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  • The British End of the British Empire by Sarah Stockwell
  • Poppy Cullen
The British End of the British Empire By Sarah Stockwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Studies of decolonization used to be limited to constitutional histories, ending when colonies became independent; more recently, the scope and chronology of such studies has become wider. Sarah Stockwell's The British End of the British Empire makes a significant contribution to this trend through her consideration of four British institutions in the decades around the end of empire: the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Bank of England, Royal Mint, and Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. How each of these institutions adapted to changing circumstances is meticulously detailed and situated in extensive historiography. Stockwell's research in the archives of each institution, often using material that other scholars have not accessed, particularly at the Royal Mint, allows her to paint a comprehensive picture of each of them. The focus is mostly, though not exclusively, on Anglophone Africa. Although the book is primarily aimed at scholars of decolonization, anyone concerned with the specific institutions will find plenty of interest here.

The first chapter offers a history of the four institutions prior to decolonization, laying the groundwork for the rest of the book. It demonstrates the ways that empire intersected with the four institutions: Oxford and Cambridge trained colonial administrators, the Bank of England focused on the sterling area, the Royal Mint provided colonial coin, and Sandhurst trained soldiers for imperial postings. The second chapter offers particularly powerful analysis of technical assistance, a subject which often does not receive the attention it deserves. Stockwell shows the centrality of technical assistance to decolonization and the postcolonial era in Africa, arguing that it "should not be seen as constituting a distinct phase in postcolonial British-African relations but a constituent part of the decolonization process" (91). One of the central arguments of the book, as the title makes clear, is that this was a specifically British end of empire. While Stockwell's study of technical assistance is situated within a wider context, she argues throughout that these institutions sought to promote specifically British models. This was not just about convincing postcolonial states to remain in the Western sphere of influence. Instead, British institutions had "a common conviction in the value and relevance of British models, practice and expertise" (291). This was hard for newly independent states to discard. Although they could and often did look beyond Britain for assistance, they still needed "English-speaking experts familiar with British traditions" (121).

Each of the four institutions receives its own, detailed chapter. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge had an imperial role of training colonial administrators, which shifted to one of training "locals," both before and after independence. Although it is "perhaps surprising" (137) that Oxbridge was able to continue in this role for so long, Stockwell shows the ability of institutions, and individuals within institutions, to use the opportunities offered by decolonization. She also points out that influence was not unidirectional, and that the universities' syllabi, particularly development studies, were influenced in turn by African decolonization.

The Bank of England was initially reluctant to set up central banks in colonies, but once it became apparent that they could not prevent this, sought to shape the process. Here, Stockwell shows the Bank's particular commitment to the idea of the Commonwealth, and, for as long as was possible, the sterling area. The Royal Mint is distinct from the other institutions as its primary motives were commercial. Initially, it was remarkably successful as "decolonization saw the Mint's transformation from an 'imperial' to a 'global' institution" (194). Stockwell also offers an illuminating discussion of "the cultural politics of imperialism on display" (219) in the design of African coins. The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is also distinct in that its postimperial role was not one it actively sought. Rather, it "became a tool of colonial, Commonwealth and foreign policy" (57) through training overseas cadets. There were tensions as the Academy was reluctant to have too many overseas students, and the experiences of overseas cadets were not always positive, some facing racism.

The impact of all this on newly independent states...


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