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Heroes and Villains of the British Empire (Kindle)

Their Lives and Legends

British History P&S History Victorian Era 20th Century 19th Century

By Stephen Basdeo
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
File Size: 27.8 MB (.mobi)
ISBN: 9781526749413
eBook Released: 7th July 2020


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From the sixteenth until the twentieth century, British power and influence gradually expanded to cover one quarter of the world’s surface. The common saying was that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”. What began as a largely entrepreneurial enterprise in the early modern period, with privately run joint stock trading companies such as the East India Company driving British commercial expansion, by the nineteenth century had become, especially after 1857, a state-run endeavour, supported by a powerful military and navy. By the Victorian era, Britannia really did rule the waves.

Heroes and Villains of the British Empire is the story of how British Empire builders such as Robert Clive, General Gordon, and Lord Roberts of Kandahar were represented and idealised in popular culture. The men who built the empire were often portrayed as possessing certain unique abilities which enabled them to serve their country in often inhospitable territories, and spread what imperial ideologues saw as the benefits of the British Empire to supposedly uncivilised peoples in far flung corners of the world. These qualities and abilities were athleticism, a sense of fair play, devotion to God, and a fervent sense of duty and loyalty to the nation and the empire. Through the example of these heroes, people in Britain, and children in particular, were encouraged to sign up and serve the empire or, in the words of Henry Newbolt, “Play up! Play up! And Play the Game!”

Yet this was not the whole story: while some writers were paid up imperial propagandists, other writers in England detested the very idea of the British Empire. And in the twentieth century, those who were once considered as heroic military men were condemned as racist rulers and exploitative empire builders.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A nuanced and in-depth analysis of the literary representation of real-life heroes and villains in the age of British imperialism, and how the morals of the time were reflected in both high-brow and more “commercial” literary works. Definitely a very fascinating book which has left me curious and eager to read more about both several of the figures and events that were mentioned throughout. The illustrations and many quotes & references to contemporary sources made this an engaging as well as an interesting read. It is very informative, yet never too dry, nor too sensationalist. The facts are objectively represented, and the author clearly illustrates that even then there were opposing views on matters such as slavery, nationalist pride, colonialism… that are still controversial to this day, unfortunately. Recommend.

NetGalley, Karen Meeus

Who gets to define what makes a hero or a villain? Stephen Basdeo provides the reader with a quick introduction into the history of the Empire and then goes on to showing how the perception of what constitutes as a hero or villain shifted over the decades. Literary representations from politicians to highwaymen formed popular opinions that are still found in media today, from Quatermain movies to romanticised pirates.
The book is heavily illustrated and an engaging read, a nice companion to current news about statues being taken down in order to finally come to terms with the Empire's legacy.

NetGalley, Anja Kwiatkowski

About Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo researches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medievalism. His other research interests include the history of crime. He is currently a lecturer at the Leeds Campus of Richmond American International University, and his personal website can be found at https://gesteofrobinhood.com/

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