British Empire Books

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

AuthorNiall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson has written a very compelling and interesting book charting the entire rise and fall of The British Empire. It was originally written as a book to accompany a British TV series and the format of this series is somewhat replicated in the book - although it doesn't suffer from this confinement in the slightest.

He has a very interesting, and somewhat sympathetic, thesis for why Britain developed, held and then finally lost the largest empire the world has ever known. Interestingly, he puts it into phases and makes it clear that the dynamics did indeed change over time. I think he summed his thesis up nicely when he listed the prime instigators for the empire as being: Pirates, Planters, Missionaries, Mandarins, Bankers and Bankrupts. If you throw in the globalisation of technology, capital and commodity markets and have them all underpinned by a Protestant outlook on the world and you have a reasonably succinct summary of where Niall Ferguson is going with his book.

He does manage to fill it with some fascinating vignettes and writes in a very easy to read manner. I found it fascinating when he described the Boston Tea Party as being nothing more than a bunch of smugglers trying to hold on to their perquisites. Or the fact that in percentage terms, more slave-ship crew died than the slaves on the voyages - something which seems abhorrent but West Africa was called the White Man's Grave for a reason. He very nicely describes the tensions between the British Government back in London and the settlers on the frontier who very often wished to sacrifice the rights of indigenous peoples in order to grab their land or minerals. The British government could and did restrain the actions of its subjects, but distance and technology often meant that it was impotent to stop some of the worst excesses.

You do get the feeling that Niall Ferguson does cut corners or leaves out awkward facts in order to maintain his narrative and thesis. For example, his section on the use of privateers during the reign of Elizabeth. This certainly led to them being labelled as pirates by the Spanish but he conveniently ignores the Papal Bull of 1569 that compelled Catholics to try and kill Elizabeth. It may have appeared unseemly but Elizabeth really was fighting for her life and throne in a deeply hostile Europe. England was not the yet the almighty ruler of the waves that it would later become. Conversely, he claims that the English under Catholic Mary wanted to stop 'Catholic' Spain? Henry and Elizabeth possibly - but Mary? Or perhaps when he described the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 in purely moralistic terms - which undoubtedly was the motivation for some of the campaigners - but he ignores the fact that it was made at the height of the Napoleonic Wars and was of immense strategic value to the Royal Navy to be able to board and search ships under the pretence of looking for slaves. There are many other examples of facts conveniently shoe-horned into his, admittedly compelling, view of the spread and development of The British Empire.

Do not let the negatives dissuade you from reading this book. It is a fine overview and provides plenty of food for thought. It is very apologetic and sympathetic but it does not ignore the worst excesses and downsides of the empire. It also has an interesting conclusion that plays on Kipling's call to the United States to pick up the 'white man's burden'. It is perhaps interesting that Niall Ferguson is now teaching in the US at Harvard - a move that imperial illuminaries like Kipling, Rhodes and Milner would have approved of whole heartedly.

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