The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

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Introduction

WM. ROGER LOUIS

Queen Victoria's death in 1901 and the end of the South African War in the following year mark the beginning, in a convenient but nevertheless arbitrary fashion, of the British Empire in the twentieth century. Nearly a century later, the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 represents the termination of the Empire save for scattered remnants. To emphasize the continuity in the British Imperial experience, the chronological starting-point might be extended to the acquisition of many of the African and Pacific domains in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. This expanded view of a 'long' twentieth century holds that the forces of British imperialism remained constant from the nineteenth century, and flowed or were channelled into a more informal empire of influence by means of the Commonwealth in the latter part of the twentieth.

There is an alternative way of viewing the great events in the expansion and contraction of the Empire in the last one hundred years. In this scheme the critical epoch falls within the framework of a 'short' twentieth century. The nineteenth‐ century Empire comes to a close only with the outbreak of war in 1914, and the twentieth-century Empire comes clattering down in the 1960s. To use a symbolic date, the death of Churchill in 1965 signifies the beginning of post-colonial Britain or the dividing-line between Imperial and contemporary Britain. Many of the chapters in this volume focus on the years of the short twentieth century. The overall view reflects both the 'long' and the 'short' perspectives. Some chapters connect with themes that go back at least to the occupation of Egypt in 1882, the 'Scramble for Africa', and the 'Great Game' or struggle for supremacy between Britain and Russia across Central Asia. Indeed, the twentieth-century British Empire cannot be understood without taking into account its Victorian origins. Thus, the volume begins with a chapter on the Empire before 1914, but the thematic design emphasizes the period from the outbreak of the First World War to the principal era of decolonization in the 1960s.

For the British Empire no less than for Britain, the twentieth century was dominated in the first four decades by two world wars, and in much of the remaining part of the century by the cold war. The volume finds its chronological

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