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


An Empire on the Edge by Nick Bunker

There is a large library of histories and novels out there if you want to read about the American Revolutionary War. The Revolution provides a broad canvas for authors, who can choose to focus on the war or on individual battles, on the workings of the Continental Congress, on important civil documents like the Declaration of Independence, on the education and the lives of the various Founding Fathers (and one book, by Cokie Roberts on the Founding Mothers), on the loyalists, the spies, the traitors, and on and on. 

And then there is An Empire on the Edge - the story of how the government of Britain reacted to events in its American colonies leading up to the Revolution. 

In this book the focus is on events from 1771 up to the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, as seen through the preoccupations and workings of the British Parliament. As discontent and rebellious sentiment builds in the American colonies, Parliament's attention is focused on the tea trade and the East India Crisis. Tea, and what to do about the tea trade play a large part in Bunker's telling. 

The British economy in the early 1770s was driven by speculation. From China to India to America and the West Indies trade was well established. But over time the traders themselves had became speculators. In the case of the East India Company, the actions taken by its partners would today be classed as, at a minimum, insider trading and fraud. 

The company controlled much of the legal British tea trade. The partners traded in its stock to keep the price up, while hiding accounting irregularities and their large overreach in stockpiling tea.  It had also gained the right to control the collection of taxes in Bengal (roughly modern day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal). Heavy-handed actions extracting taxes in Bengal drove many locals into poverty, leading to the deaths of up to 80 thousand Bengali as famine set in and food prices rose. This all led the Company almost to the point of bankruptcy, at which time the partners threw themselves at the mercy of Parliament.

Unwinding the East India Crisis and setting the governing of Bengal on more sound footing (meaning under Parliamentary control rather than that of the Company) took time, energy and political maneuvering. So much so that affairs in the American colonies went unremarked in Parliament for months at a time. Out of the maneuvering came a poorly conceived plan to dump excess tea inventory on the American colonies and thus force the colonists to pay the despised tax on tea - which led to the Boston Tea Party.

So, when Parliament's focus finally shifted to America it was almost too late. Early inaction, compounded by the slow flow of information, and lax communication from the governors of the American colonies, left Parliament reacting to perception as much as reality. Harsh measures taken in Parliament led to escalating measures from the Americans, leading finally to war.

Bunker has penned an interesting story and I enjoyed reading it. I especially appreciated the point Bunker makes that Britain had no overarching policy or plan for its American colonies. As far as Britain was concerned the colonies were there to support trade with Britain and to pay taxes. Beyond that there was little interest in Parliament in the affairs of the colonies, nor any strategic thought given to them. 

Four Stars for ⭐⭐⭐⭐ An Empire on the Edge.

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