Timothy H. Parsons is professor of African history at Washington University.
Parsons does an admirable job. . . . He shows there was never one unified, tidy imperial system in any decade or era, let alone century. . . . Exploring the great variety of colonial configurations in each imperial locale, he demonstrates clearly that this was an empire beset by acknowledged weakness, in absolute numbers as in real power. Roaming around the globe decade by decade, Parsons chronologically categorizes the bewilderingly wide-ranging power dynamic social groups experienced in Africa, Ireland, India, the former Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere. . . . As British history, this is sound, descriptive scholarship. . . . Exploring the disordered power relations of empire since 1900, this book is an archival goldmine of the imperial experience.
Timothy Parsons’s highly readable new study of the British Empire during the twentieth century begins, fittingly enough, at the end, with the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and, seemingly, the final collapse of Britain’s formal imperial power. Yet, Parsons is too subtle and nuanced a scholar to let the story drop with the ceremonies in Hong Kong. Ultimately, as Parsons is well aware, one could conclude the story of the British Empire in many different ways, and he offers several more possibilities in the course of the book, from the tragedy of the children of immigrants blowing themselves up on the London subway to powerful tales of archival transfer, loss, and resuscitation that have accompanied transfers of political power. . . .Overall, for those who wish to introduce undergraduates to the twists and turns of British imperial power in the twentieth century—which Parsons persuasively portrays as decidedly non-linear—this engaging (and, happily, affordable) book represents a welcome opportunity to do so.