Alan Burns came from one of those families where the children all seem to have been remarkable (in personality or intellect), consequential, and ideologically irreconcilable. The Last Imperialist by Bruce Gilley might have been a nuanced study of one such family (like those captivating Mitford biographies—I think there have been almost a dozen so far). Or it could have been about the devout Roman Catholic and Anglo West Indian, from birth an establishment outsider, who made it his life mission to defend the very establishment that had rejected him. Instead, Gilley chose to write an improbable apologia of the British Empire, and while he does fold some biography into the polemic, he’s so entirely united with Burns in admiration for colonialism that the book devolves into pure encomium somewhere around page three.
The world Gilley describes is like the mirror universe of a Graham Greene novel: Greene’s minor characters—all those venal, colonial mandarins—are transformed by Gilley into heroes, which I imagine explains the presence of the word “epic” in the book’s subtitle; I can think of no reason other than sloppy diction to explain it, for the book is far from epic.
Gilley’s scoop was obtaining exclusive access to a cache of Burns’s personal papers, which the notes mysteriously identify as residing in a “private collection.” A clue in the final chapter suggests that this elusive private collection belongs to Burns’s grandson (and namesake). Wherever Gilley found the papers, they don’t include much new information, or if they do then it is not produced here for our consideration; Gilley instead bases his account chiefly on published sources and well-known record series at the National Archives (UK). Gilley’s evidence, therefore, is not exactly new, and his synthesis probably is not either. The book is unlikely to shift the historiography of colonization and decolonization.
Gilley would have been well served by a more demanding editor. I’m thinking of my high school English teacher, who never spared the punishing red ink, and who undoubtedly would have stopped him from rehearsing the same glib argument in every single chapter, and who would have expunged the rather smug tone. I’m not just nit-picking here: these rhetorical flaws, tiresome in effect, only serve to heighten one’s sense that the book is not nearly as thrilling as the terrific controversy surrounding its publication. Gilley whipped up much of this controversy himself, trying to make his manuscript’s tale of multiple rejections into a cause célèbre of cancel culture mob martyrdom. It’s not, however, difficult to see why multiple publishers would decline the manuscript, nor is it difficult to see why, after Gilley successfully kindled the controversy “to maximum heat / like acetylene,” some publisher would decide there might be some money in it after all.