Villains and heroes

2nd May 1997 at 01:00

To encompass in 250 pages the history of an empire which, in its heyday, ruled a quarter of the population of the world, is a remarkable achievement - particularly if, as here, it covers the development of the Commonwealth as well. Alan Palmer wisely confines the book to the Empire and its successor states in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This book is rather more than a dictionary, though. The 650 alphabetical entries are more like short essays, ranging widely over the various forces, events and people that together made and unmade Kipling's famous "dominion over palm and pine". Their scope is impressive. Most of the conventional textbook history is here, and there are excellent short histories of the Commonwealth states and those who shaped them. There are also excellent entries on topics as various as imperial architecture, railways and bridges, Chinese labour, and All Black rugby. Some of the articles - on slavery, for example, famine, or the Colonial Office - are models of their kind. Always, the detail is impressive. The index is remarkably comprehensive and tempting.

Inevitably, there are some omissions. There is nothing, for example, about the nine Xhosa wars in the Eastern Cape, which did as much as the Zulu wars to shape South African (and British) attitudes. There is not quite enough on missionaries, who sometimes brought rather more than Palmer's "faith, medicine and schooling" to the lands they proselytised, and nothing about the Anglo-French collusion with Israel, which was the real disgrace of the Suez crisis. But these, like the diminution of Mount Kenya in the introductory maps, are minor points. Palmer has produced that rare commodity: a reference book that is easy to use, up to date and comprehensive, and interesting to read.

It is also well-balanced. There are villains here in plenty, and the proud and arrogant condescension of the Empire makers and some of their successors is clearly exposed. But there are heroes as well, and disinterested nobility of purpose.

At Pounds 15.99, even in paperback, it is excellent value. No school library should be without it.

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