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Book Review: Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire by Simon Winchester


Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: Non-fiction, Travel, British History
Pub. Date: June 2004
Format: Paperback, 362pp
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Anguilla, St. Helena, Grand Cayman, The Falkland Islands, Hong Kong, Gibraltar all have one thing in common. In 1984, they (and a few others) were all that was left of the British Empire. At it�s height in the Victorian period, Britain ruled (or at least governed) a large portion of the known world. The discovery of these last relics of empire is the subject of the book Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire by Simon Winchester.

Known particularly for his work on The Professor and the Madman, and The Meaning of Everything, two books on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, Winchester is a geologist turned journalist a career for which he was eminently suited. His love of the islands he describes in this work is evident both in his many return visits and the way his words lovingly caress the history and cultures he finds in them.

The majority of these last outposts of empire are islands that are far removed from any continent, with the exception of Gibraltar (a peninsula) and Hong Kong. Hong Kong is an island in part, but contains portions of the continent of Asia within its boundaries. St. Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha, Bermuda and the Falklands all sit in the Atlantic Ocean. Gibraltar guards the entrance to the Mediterranean across from Morocco, Pitcairn is in the Pacific, and British Indian Ocean Territory is self-explanatory.

Winchester journeys to all of them over the course of three years and in side trips from his day job as a journalist, and even as in the case of the Falklands he is there in that capacity particularly. He watched the Falklands fall to the invading Argentines in 1982. People of my own generation know nothing of this event (this was the first I had heard of it) but it was important, with 1300 dead as a result.

The majority of the book is given over to laments over the sorry state of Britain�s island territories. Whether it is financial decay, as in the case of St. Helena, or moral decay, as in the case of the Cayman�s, each and every colony has had to sacrifice something of its Imperial character in order to survive. Much of this is blamed, by Winchester, on racism with a helping of poor communication. (I did wonder as I read this in 2007, whether the advent of satellite technology for the masses had had a significant effect on the colonies.)

Winchester claims that Britain is racist and wishes to deny the colonies full citizenship because they are not white. They are always governed by whites, he points out, and the poorest of them are usually people of color. I find this argument flimsy in this day and age, and find it more likely that the colonies are more forgotten than deliberately persecuted.

Hong Kong has, since the writing of this book, returned to its native China. The fears that it would be swallowed by the Communist machine are unfounded, as the China itself moves closer and closer to truly free trade (while still committing human rights abuses, I know, but changes are occurring).

Many of the colonies have turned into tax shelters, vacation spots, or American military bases. Winchester laments this although he says, �Perhaps…it was because one associates British Imperial relics, and associates them rather fondly, with sadness and decay, with the sagging verandah and the peeling paint, the wandering donkeys and the lolling drunks, and with a generally amiable sense of indolence and carelessness.�

It is this ultimately that is the value of this book. The reader discovers the empire as it was once, before technology changed it, a new morality consumed it, and empire became an evil idea. This book is a must for all travel book buffs, and a pleasant read for the amateur historian.

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