Empire: Book review

Posted on: 23/10/2009

By Michael Goode

Book: Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

Author:  Niall Ferguson

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 464

Price: Around £5 (Amazon UK)

Rating: ****

I have recently discovered a book that tries to explain the modern world, and what part Britain played in its creation. The book by Niall Ferguson looks at the British Empire and what it created, this conjures up either pride or humiliation in the empire’s legacy. But what was it? What role did it play? How did it start? How did it end? Ferguson answers all this and more, but goes further to look at whether this role was negative or positive and how it had been continued. The book is controversial, thanks to Ferguson’s sometimes blunt and dismissive opinion, but is brilliantly written and very interesting.  

Empire spans from the mid 17th century to the early 21st. However, Ferguson pays great attention to the empire’s origins and its initial intentions. Highlighting that Britain was, in his words, ‘a latecomer’, hoping to discover gold and silver mines like Spain, but later resorting to piracy. Ferguson crucially shows that there was a fundamental difference between British aspirations and organisation to those of the older empires. Thus Ferguson indicates that the beginning of empire was in the quasi-licensed (due to Catholic hostilities with Spain) robbing of the established empires. Ferguson brilliantly handles this complex (but well explored) theory. Ferguson also superbly displays just how modest Britain’s start was, relative to other powers she possessed little and her wealth still depended on the fluctuating trade of treasure fleets. Leading Ferguson onto the vital theme of ‘why Britain?’ how she managed to exploit her possessions and expand Caribbean trade through sugar, feeding the sweet tooth of Europe. He combines this with the depiction of a determined nation eager to expand and vital internal factors like the enthusiasm of so many to emigrate and set up a new life. Why other authors have laid a greater correlation to internal factors, Ferguson provides a strong argument. 

One interesting point about Empire is its perspective on the American war of independence or, in Ferguson’s words, the first ‘civil war’. He’s very critical of American grounds for independence pointing out certain paradoxes, like the remarkably low tea taxes in-place at the time of the Boston tea party (dismissing those at the party as smugglers eager to secure trade). Ferguson in comparison to other authors is very dismissive of the idea of a united effort, pointing out the significant proportion of loyalists in the colonies and the substantial role of France rather than Americas’ will. Indeed, he points out that over 100,000 Americans emigrated after the war declaring loyalty to the Monarch. I find this dubious, as losers of such a divisive and passionate war would probably be under pressure to leave. Nonetheless, this is a controversial view and although Ferguson supports the vision that the British were unresponsive to American demands, he illuminates the fact that there was such uncompromising division.  

Ferguson then gallops from one part of the empire to the next, looking at how the empire became more moral, how it aimed to civilise the world to give it values, how the rise of powerful evangelical lobbies banned slavery and how, through gunboat diplomacy, they enforced this ban on other nations such as Brazil. He accepts contradictions to this theory of Christian enlightenment such as the fact that while freeing Africans the empire was addicting the Chinese to opium, or (as many other nations suggested) banning world slavery because they did not want anyone else to gain a market they had lost. But Ferguson indicates that the positive actions Britain took outweigh the negative aspects the empire was enforcing. He frequently returns to its defence and puts the weighting of the empire’s morality in its ability to ban slavery and eagerness to help other societies. Therefore, he feels that the empire’s reputation remains overall intact and that every system has bad points. Ferguson also explains how a shift in the certainty of the empire appeared, through events like the Boer war. How the mood of the British switched from arrogance to anxiety; Ferguson describes how the period was dominated by a fixation on protecting the empire through movements like the Boy Scouts, but he compares this to how lucky Britain was in the pre-war period; having a relatively tiny burden for the empire both military and civil (running India for the most part on around 1,000 civil servants).  

Ferguson deals with the inter-war period as one of disappointment and disillusionment with empire, how Britain continually felt that something had to be done to adapt the empire and how reluctant she was to prepare for another war. What’s interesting, is how Ferguson seeks to validate the empire through its exposure to the Second World War, he justifies it through comparison to what could replace it, he describes the terror inflicted by the Japanese and German empires that threatened the British and used that alternative to show why Britain’s was such a good system. This seems unusual, to not justify the empire purely on its merits but rather on its relative advantages over other empires. Ferguson completely, and directly, dismisses the fact that these colonies could have governed themselves. This type of logic leaves potentially serious flaws, like the fact that there was no universal treatment of the colonies. This point can be extended to a wider criticism of Ferguson’s work, his un-shaking belief in the empire as a good thing; despite his addresses to the dents in its record the case finds its fundamentals in the belief that it was a positive force for utilising the liberal, small state, capitalist system. But again there’s no discrimination between the empire’s nations, certainly the growth in infrastructure was a common element of the colonies but it’s clear that some benefited or suffered more than others, and the weighting of these countries to decide a net effect is not addressed (indeed, there was practically no mention of Tasmania and very little of Ireland), this fascinating discussion merited further exploration. 

A final curious point in Empire; is its demise which Ferguson attributes to bankruptcy and not the growth of nationalism. Therefore, he argues the empire ended fighting its evil counterparts across the globe to protect its breed of freedom, not as others would argue because of the discontent the colonies felt. This depiction of the empire’s end stands in comparison to so many other works and I would have certainly enjoyed a greater explanation of Ferguson’s view. Empire, in my view, is an exceptionally good book, its easy-to-read style and clear layout, combined with its in-depth case-studies used to explain broad changes, proves to be a useful aid to understanding a momentous empire and a system that has contributed so much to our modern world, making this thought provoking book essential reading.  


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