Book Review: Empire by Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson: Counterfactual historian

By Babak Moussavi

Niall Ferguson has been described as “the most brilliant British historian of his generation”, but has also attracted the label of “revisionist”. Both tags might have resulted largely from the reception of his book, Empire, which seeks to reconsider the notion that the British Empire was something Britain should be ashamed of. Mr Ferguson’s writing ability renders it an excellent read, but it draws some iconoclastic conclusions.

The book is an admirable addition to the genre of popular, yet thought-provoking history. It is divided thematically into six main chapters, which respectively focus on “pirates, planters, missionaries, mandarins, bankers and bankrupts.” Apparently, these are the categories through which the British Empire can be best assessed and described. As well as this, it follows a generally chronological form.

The book begins with the piracy of British sailors such as Sir Walter Raleigh in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, and the need to catch up with the Iberian powers who were quicker off the mark in establishing their colonies (and, therefore, plundering the gold), thereby emphasising the importance of commerce as a driver of empire-building. The Portuguese and Spanish got to South American treasure first; the British were therefore inclined to steal it.

Of course, as we now know, the amount of treasure crudely plundered from the colonies was not the determinant of success. The book goes on to explain the importance of labour markets (meaning, slavery and its export from Africa) and the limits of individual liberty, as well as the crucial role of mass migration. All these factors are exemplified by the story of the Puritans, or ‘Pilgrims’, who travelled to America seeking religious freedom, yet realised the need for their colony to be economically successful in order to survive. The lack of resources, meant they had to think hard, and long-term about turning their acquired land into prosperous plantations. Furthermore, Ferguson argues that the British realised that the idea of ‘responsible government’ for each colony, as recommended by the Durham Report of 1839, was crucial in keeping the Empire together, and that had the American rebels been offered this in the 1770s, there may not have been a War of Independence. One detects a hint of regret in Ferguson’s writing that the Americans had not been offered this variant of Home Rule.

The role of missionaries, and ‘Victorian NGOs’ are then examined (including the story of the legendary explorer, David Livingstone), and how their strong desire to Anglicise (and, as they saw it, ‘modernise’) the colonies both expanded British influence, but also often provoked the ire of the indigenous populations, as shown by the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Beyond the Empire’s missionaries and explorers though, was a professional bureaucracy that is given a long appraisal by Ferguson. Indeed, it is quite a wonder that such a tiny Civil Service could govern such huge swathes of the world for so long. As expected though, its aloof nature contributed to its occasional lack of responsiveness, exemplified by the Bengal famine of 1770. Importantly, the topic brings out the problem of race in the empire, with white British colonists developing the feeling of superiority over the indigenous populations, leading to inherent problems in their ability to oversee ‘responsible government’ over the colonies, particularly India.

The Empire may have been efficiently governed internally – even if its actions did not always correlate with the needs of those who were governed – but it could not rely on this feature alone for its maintenance or existence. Hard power was a cornerstone of all empires. The British reliance on the hard power of military force is not ignored by Ferguson. But nor is it criticised from the more common angle of its being an instrument of repression.

Inspired by a series of decisive victories, such as at Omdurman, Sudan in 1898, with the help of advanced technology (notably the Maxim “machine” gun), Ferguson claims the British Empire began to feel a sense of hubris that always precedes a fall. This was an age of economic globalisation (Ferguson highlights the role played by the Rothschild family in the Empire’s activities) and military industrialisation that ultimately led to an arms race with rival powers, such as the rising German Empire under Bismarck.

These rivalries culminated in the First World War, which Ferguson asserts was truly global, both in terms of location of the action (the first British shots were in 1914 at a German wireless station in Togoland) and in terms of the populations involved. The Second World War, too, he argues was a global clash of imperial aspirations, with the “evil” Germans and Japanese presenting much worse alternatives to the status quo, but the price of British victory being the bankruptcy and liquidation of its Empire. At least Ferguson admits this was a price worth paying, even if he is more equivocal about the merits of British involvement in the first conflict.

In material terms, Ferguson concludes that, on balance, the British Empire’s benefits outweighed its costs. It allowed for the development of capitalism and global markets, and the embedding of parliamentary institutions and the rule of law (he claims India has a lot more to be grateful for than it would currently care to admit). He reveals the paradox that the benefits conferred by free trade can only come about if free trade is enforced, as was largely the case during the Empire (this at least concedes that there are inherently political limits to this arbitrary, economic conception of freedom). Yet he also shows that economic investment in developing countries was proportionally much higher during the time of the Empire, because of its ‘good governance’ guarantee.

Clearly such views would be quick to earn the label ‘revisionist’. Fortunately, Ferguson does not simply gloss over the Empire’s faults, although he is often inclined to offer qualifications. He admits the initial complicity in slavery, but shows how its powerful position allowed it to severely restrict the slave trade when it came to disapprove of it, in a first instance of global humanitarian intervention. He also points out how the British used concentration camps during the Boer War, to intern Boer families. In these camps, nearly 28,000 Boers, or 14.5% of their population, died, but Ferguson argues this was not “deliberately genocidal” but mainly a result of poor sanitation, malnourishment and incompetence on the part of the authorities. And, as was briefly mentioned above, he concedes the damaging influence felt by many colonists of racial superiority, which regularly led to terrible treatment of indigenous populations (notably the Aborigines in Australia), but contends, in his classic counterfactual gambit, that other empires (in particular the Belgians in the Congo) were far more brutal, and would have been worse than the British in the same situation.

Weighing up costs and benefits here is difficult, especially for an Empire that spanned roughly 400 years. But as a proponent of counterfactual history – considering what might have been had things turned out differently – Ferguson seems to be unapologetically pleased that, despite its faults, it was the British Empire that ruled so much of the world, rather than another. The Iberians, he argues, plundered their colonies, as in Mexico and Peru, whereas the British settled, built institutions and traded. The Belgians too – or perhaps, especially – had a terribly destructive record, which the failing state of the Congo is still experiencing. He claims that French civil-law countries have much weaker legal protections for investors than followers of British common-law. And he is unequivocal in claiming that the fascist leaderships in Germany and Japan in the 1930s and 40s rendered their empires simply evil in comparison, given their fierce belief in their racial superiority and systematic abuse of invaded populations.

Ferguson’s deployment of the counterfactual argument scores him easy points. But many will not be convinced. For many, the apparent material benefits conferred by imperialism are worth nothing when the price is self-determination. And usually, the price is much worse.

Empire is a book that challenges conventional wisdom. It is also a fun read. But above all, it is a book that should be taken with a pinch of salt.


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