Review: The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Patrick N. Allitt

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Patrick N. Allitt comes across, in this series of audio lectures, as a very pleasant, easy-going and genial academic. His voice absolutely sounds like it belongs to a British comedian though I can’t, for the life of me, think who he makes me think of. Overall, the lectures feel quite lively – almost fun; certainly they’re easy to follow.

But – oh dear – despite what I think were the best of intentions, Allitt (quite literally) whitewashes British colonial history. It’s obvious he doesn’t intend to. He tries to present the ‘warts and all’ aspects of the British history and states right at the beginning about the importance of setting aside political goals and behaving as good historians should: to look objectively as the evidence. Alas, what Allitt has fallen foul of here is ‘researcher bias’, unconsciously passing over that which needs much greater emphasis.

Amritsar gets barely a mention and, when it does, his final point is one of how the British praised Dyer for his horrific orders rather than the revulsion they felt. Churchill, while some negatives are expressed modestly, is not mentioned at all when it comes to the great Bengal famine and his role in deliberately letting Indians starve is glossed over. Where the British did bad things, mitigating circumstances are presented. Allitt presents the Opium Wars as an understandable result of the British wanting to trade opium in China where there were plenty of addicts desiring the product. He fails to mention that before the British started illegally pushing the drug, there were no, or few, known addicts in the country. There was no market for drugs until the British created one.

And surrounding these omissions? Lots of glowing reports of how good the Empire was. Whole lectures on colonial literature which glows with pride. Post-colonial literature – while often praising non-white authors – has more than a hint of condescension to it when Allitt suggests it is all coming along very well and slowly ‘catching up’ with white literature. He completely ignores Rabindranath Tagore in this context, which is inexcusable. All in all, you come away from these lectures with the feel that the British Empire was an exciting and glorious time which really, all things considered, was pretty spiffing even if not always perfect.

This would be too ghastly to bear if it wasn’t for the fact that the lectures are really quite fascinating, well researched, enjoyable and do present some fantastic information about the ‘white lands’ – the histories of America, Canada, Australia and so on. Personally, I know very little about Canada and Australia, so I particularly enjoyed learning about these nations. Again, there is a sense of whitewashing – we’re told very little about the original peoples of the various lands where the British (and, to be fair, other Europeans) went – but it isn’t quite as tortured as his angle on African and Indian history. There are nice little oddities along the way though. The lecture on cricket was brilliant and has ensured that I never want to see the game again; not that I was ever a fan before…but now I’m morally opposed!

Overall then, I could recommend Allitt’s lectures as a starting point for researching colonial history but then make sure you dive straight into something else which gives you better perspective. For this, you could do worse than go to Sathnam Sanghera’s excellent ‘Empireland’ which is both gentle and balanced in critiquing the nature of the British in other countries.

I do feel a little sorry for Allitt. He admits he’s a product of the Empire. He was born just as the empire was collapsing, when socialism was on the rise and the idea of empire was abhorrent, yet an entire British population, bruised by WWII, was mourning the loss and believed – as one – that the Empire was great and glorious. He’s no apologist for colonialism; his intentions to present it as bad just as much as good were pure and just. It’s just that there is a very clear and obvious bias which, I suspect, is completely hidden to him. It’s much easier for myself, born a couple of generations later where – despite the inherent racism and continued love for the empire and belief in the greatness of Britain – socialism was, nevertheless, in ascendency, the empire was no more a lived experience and we all believed in the equality of all. From such a vantage point, it’s much easier to stand back and reflect. Indeed, anyone born after 1970 should be able to do so. It’s a pity then that so few actually do. For that reason, Allitt’s lectures are a little bit dangerous. There’s still too many Brits who mourn a loss of a ‘great empire’ they never actually knew and never really existed. On their own then, the lectures should be avoided; as part of a greater package, they really quite useful.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.


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