Best book I’ve read this year: Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress, by James Morris. Has any book ever come with a less gripping title or a more unappealing cover? But it turns out what say is true, at least in this case. It’s fantastic.
This the first in Morris’s three-volume history of British imperialism, and no matter how much you thought you knew about the Sepoy Mutiny or the British Army’s horrifying retreat from Kabul in the winter of ’42, or the Jamaican rebellion of 1869, you’ll learn something interesting you didn’t know. I read the chapter on the Irish potato famine on a bumpy flight to Oregon and found it so ghoulishly compelling, I didn’t want to land. Morris spent years as a journalist and travel writer (before becoming in later life one of the world’s most famous transsexuals, changing his name to Jan), and has the rare ability to combine an historian’s rigor with a newspaperman’s eye for spine-tingling detail.
Maybe most interesting of all is his treatment of his central subject, the British. Morris is no imperialist, but neither is he a modern academic, abruptly dismissive of 19th century assumptions and customs (the book was written in the early 1970s). If you’ve ever wondered why former British colonies tend to be more placid and successful than countries once ruled by, say, Belgium or Spain, Morris’s account hints at the answer: The British weren’t all bad. Yes, they were often arrogant and self-righteous. But not always. In addition to building roads and railroads, ending widow burning and slavery, the British – and particularly their voting public back home – were often surprisingly sympathetic to the nationalistic yearnings of the people they governed. They didn’t consider them animals, or not all of them anyway. Pretty interesting. I don’t remember learning that in school.
Tucker Carlson is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.