The British Empire was the largest in all history, its reach the nearest thing to world domination ever achieved. By the eve of the Second World War, over a fifth of the world's land surface and nearly a quarter of the world's population were under some form of British rule. Yet for today's generation, the British Empire has come to stand for nothing more than a lost Victorian past--one so remote that it has ceased even to be a target for satire. The time is ripe for a reappraisal.
In this major new work of synthesis and revision, Niall Ferguson argues that the British Empire should be regarded not merely as vanished Victoriana but as the very cradle of modernity. Nearly all the key features of the twenty-first-century world can be traced back to the extraordinary expansion of Britain's economy, population, and culture from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth--economic globalization, the communications revolution, the racial make-up of North America, the notion of humanitarianism, the nature of democracy. Displaying the originality and rigor that have made him the brightest light among British historians, Ferguson shows that far from being a subject for nostalgia, the story of the Empire is pregnant with lessons for the world today--in particular for the United States as it stands on the brink of a new kind of imperial power based once again on economic and military supremacy....Continua
I enjoyed reading this book. The overview of the British Empire in a digestible volume of pages was very welcome for a non-professional historian like myself. That said, I think it deserves neither the "must read" nor the "appalling" labels some have given it. The depiction of the good and the bad of empire was treated reasonably fairly even if not in depth (350 pages to cover 400 years of empire--what do you expect?). The issues I had with it was the internal contradiction of one of it's main conclusions; that the empire's fall was a result of financial stress caused by fighting WW's 1 and 2.
While I'm no historical scholar, Ferguson's own words suggest a more compelling arguement (and one we in the US have been able to relate to for the past 35 years). At one point Ferguson argues that the British were more successful than past would-be empires because they learned to thrive on opportunistic partnerships and credit. With this background, a pure economic floundering seems unrealistic. Even if the conditions existed as described, it doesn't seem to be an insurmountable hurdle to continued empire.
A more palatable conclusion to the end of the empire might be a simple lack of will--ethical, moral, and political--to maintain the human burden of empire. Ferguson seems to finger the Boer War as concurrent rise of self-doubt in the "white man's burden" and warfare media coverage.
What's left completely unsaid, is that the politicians did not appear to adapt their brutal pursuit of empire to the rising anti-imperialism among the increasingly better-educated masses on the home front. Had the economic burden of the WWs been "managed", would the British voting public have even permitted empire using 19th-century (and earlier) methods? Ferguson doesn't deal with this, but his own words imply the answer is 'no'. Did increasing press coverage of imperial tactics leave the politicians backing away from maintaining their empire using the methods they knew?
This raises doubts on Ferguson's lessons for America. I'd argue that America's de facto empire has grown up with the media speculation, and has taken empire down a new road more successful for the world we live in today. Ferguson's suggestion is to be more prescriptive in empire building (revisiting 19th century tactics?). History will show whether GW Bush's militarily active imperial activities produce better results than his Presidential predecessors' economic ties that bind.
Finally, what prompted me to write today, was an op-ed in the NYTimes... "Take the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, which was so brutal that there's no need to exaggerate it. One appalled witness in the thick of the killing, John Rabe, put the death toll at 50,000 to 60,000...Yet China proclaims, based on accounts that stand little scrutiny, that 300,000 or more were killed. Such hyperbole abuses history as much as the denial by Japanese rightists that there was any Rape of Nanjing at all."
Ironically, Ferguson uses the 300,000 figure in his account of Japanese activity in Nanking. I don't know yet what this does to my opinion of some of Ferguson's other historical facts....Continua