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.