For a variety of reasons this was not generally possible.
    • There was an interesting focus on certain people of the Empire --- the usual suspects including Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill, for example --- but on occasion this was especially helpful.
      • One example is Eric Blair, who wrote under the pen name George Orwell, got an extensive narrative. This was helpful for me to see exactly where he was coming from when he wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
    • The book wraps up pretty quickly once World War II ends with just an overview of the creation of social programs after the war and their subsequent dismantling by Margaret Thatcher's government. The influx of immigrants from former Empire countries has an impact on Great Britain still felt today (the book was published in 2002).
    • Recommended for those who like history, especially of Great Britain. It is a long (over 500 pages), detailed book but I think it is the best of the three volumes because it explains so much of what goes on in the world today.
      • The author's style is not one of date, date, fact, and date. He really tells the story behind the dates and facts. He assumes you probably already know the facts and dates actually (it was written more for the British audience than an American one naturally) and as a student of the subject I mainly do know the gist if not the details.

1 comment:

  1. More "religion is bad for history." God (what God?) won't like that.

    ReplyDelete