EMPIRE: How Britain Made The Modern World
by Niall Ferguson
Allen Lane / Penguin
Available from News Weekly Books for $59.95 plus p&h
“… no organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world”.
In 1954 the British agreed to evacuate the Suez Canal military base. This was in keeping with what Prime Minister Macmillan described as “the winds of change”, the inexorable withdrawal from empire which had been proceeding ever since the end of WWII.
Winds of change notwithstanding, in 1954 the imperial hierarchy associated with the British Empire was far from dead at the base’s El Quantara railway station. The station had “ten lavatories … three for officers (one each for European, Asiatic and Coloured users), three for warrant officers and sergeants of each race, three for other ranks of each race and one for the small number of servicewomen”.
The British Empire is usually thought of as beginning with the formation of the East India Company in 1600 (despite the fact that Britain had begun colonising Ireland under Henry II during the twelfth century).
It grew rapidly in the seventeenth century, not “in a fit of absence of mind”, but driven by a raging British addiction to tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco. At its height, it comprised about one quarter of the world’s land surface and the same proportion of its population.
Its history is exciting and exotic, but also academically challenging because of its immense geographical and chronological spread. So many facts! So many characters! So much going on! And in so many places at once! Here are Walter Raleigh, the Pilgrim Fathers, Robert Clive, David Livingstone, General Gordon, Joseph Chamberlain, Baden-Powell, Lord Curzon, Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi and Winston Churchill. Here are the American War of Independence, the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War, the Dublin Easter Uprising and World War II.
Anyone seeking a straight account of the empire could do much worse than read Ferguson. He has a sure grasp of the big picture and the important themes, but is capable of simultaneously picking out odd but telling illustrative details – such as the nomenclature of imperial railway toilets! It is true that there are alternative, or at least supplementary, excellent popular histories, such as Lawrence James’s The Rise And Fall Of The British Empire, A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians, and James (latterly Jan) Morris’s beautifully written and unbearably evocative trilogy Heaven’s Command, Pax Britannica and Farewell The Trumpets. Two features of this book, however, set it apart from other general accounts of the empire.
First, Ferguson is Professor of Political and Financial History at Oxford, and writes as, but fortunately not like, an economist. In other words, he continually brings out important economic aspects of the empire not usually mentioned by other authors (did you know, for example, that in 1868 Britain was almost the only country in the world on the gold standard; that by 1908 China was almost the only country not on the gold standard; and that by 1931 Britain had dropped it for good?), but without weighing down the narrative with endless statistics and arcane terminology.
Secondly, Ferguson is out to argue that the empire was (to borrow a category from Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 And All That) a Good Thing. And at this point, notwithstanding the previous congratulatory paragraph, he does fall into what might be termed “the economic fallacy” by judging the empire largely on the basis of its economic effects – and in so doing, irresistibly calls to mind Edmund Burke’s famous stricture upon “sophisters, economists and calculators”, and their implied limited vision.
Ferguson freely admits that there are many black marks against the empire, such as the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean, the imposition of the opium trade upon China, and the forced dispossession of indigenous inhabitants in places such as Australia.
He argues that the empire nonetheless bequeathed to the world, on balance, more blessings than curses. These blessings include parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and an honest civil service. They also include economic prosperity, based on free trade.
Whatever monetary benefits Britain herself might have derived from empire, the imperial administration undoubtedly facilitated industry and commerce in her colonies through stable government and the provision of expertise and infrastructure, thus raising production and income for the areas living under her (generally) benign sway.
What this analysis fails to consider are the effects of imperial subjugation on the collective psyches of the empire’s subject peoples. Ferguson mentions Edward Said’s Orientalism in passing, but displays no interest in, or knowledge of, the emergence of post-colonialism as a major academic development of the last few decades.
Now, there is undoubtedly a trendy and tendentious flavour to post-colonial studies, with its neo-Marxist and (probably) neo-Freudian elements. A dangerous, loony element, too, when one recalls that Frantz Fanon’s therapy for raising Africans’ esteem was to kill Europeans; “self-liberation through murder”, as Paul Johnson called it. At the same time, it is not good enought to conclude that imperialism can be judged simply on the basis of economic criteria such as the provision of railways, banks and factories.
To take over and rule an entire ethnic segment of humanity, even for their own good – in fact, perhaps especially when it has obviously been for their own good – must leave huge issues for those former subjects to work through following liberation and independence. Ferguson evinces no sensitivity about these problems at all, no awareness whatsoever that a country or people might hold ambivalent feelings about having been long controlled by another nation and race.
Ferguson concludes with a rumination on the practicability and desirability of the United States taking on Britain’s former role as global hegemon. He even quotes Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” (Take up the White Man’s Burden / And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard) written in 1899 as an appeal to America to shoulder its imperial responsibilities.
Ferguson talks about history repeating itself, but omits Marx’s well-known gloss on Hegel: that history always repeats itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.
Empire was published before America’s incursion into Iraq. This review was written at a time when America was exhibiting every indication of proceeding with a handover to an Iraqi administration on June 30, come what may. No hunger for empire redux here; on the contrary, every desire to avoid a farcical imperial encore.
Whether one finds his case finally convincing or not, Ferguson’s voice is a welcome alternative to the incessant snide, shallow and silly attacks on the British Empire which are based on a panicky urge to be fashionable, rather than on serious and nuanced reflection. Perhaps all imperialism is ipso facto wrong, but at the very least it can be argued that the British version was preferable to most, as witness the behaviour of the Germans in South West Africa, or that of the Belgians in the Congo.
Empire contains a wonderful selection of illustrations, as well as graphs and maps. One of the photographs is particularly revealing. It shows the aforementioned Harold Macmillan inspecting a contingent of the King’s African Rifles at Lusaka in 1960. The soldiers are immaculately turned out in gleaming boots and knife-edge creased uniforms. The Prime Minister is wearing a suit and tie, hat and … suede shoes!
Suede shoes, on a parade ground! No wonder the empire collapsed.