Recently the BBC television presenter Jeremy Paxman published a book on the British Empire intended to answer the question of ‘what ruling the world did to the British’ (as his subtitle put it). Of course he did nothing of the sort, except to rehash the historian Bernard Porter’s claims that the British were pretty indifferent to their colonies. Instead, Paxman supplied a stylishly written, and predictably reassuring, canter through the usual anecdotes about eccentric Brits in hot places, improving little on, for example, Valerie Pakenham’s The Noonday Sun: Edwardians in the Tropics (1985). Nothing in Paxman’s book would discommode even the most diehard imperialist amid his or her carved elephants in Tunbridge Wells.
The first instalment of Bill Schwarz’s massive trilogy on empire has a major advantage over Paxman’s book in that Schwarz has a thorough mastery of the complex historiography of the British Empire, and a mind supple enough to formulate new and interesting questions. He also has an explicit political agenda,