When the British Empire reached its peak, it was already falling apart

Building the future: workers constructing the Tempe Railway line, Sydney, 1923
Building the future: workers constructing the Tempe Railway line, Sydney, 1923 - Getty Images

On May 5 1900, Albert Ellis, acting on behalf of the British Empire, made a deal with the inhabitants of the Pacific atoll known then as Ocean Island. In exchange for an annual payment of £50 in trade goods from a company store, the Empire purchased exclusive mining and trading rights for the next 999 years. The people of Ocean Island were used to hardship. Before the British arrived, devastating drought and an unstable food supply saw the population repeatedly halved. At its peak just over a thousand people eked out an existence there, trading only with passing whalers. The arrival of great cargo ships must have been met with confusion and awe.

The islanders had no way of knowing that their home – like its nearest neighbour, Nauru – held in its soil some of the richest deposits of phosphate ever discovered. This phosphate, if processed properly, became a fertiliser that the Empire believed might turn the arid ranges of Australia into profitable farmland. As Sir James Mitchell, then Premier of Western Australia, said: “Gold brought these men to Western Australia, and superphosphate will keep them here.” Over the next half a century, so much of the soil that made up Ocean Island would be shipped over the horizon, leaving only a “blistering, sterile wasteland” of blanched coral, that its modern name Banaba translates to “hollow land”.

The tale of Ocean Island makes an excellent opening for One Fine Day, Matthew Parker’s extraordinary account of the British Empire at its zenith. Parker shows us how a rotating cast of officials grappled with basic questions of social and ecological responsibility, all of which were subsumed as the tiny territory became a “key cog in an international system of unquestioned benefit to the wider empire”. But this is only the beginning of a tale which takes us on a globe-spanning tour of the empire, travelling “from east to west with the rising sun”.

The book claims to deal specifically with September 29 1923, the date on which the Palestine Mandate became law and the Empire reached its maximum territorial extent, but this is little more than a conceptual hook. In practice what Parker offers is a series of fascinating potted histories that come together to explore a series of late-imperial themes: agriculture; health and hygiene; education; culture and sport; white supremacy and nationalism. Parker’s case is that, even in its moment of greatest triumph, the Empire was a complex and chaotic organism, one which was already showing worrying signs of ill health.

Daily life: Burmese girls making cheroots in 1923 in Rangoon. Burma remained part of the British Empire until 1948
Daily life: Burmese girls making cheroots in 1923 in Rangoon. Burma remained part of the British Empire until 1948 - Bettmann

While the current fashion is for micro-history that examines a particular group’s relationship to the Empire, there’s much to be said for the kind of top-down vision that this book provides. For the colonisers, this is often deeply unflattering – no attempt is made to shy away from the white supremacism at the core of the Empire’s mythology – but it also turns up glimpses of humanist benevolence and grand ambition. It is a book for serious people who can handle difficult moral contradictions, and will undoubtedly annoy zealots of all stripes.

One of the clearest examples of this ambiguity is Parker’s study of Hubert Murray, the Governor of Papua, who argued in favour of “preserving” local culture. Murray believed that imposing an industrial economy on a tribal people would lead to the “gradual extinction of the native itself” as, deprived of traditions, they lost the will to live. This didn’t stop him from instituting a police force and health system, or from forcefully stamping out head-hunting and cannibalism. What emerges is a debate, versions of which survive today, about “trusteeship” and its relationship to that “elusive goal of imperial unity”.

Elusive indeed. Murray’s view of the empire, as an immutable fact of life, was not shared by all of its citizens – particularly those who experienced its more brutal manifestations. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru appear early in the book to show the seeds of self-governance in India and, in the second half, we learn about a generation of African nationalists like Herbert Macaulay, Joseph Casely Hayford and Kobina Sekyi. While his argument builds itself around important historical figures, Parker’s great strength lies in how he weaves in ephemeral material from less-known individuals: newspaper articles, diary scraps, letters. The result is alchemical, combining different lives into a clear and confident narrative of creaking grandeur and new social visions.

When we travel through Burma, the narrative pivots around the police cadet George Orwell, who arrived in 1922 at only 19 years old. It’s characteristically interesting, but its consistent return to the testimony of the author (who saw imperialism as “very largely a racket”) lacks the variety of deep perspectives that makes other chapters excellent. This raises the book’s major shortcoming. The back end, where the notes and bibliography should properly be, instead directs me to Parker’s website. I can’t imagine why they were deemed unworthy of printing – especially when you see how robust Parker’s research actually is – but that bizarre decision is the only real failing of an otherwise superb work.

One Fine Day: Britain’s Empire on the Brink is published by Abacus at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books