Friday, August 8, 2008

The Previous Superpower

Review: A HISTORY OF BRITAIN, The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000." By Simon Schama. Illustrated. 576 pp. New York: Miramax Books/Hyperion. $40.

"In 1896 a young Winston Churchill arrived in Bangalore, India, as a junior officer of the Fourth Queen's Own Hussars, searching -- as ever -- for action, excitement and glory. He was a staunch believer in the British Empire. He gloried in its power but believed that it was different from all past empires, blessed with a historic civilizing mission. Britain was the bastion of liberty, destined to spread its values through backward lands. The empire's purpose, he wrote, was to ''give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to plant the seeds of commerce and learning.'' ''What more beautiful idea,'' he asked, ''can inspire human effort?''

And yet, Simon Schama writes, in the third and final volume of his ''History of Britain,'' ''There was an awful lot of hanging around in the club, pending the accomplishment of these great goals.''"

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