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Book Review


Parsons, Timothy H. The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A World History Perspective (Rowman and Littlefield, New York and Oxford, 1999). 154 pp, $16.95.

The last few years have seen a renewed interest in the British Empire. Popular books and television programs by Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama have been joined by a wide variety of scholarly monographs that have highlighted the impact of the Empire on both Britain and the world. Discussions of a United States Empire, and historical examinations of the roots of modern conflicts in the Middle East, India and Ireland, have added to the interest in the British Empire. The subject has, however, engendered controversy. Critics point out that racism, the subjugation of indigenous peoples, and slavery were at the center of the imperial enterprise while others suggest that, on balance, British rule was beneficial as it led to the spread of trade, technology and democratic institutions. 1
     In this short, well-written, introduction to the British Empire from the early nineteenth century to the beginning of World War I, Timothy Parsons, a professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis and a specialist in African colonial history, examines the imperial experience from a global perspective. The British Imperial Century concentrates less on the causes of imperialism than on how the indigenous peoples influenced Britain and helped them to maintain their rule in the colonies. He focuses on India, Africa, China and the Ottoman Empire during the period which saw the largest expansion of the Empire as Britain gained new colonies and consolidated its control over its informal empire. The book is a useful guide to undergraduate students but not one that would generally interest serious scholars of the field. 2
    The bulk of the book chronicles the expansion of the British Empire and the role indigenous people played in shaping British rule. Parsons argues that Britain extended its empire because of domestic economic changes, regional tensions, and competition from European rivals in the late nineteenth century. British rule depended on a degree of local support, and their control of territories was never total. In India, the vastly outnumbered British had to grant the indigenous people a role in government and allow the population to continue their traditional way of life. This system of indirect rule was exported from India to Africa in the late nineteenth century where African interpreters, civil servants, and commercial agents acted as intermediaries between the Africans and the British. Indians and Africans maintained their pre-colonial institutions and religious practices or adapted them to meet new circumstances. Many also used the economic, educational and political opportunities of colonial rule to advance their own agendas. 3
     In contrast to experiences in India and Africa, Parsons suggests that the Chinese and Ottoman Empires retained a degree of sovereignty by resisting formal British colonization. The greater social cohesion and economic vitality of the Chinese and Ottoman Empires meant fewer of their subjects had the inclination to cooperate with the British. With no local partners to help them subjugate the people, the British relied on informal influence to protect their interests. British merchants had to be content with the trading posts in China from which the Chinese government gained substantial financial tariffs. In the Ottoman Empire, the British established tax-exempt commercial enclaves. 4
     Parsons makes clear that British and indigenous people influenced one another. The British presence caused environmental and biological changes including the diffusion of infectious diseases that proved fatal to indigenous people and severely disrupted their societies. The British Empire provided an extension of global trade, and the diffusion of the English language as well as Christianity. Subject peoples did not simply adopt British cultural patterns but adapted them and merged them with their own cultures. The British also adopted cultural practices from their colonies and transferred them from one part of the empire to other parts. Parsons further claims that many British administrators adopted cuisine, dress and religion from the colonial peoples and continued to practice them when they returned home. Moreover, some subject people worked and studied in Britain and further influenced the popular culture of Britain over the course of the imperial century. The British adopted new products like tea and sugar, hundred of English words had Indian origins, and the art, literature and music of Britain betrayed colonial influences. 5
      The brevity of the book has led to a few shortcomings. Although Parsons engages some of the main historiographical debates surrounding the British imperial enterprise, he does not provide footnotes, name historians, or tackle historical arguments in any depth. Therefore the book will appeal less to academics and graduate students and more to undergraduates and general readers. Furthermore, and disappointingly, the book is not richly illustrated and only includes six black and white maps and no photos or cartoons from nineteenth-century publications to illustrate some of Parsons' claims of cultural diffusion. 6
The book could have benefited from a concluding section on contemporary Britain to support Parsons' assertion of the cultural impact of the colonies on Britain. Surely the greatest influence these Asian and African countries has had on Britain was not in the nineteenth century but in the post World War II era. British cities have been transformed by the Indian curry houses, Muslim mosques, and African influenced music that immigrants from former colonies brought to Britain. Moreover, a major example of the cultural exchange between Britain and its colonies, sport, is never mentioned by Parsons. The British gave the world team games such as football (soccer), cricket, and rugby, but these sports in Britain and abroad are now becoming increasingly dominated by the former colonies and the ancestors of the colonial immigrants. 7
The British Imperial Century will prove useful to teachers of world history. Parsons synthesizes a vast array of literature on the British Empire that will help overworked instructors. He adds a "further reading" section at the end of each chapter for those interested in additional research. Most usefully, Parsons neither ignores the oppressive nature of British rule nor downplays the significance of expanding global trade, technology and education in his narrative. Instead, Parsons restores the agency of non Western peoples and shows how they influenced the development of the British Empire. The emphasis Parsons places on the transmission of cultural practices and economic goods between different peoples is particularly useful for world history classes. Overall, this book is highly recommended for classroom use. 8
John F. Lyons
Joliet Junior College

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