Dominion over Palm and Pine

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In 1914 the great Arctic explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, calculated that the Russian Empire had been expanding for over four centuries at an average daily rate of 55 square miles or more than 20,000 square miles a year. I used to think this an absurd statistic, the sort of mistake made by people who can’t remember how many noughts make a million. Then it dawned on me that, compared with the expansion of a rival empire, the advance had been rather slow.

At its zenith the British Empire extended over more than 12 million square miles, of which Great Britain itself formed less than one per cent. In the course of the nineteenth century, when most of its expansion took place, the average annual rate of growth was about 100,000 square miles, while the increase for every twenty-four hours was a staggering 270 square miles, or an area the size of Hyde Park every five minutes. Late Victorian historians proudly calculated that the Empire was four and a half times larger and more populated than the Roman dominions under the Emperor Trajan.

Britain’s empire was spread over six continents, seven seas and three centuries, during which the focus shifted from the Atlantic to Asia and finally to Africa. One might have expected such diversity to have deterred writers from trying to sum it up or paint its portrait. It didn’t. Diversity was clearly not a problem for Marxists who, in Lenin’s words, regarded imperialism as ‘the highest stage of capitalism’ and believed colonialism’s essential purpose to be the plunder of the non-Western world. Nor has it troubled post-colonial historians today who take it for granted that colonial rule is always evil and colonialist motives are invariably bad. Some more independent-minded historians have from time to time written single-volume ‘Rise and Fall’ chronicles which are, perhaps inevitably, over-simplified and under-researched. But only one writer has revelled in the diversity of the imperial experience and has dared to depict it on a massive panoramic canvas. And that writer, James Morris, is not in fact an historian but a journalist and travel-writer of genius.

In the first volume of his imperial trilogy, Pax Britannica, Morris focused on a single year, 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the year later regarded as the apogee of the Empire, the year Kipling wrote his poem ‘Rece

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About the contributor

David Gilmour likes to think he is the only person apart from Morris who has written books about India, Spain, Italy and the Middle East. But he is happy to be corrected.

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