Field of Science

Book review: An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America

An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight AmericaAn Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker

A highly illuminating, novel account of the lead-up to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution from the British side, covering the critical years 1772 to 1775. British politics and economics played a seminal role in inciting the conflict (who knew that smuggling which drastically undercut the prices of tea and other commodities played such a huge role in the revolution). As an Englishman Bunker offers a very thoughtful and sympathetic but still fair and balanced portrait of British political leaders and convincingly demonstrates how they were complex characters with far from outright villainous intent.

Unlike the simplistic textbook version of events, Bunker explains in painstaking detail (sometimes too much detail) how the British simply misunderstood the colonists rather than actively oppressed them, seeing them as sources of revenue and little more, largely ignoring them until 1773. Occupied with extending their empire in other parts of the globe and chronically afraid of the French, they thought of the American colonies as a reliable outpost which they would never have to worry about, even as they were losing their grip both on the vast, overstretched geography as well as the hearts and minds of the colonists. They also badly misunderstood that what were for them simple matters of (modest) taxation were for the colonists fundamental matters of religion, individual rights and free trade; unlike other British colonies like India, the North Americans already had a lot of freedom and individual rights, which made England's petulant, scolding attitude highly inflammatory and the decision to separate from the mother country consequently easier.

Even after the Tea Party there was a huge gulf of misunderstanding between King George III, prime minister Lord North, the colonial secretary Lord Dartmouth and the colonists that led to missed opportunities. Support for taking hard measures against the colonies was also far from monolithic, with many famous members of parliament like Edmund Burke delivering fiery speeches against North, and the quality of British democracy was commendable, with even riotous events like the Boston pamphlets and the Tea Party needing proper legislative procedure, witness accounts and documentary evidence to prosecute (the book makes it clear that even by the 1770s the King could make almost no law without parliament's consent). News (including scurrilous "fake news") also took at least a month to travel from one shore to another during those days, compounding the misunderstanding.

The British also made a critical mistake by getting obsessed with Boston and Massachusetts which, although symbolically important, were politically as well as economically much less important than the Southern colonies and the Hudson Valley. After the tea was dumped North basically thought he could quell the rebellion through a targeted local war in Massachusetts or Rhode Island (the most radical state); little did he know that the colony shared deep resentments with other colonies. In a curious sense the British understanding of the colonists was as impoverished as the later American understanding of the Vietnamese. Just like an American General could never see through the eyes of Ho Chi Minh or a Vietnamese peasant, North and his ministers were simply too different from an Ethan Allen or Thomas Young.

Essentially this was a story of many missed opportunities. if they had played their cards right England could well have turned North America into a country like Australia or Canada, essentially an independent republic with intimate ties to the commonwealth, or even defused the budding revolution in 1772 by extending an olive branch of the right kind, perhaps dividing North from South, until it was too late. As it turned out, the two countries indeed turned out to be two nations separated by a common language.

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