In the middle of the 18th century Great Britain was a small rural community of some seven million inhabitants tentatively groping its way towards a wider prosperity by scattering the globe with a largely uncoordinated chain of trading stations. A hundred years later, and it was the centre of the largest, richest and most powerful empire the world had ever known. A hundred years again and the pageant has faded, there remains the shadowy Commonwealth, meaning all things to all men and little to most. At its zenith it seemed that the Empire could never perish, today it seems almost impossible that it ever existed. This book is a miracle of effortless compression so that the reader is absorbed by the vivid story, delighted by the wit and telling detail, and barely conscious of the scholarship and historical sense which underpins the narrative. It is hard to believe that one will ever read a better one-volume history of the rise and fall of the British Empire.