Imperial Tradition

Book cover
Empireby By Niall FergusonBasic Books. 352 p $35

Empire looks like a coffee-table book. Handsomely produced on slick paper, replete with copious illustrations and maps, it was originally published as a companion volume to a BBC television series. One would expect its contents to be bland, reflective of conventional wisdom. One would be fooled, however. Its author is the brilliant, iconoclastic Niall Ferguson, the enfant terrible of modern British historians. In beautifully written prose he challenges many sacred cows, going so far as to express the politically incorrect opinion that on balance the British empire was a good thing and must somehow be replaced by an American empire.

Ferguson’s announced intention is not to replicate past histories but to write the history of globalization as it was promoted by Great Britain and her colonies. The question, he contends, is not whether British imperialism was without a blemish. It was not. The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity. His first chapter, Why Britain? stresses that England beat out its major imperial rival, France, because its naval superiority was based on its crucial ability to borrow money. In White Plague he says that migration overseas was a basic element, with England’s first colony, Ireland, as a laboratory. Not only economics motivated migration, religious fundamentalism played a great role; and slavery provided a major source of unwilling immigrants. The author argues that the American revolutionaries had little cause to complainin the 1770’s New Englanders were possibly the wealthiest people in the worldand he wryly notes that the revolution caused slavery to remain in existence much longer than would have been the case had Britain won. With the American colonies lost, Australia became the place where surplus population, originally largely criminals, could be sent, and here as elsewhere, unlike the situation in other empires, the central government acted as a check on local oppression. The Durham Report of 1832, which laid the basis for self-government in Canada, has good claim to be the book that saved the Empire, for what it did was acknowledge that the American colonies had been right. From it evolved responsible government, a way of reconciling the practice of empire with the principle of liberty.

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In his chapters The Mission and Heaven’s Breed, Ferguson underlines the extent to which the Victoriansbelieving they knew better than othersmade the spread of Protestant Christianity a major motivation for imperial conquest. Religious fervor was behind the abolition of the slave system in the early 19th century and the British navy’s attempt to suppress the slave trade on the high seas.

But the missionaries were cultural imperialists, and only the deadly Indian mutiny of 1857 convinced the British that there were limits to their ability to impose their values on other civilizations. Indeed, the role of India in the empire is a key theme of this book; it was the foundation on which the entire mid-Victorian Empire stood, and the white mutiny of 1888 against attempts to improve the status of educated Indians in the government sparked the beginnings of organized Indian nationalism.

In Maxim Force Ferguson shows how superior military technology played a major role in the growth of the empire, especially in Africa, where the Scramble for Africa was a function of the contested European balance of power. Men like Cecil Rhodes dreamed of British rule from Cairo to the Cape, and the takeover of Egypt gave them hope. Rhodes was a racist, as were increasing numbers of his compatriots, when a vulgarized Darwinism made many believe that superior physical power meant inherent ethnic superiority. The climax of this arrogance was the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898 when the Maxim gun enabled the British to massacre thousands of dervishes while losing only 20 of their own men. The lesson was learned by rivals, and soon the Maxim gun became standard German equipment. But all was not well in Africa. In the last year of the century in Rhodes’s own South Africa, the Boer farmers fiercely resisted British incursions, and were defeated only after 28,000 peoplemostly childrendied in British concentration camps.

The nature of the victory began to shake the confidence of British intellectuals. Yet the average Briton still believed in empire. The lower classes probably lost rather than gained from it economically, but, as Ferguson puts it, imperialism did not have to pay to be popular. For many people it was sufficient that it was exciting.... As a source of entertainmentof sheer psychological gratificationthe Empire’s importance can never be exaggerated.

In Empire for Sale Ferguson is adamant that the Empire was not really destroyed by internal dissention, but by rival empires, especially the German. World War Iwhich the author contends came about mainly through the miscalculation of statesmensounded its death knell. Military victory yielded to economic weakness, and while the Empire still paid financially, Britain failed to prepare to defend it. Malaise and indecision led to the Empire’s beginning to unravel where it had begun, in Ireland, with the Easter Rebellion of 1916; and the Irish example emboldened Indian nationalism. Hitler, Ferguson notes in typically contrarian fashion, was a fervent admirer of the British Empire, and would have allowed the British to keep it in exchange for a free hand in Europe. Britain heroically refused this diabolical temptation but lost the Empire anyway. Saved in World War II by its alliance with the United States and the Soviet Union, it could not resist their postwar pressures to abandon the Empire. American war aims, Ferguson writes, ...were in many ways more overtly hostile to the British Empire than anything Hitler had said. The rival Japanese empire had shown by its atrocious treatment of prisonerson which Ferguson minces no wordshow relatively benign the British Empire was, and India had rallied to the imperial cause.

But the end was in sight. At war’s end Britain was broke financially, and therefore weak politically. The Americans forced the British out of Egypt after the 1956 Suez invasion largely through a major loan conditional on withdrawal. Indeed, Ferguson says, it was at the Bank of England that the Empire was effectively lost.

What lesson does the rise and fall of the Empire have for Americans as we seem to be setting up a new world order in the Middle East and elsewhere based on our own sense of military and moral superiority and political mission? Ferguson clearly believes that the United States today is far more economically dominant than Britain ever was and that its informal empire might soon, like Britain’s, evolve into a formal one. But there are major differences. Unlike Britain at its height, the United States is not a creditor nation but a debtor one, big time. We are not sending immigrants, but receiving them. Finally, we do not have an imperial tradition and will always be a reluctant ruler of other peoples. Yet we, like imperial Britain, have this belief in our inherent goodness and the habit of quelling disturbances on the periphery by surgical force. The only difference is that today’s gunboats fly. Ferguson is quite happy to believe that we have taken up the white man’s burden and that, as he says of our new hegemony, It is an empire, in short, that dare not speak its name. It is an empire in denial.

Whether one agrees with Ferguson or not, anyone seriously concerned with America’s rapidly changing role in the world should read this richly informative and thought-provoking book.

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