Friday, March 28, 2014

Empire by Niall Ferguson.

In our postcolonial age, there is a virtual consensus that imperialism and colonialism were harmful for those conquered. Niall Ferguson has attempted an ambitious undertaking. Empire endeavors to show that aggression towards less developed nations was harmful; but tempers the story with information discussing the benefits bestowed by an advanced industrialized nation. Admittedly, these benefits pale in comparison to the abuses. But they are part of the history nonetheless and a full examination of this period requires their inclusion.

The author’s intended audience is not just fellow citizens of the UK. His introduction underlines that current US power and influence is analogous to that of 19th Century Britain. Throughout the book, US citizens can hear echoes of the past in our current dilemmas. For example, after the massacres of British civilians during the first Indian Mutiny, Charles Spurgeon emphatically sermonizes “My friends, what crimes have they committed?” (Ferguson, p. 126). One cannot read this without remembering so many US Citizens exclaiming “Why do they hate us?” after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Nineteenth Century British subjects were no more knowledgeable concerning the brutal imperialism of their nation than US citizens are today.

This historian exhibits a number of episodes where brutality was perpetrated upon the empire’s victims. However, he also shows bright glints of humanity within the dark clouds of imperialism rolling across conquered lands. This is mostly accomplished in two chief ways. First is the presentation of humane individuals: From Livingstone’s attempt to provide medical care among the Empire’s victims, to Macaulay’s crusade against the slave trade, to Durham’s fair parliamentary report which resulted in Canadian self-rule, Ferguson tells numerous stories of personal compassion and integrity. Unfortunately, this tact strikes one as a bit weak. These were, after all, individual acts of kindness occurring alongside the empire-wide business of exploitation. Setting these examples next to the Empires destructive legacy, says “Yes, the Empire pillaged many civilizations, but here’s a nice guy who felt bad about it.”

The second way Ferguson exhibits the Empire’s brighter side is by revealing the gifts showered upon underdeveloped nations by an advanced and enlightened civilization. The British introduced efficient bureaucracy, industrial technology, advanced medicine, scientific method and improved infrastructure. Unfortunately, these qualities are never put into perspective against the much larger story of slavery, racism, domination, exploitation and military slaughter. Additionally, a common person living within a domain of the Empire rarely benefited from these gifts.

It would be an unjust oversimplification to label Empire  a conservative glance at the glory days of Great Britain. Ferguson is much too complex and perceptive in his approach to his subject. Rather, he focuses more upon the evolution and management of Britain’s empire and less (without ignoring) on the negative impact of conquest. A postcolonial historian from Africa might not take such an approach to a book on the British Empire. Some current historians from conquering nations exhibit greater skill in examining their country’s imperialist destruction. Compare Ferguson’s approach to James Bradley’s in The Imperial Cruise: Bradley, who is also from an imperialist nation, begins by describing Theodore Roosevelt’s Aryan philosophy, then applies this racist perspective to the damaging actions taken during his presidency.

Empire’s “Conclusion” is a bewildering departure from the rest of the book. Here, Ferguson abandons the restrained historical analysis that had thus far served the reader. In its place is a breathtakingly obtuse, Western-centric set of political pronouncements: 1) The Empire served its unwilling subjects by giving them consistent government. 2) We need an empire to police rogue states and terrorists. 3) The attack of “9/11” might not have occurred if there had been an empire. 4) The US should accept the mantle of empire. In brief counterpoint: 1) The unwilling subjects chose to trade servitude under a consistent  government for self-determination. 2) Policing rogue states and terrorists is now more difficult since they employ fourth-generation warfare. They don’t meet armies head-on; they attack clandestinely. 3) The “9/11” attacks were a direct result of imperialism. The terrorists were middle-class Saudis who resented the imposition of western culture and economic influence. These Saudis attracted the poor and angry from former British and French protectorates who also resented the West. 4) Regarding Ferguson’s attempt to coronate the next World Emperor, US citizens of all political stripes, (for reasons ranging from morality to money) respectfully decline.

Empire is valuable for its examination of the workings and evolution of this 19th Century behemoth. It is a finely written, well-researched, exciting story. Ferguson has an excellent eye for illustrative vignettes and humor. Describing Lord Kitchener’s marksmanship, the author mentions that the aristocrat had named his three hunting dogs “Bang, Miss and Damn” (Ferguson, p. 224). More attention to the subjugated would have created a better balance. But this book has a great deal to recommend it.

Ferguson, Niall. Empire. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

For reviews on more books concerning British History, see:
which is a politically progressive history of London.
which is a classic set of biographies on British Victorians.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Houses of History by Anna Green and Kathleen Troupe.

The Houses of History is an epistemological examination of the 12 major theoretical perspectives that have informed historical study over the last century. The twelve schools are: Empiricism, Marxism, Psychohistory, Annales, Historical Sociology, Quantitative History, Anthropological/Ethnohistory, Narrative History, Oral History, Feminist/Gender History, Postcolonial and Poststructuralist.

Each of the twelve gets a two-part chapter. Part One is composed of a thorough explanation that is as immensely informative and desert dry as one would expect. Part Two presents a writing sample or chapter by an exemplary proponent of the school discussed.

The authors are both college professors in New Zealand. Indeed, this book is from an introductory History and Theory course they co-teach at the University of Waikato. As a result, Professors Green and Troup are used to explaining the intricacies of historical theory to undergraduates. Neither writer is forceful in putting-forth a favorite theory, or damning a foolish notion. However in the Part One descriptions of their chapters, the authors will present conflicting views between and within the schools. This presentation permits the reader to draw her own conclusions regarding the effectiveness of varying perspectives.

In their presentation, the professors sometimes fail to illustrate newly introduced terms and ideas with examples. For example, when they discuss how, in the 1940s “A.R. Radcliffe-Brown combined functionalism with a structural perspective,” a morsel of his writing, illustrating what this looked like would have been useful (Green & Troupe, p. 173). This is less a problem in a classroom using the text, where a student can raise her hand and ask for an example or a fuller explanation. But a little too much abstraction is perhaps a forgivable occupational hazard with theorists.

Another area of concern is some anti-intellectual, political correctness in the work. New Zealand, like the US, has a tragic history of genocide and oppression towards pre-colonial native populations. As a result, there is a tendency in academia to bend-over backward, showing how open-minded we are regarding native views, even at the expense of accuracy. In the “Postcolonial Perspectives” chapter, the Part Two writing sample chosen is mythical, racist and lacking citation or confirmation. Henrietta Whiteman, discussing her great-grandmother White Buffalo Woman, is comparable to promoting The Bible as history. Religious beliefs, for example “Cheyennes keep this earth alive through their ceremonies” are presented with reverence and without examination (Green & Troupe, p. 289). Hatred towards whites is expressed first, in the judgment that their tight clothes make them “narrowly exclusive, insular and illiberal.” The discussion degenerates from there to a description of the repugnant “strange odor” of whites described as a “murderer’s stench” (Green & Troupe, p. 290). I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” where he talks about the “disagreeable odor” of his slaves. Whiteman is similarly bigoted. There is a great variety of Postcolonial history-writing that is analytical, scholarly and from the perspective of the invaded peoples. A better choice could have been made. But this is just one writing sample of a single “Part Two.”

On the whole, this is a valuable text for history lovers. It is useful to be able to look at an historian’s writing and determine her influences. Being able to critically examine the critical examiner will improve one’s insight. While dry and occasionally arcane, The Houses of History contributes to our understanding of our past. No greater compliment can be extended to a history book.

Green, Anna & Troup, Kathleen. The Houses of History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.