Amazon Book Description1
- Once vast swathes of the globe were coloured imperial red and Britannia ruled not just the waves, but the prairies of America, the plains of Asia, the jungles of Africa and the deserts of Arabia. Just how did a small, rainy island in the North Atlantic achieve all this? And why did the empire on which the sun literally never set finally decline and fall?
- Niall Ferguson's acclaimed Empire brilliantly unfolds the imperial story in all its splendours and its miseries, showing how a gang of buccaneers and gold-diggers planted the seed of the biggest empire in all history - and set the world on the road to modernity.
- 'The most brilliant British historian of his generation ... Ferguson examines the roles of "pirates, planters, missionaries, mandarins, bankers and bankrupts" in the creation of history's largest empire ... he writes with splendid panache ... and a seemingly effortless, debonair wit'
→ Andrew Roberts
- 'Dazzling ... wonderfully readable'
→ New York Review of Books
- 'A remarkably readable précis of the whole British imperial story - triumphs, deceits, decencies, kindnesses, cruelties and all'
→ Jan Morris
- 'Empire is a pleasure to read and brims with insights and intelligence'
→ Sunday Times
Introduction – xi
- Why Britain? – i
- White Plague – 53
- The Mission – 113
- Heaven’s Breed – 163
- Maxim Force – 221
- Empire For Sale – 2-94
Conclusion – 365
Acknowledgements – 383
Illustration Acknowledgements – 385
Bibliography – 389
Index – 406
- A friend sent me a link to a YouTube video (George Monbiot - The Dark Side of British History) put out by George Monbiot (Wikipedia: George Monbiot and George Monbiot: Personal Website) that strongly suggested that the British Empire was an unmitigated disaster for the subject peoples, and that the British record made the Third Reich look virtuous (he didn't actually say this, but some commentators did).
- This is such a polarizing subject, that I though it about time that I learnt something about the Empire. As the video says, they didn’t teach us about all that wickedness at school. But they didn’t teach us anything about the Empire at school, as it had gone out of fashion in the 1960s-70s.
- So, I decided to buy – and hopefully read – a representative sample of books either supporting or repudiating the Empire to hopefully get a balanced view:-
→ "Lawrence (James) - Rise And Fall Of The British Empire"
→ "Brendon (Piers) - The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire"
→ "Paxman (Jeremy) - Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British"
→ "Ferguson (Niall) - Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World"
- Having now read this book – but not yet the others – I feel like I ought to have something to say, and indeed I do, but think I should be brief until I’ve read the other books on the list, especially as I’m still educating myself on the subject.
- Any comments fall into two categories:-
→ Comments on the British Empire itself, and
→ Comments on Niall Ferguson’s account of the Empire.
- Dealing with the second aspect first, I think Ferguson’s account is reasonably balanced and informative. It is clearly a positive one, and selective, but it does treat of some of the more disquieting aspects as well as more positive achievements. I think the book is too short to cover everything adequately. The conclusion, with its hope that the US will pick up the baton is too political for my liking.
- As for the Empire itself:-
- It’s important to view it in a broad sweep and not as though it was always run by Victorians in pith helmets. Britain – and Western civilization generally – was itself developing during that period. It’s almost impossible to keep putting ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists (Elizabethans, Stuarts, Hanoverians, Georgians as well as Victorians and the 20th century) without judging them as though they were a contemporary government.
- Britain was under existential threat during much of the period, and colonialism has to be understood as rivalry between the colonial powers. There was no option of there not being colonialism – indeed the Spanish, Portuguese, Ottomans already had their empires before Britain got involved.
- Some Amazon reviewers complain that the obvious retort – that had Britain not had an empire, the space would have been occupied by worse empires – is no excuse for whatever ills came of the British Empire. Well, in a sense this is so – Britain was accountable for its atrocities and incompetence when committed. But in totting up whether the British Empire was or was not beneficial, its impact has to be compared to the likely alternatives.
- Some negative reviewers sneer at the argument that – had there been no British Empire – the war against Germany and Japan would have been lost. But this is surely a truth, though what the world situation would have been like in the absence of a British Empire is hard to determine. What is clear is that the world would be worse off with Europe, Russia, Africa and the Middle East under Nazi rule; and China, India and the whole Far East under military Japan.
- It is right to view Britain’s attitude to slavery as a game of two halves. While Britain didn’t start this particular dreadful game – which was well under way under the Spanish, Portuguese (and the Ottomans), as well as being a normal state of affairs in the non-European Kingdoms and Empires, before Britain got involved, Britain was a major player in the Atlantic trade before the abolition movements started up in the late 18th century. However, I think the greatest impact of slavery on Britain’s wealth was the sourcing of cotton from the US Confederate States after slavery in the British Empire had been abolished. I say this on the basis that most of the sugar from the West Indies was for home consumption, but I may be mistaken. Also, buying, transporting and selling slaves to other parties would have been hugely profitable. I need to read "Black (Jeremy) - A Brief History of Slavery", and other books2.
- Britain’s “divide and rule” approach also comes under criticism, amongst reviewers of the book, but it shows that the states Britain ruled wouldn’t have been at peace but warring with one another. It’s a standard technique of Empire going back to the Romans and before.
- That said, “the British” seem in general to have had a less clear idea of what their Empire was for than did the Romans. No doubt it was exploitative, but it started off – and continued – with the intention of free trade rather than Empire as such; the Empire sort of grew in order to protect the trade. The Romans, despite the spin-off benefits of their empire, were explicitly exploitative. I agree that the British Empire wasn’t set up as a charitable enterprise for the benefit of those ruled. But, as is alluded to in the blurbs, how could a rain-drenched little island achieve anything without a bit of exploitation? It’s a competitive world; people with no cash can’t be charitable, but they can once they’ve accumulated their pile.
- There are some very unpleasant episodes and examples of incompetent government. I find the mismanagement of the Irish Potato famine and the Boor War particularly disquieting, as was the use of the Maxim gun against technologically-inferior armies in “revenge” situations. Comments on India will await a reading of "Tharoor (Shashi) - Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India". No doubt there are many other abominations I should be troubled by.
- That’s it for now.
In-Page Footnotes ("Ferguson (Niall) - Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World")
- Substantially the Back Cover blurb.
- I’m reading "Olusoga (David) - Black and British: A Forgotten History", which has a lot on the Atlantic slave trade, but while it points out that Plantation owners and slavers - and their associated ports and support industries – became very wealthy, I don’t yet see how this benefited the national economy if – say – it was only British people who paid for the sugar in their tea or the tobacco in their pipes.
- It was a different matter with finished cloth – made from slave-produced cotton – that was exported as well as being for home consumption.
Penguin; 1st edition (7 Jun. 2018)
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)