Empire by Neil Ferguson is a history of the British Empire. The book also presents several of the author’s arguments about that empire. First published in 2012 this work has garnered some controversy. I found this to be a compelling history book that could have used more detail. I agreed with some, but not all of Ferguson’s contentions. Either way, the author is a lively thinker who is not afraid of going into all sorts of directions and who presents evidence to support his conclusions.
Those who have been reading my posts over the past several months know that I have been reading books that cover the subject of colonialism. I started off by reading a series of books that fit within the category known as postcolonialism. This ideology can be described as left wing. I am now moving on to more conservative, and moderate writers. Thus, I read this book. Ferguson is often called a conservative. With that, though some of Ferguson’s views fit into the realm of conservative thought, to characterize this book as purely conservative seems to be an oversimplification. As I will try to highlight below, there is a lot of complexity here.
This work falls short of being a comprehensive history. Ferguson tends to drop into a region and examine a time period or certain events. He then jumps into another time and place, leaving some gaps along the way. My version of this book was 380 pages long plus notes. Another 80 to 100 pages would have filled in the gaps and painted a more comprehensive picture.
Ferguson traces the early days of English colonization. He asserts that during the Seventeenth Century the British basically operated a piracy campaign aimed at stealing the gold that was being transported on Spanish ships. The British needed bases for these operations and thus established colonies in places like Jamaica. Later these colonies grew, and became economic engines in and of themselves. Colonization throughout the world, from Ireland to the West Indies to Africa to India and elsewhere is covered.
The colonization of America and Australia is also explored. I want to mention some of Ferguson’s arguments regarding these places. Colonization in these regions was different as it involved settler colonization. That is, Europeans actually moved in and displaced indigenous societies. This involved murder, genocide, various forms of oppression and the taking of lands. Ferguson pulls no punches describing these facts and commenting upon the lack of morality on the part of the Europeans. However, he does contend, that these trends would have happened with or without the presence of the British Empire. In fact, in the case of North America, most of the continent was subjugated by an independent United States. I agree with him that these things would likely have happened regardless of the British. I think that this particular argument is important as it relates to Ferguson’s summing up of the Empire that he commences toward the end of this work.
Some of the book is aimed at providing evidence to support the author’s contentions. To Ferguson’s credit, he often presents both sides of an argument. He does not straw man and he presents evidence to support even arguments that he opposes.
One of his main contentions, in fact, the most important contention of the book, is that despite the terrible things that the Empire did, it was also very beneficial to humanity. This contention also opens an entire series of issues that the author delves into. First, as mentioned above, Ferguson clearly makes the point that the British Empire did unconscionable things. Furthermore, he goes out of its way to innumerate and analyze these things. To name just a few terrible events perpetuated during the time of empire that are explored here: the Tasmanian genocide, the brutal suppression of the Indian Mutiny including the murders of civilians, forcing the Chinese government to accept the importation of narcotics, the outright stealing of native lands, are among the outrageous detailed.
Despite all this the author contends that The British Empire brought benefits to humanity. First, Ferguson details how, in the Nineteenth Century the Empire, at prompting of both Evangelical Christian and Liberal movements, engaged in a mostly successful campaign to eradicate slavery throughout the world.
The author goes on to detail how the Empire spread free trade, communications networks, competent civil service, legal systems and parliamentary democracy throughout the world. He engages in economic and political analysis that I admittedly cannot really evaluate. However, he concludes, that despite problems, on average former British colonies are more democratic, and more prosperous, then the rest of the developing world. I agree these things have been beneficial to humanity and that to some degree the British spread them. I think it is not clear however, just how far these trends would have grown and advanced without the Empire.
Ferguson contends that the Empire bestowed another benefit to the world in that it was instrumental in destroying much more harmful empires of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Furthermore, he argues that Great Britain choose to confront these empires when it could have simply coexisted with them.
The book goes on to contend that the strain of fighting two world wars were what caused the empire to dissolve in the twentieth century. Ferguson writes,
What had been based on Britain’s commercial and financial supremacy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and her industrial supremacy in the nineteenth was bound to crumble once the British economy buckled under the accumulated burdens of two world wars. The great creditor became a debtor.
The author goes on to argue that much of Britain’s debt was owed to the United States which opposed the continuation of Empire. The United States proceeded to use its leverage to undermine the Empire.
Ferguson believes that the movements for national liberation that spread throughout the Empire were not as strong as assumed. He argues that they were similar to movements that were defeated in previous centuries. However, an Empire that was weakened by fighting the Axis could not contend with them. He writes eloquently in this passage,
Yet what made it so fine, so authentically noble, was that the Empire’s victory could only ever have been Pyrrhic. In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins?
I think that the contention that the Empire would not have unraveled had it not been for the world wars is questionable. It seems far - fetched to contend that, but for the lack of resources, that the British would have hung on to the colonies. The drive toward self - determination was, and still is, a world - wide one that was greatly accelerated during the twentieth century. It manifested itself in places well beyond the British Empire. Nationalist self - determination movements were also usually successful.
As for Britain being weakened by fighting two world wars, Ferguson, who was initially an economic historian and makes a seemingly strong case. However, I do not really know enough to have a strong opinion on this one. I had previously read Ferguson ‘s War of the World. That book was also history book where the author laid out several contentions. It turns out that the arguments that Ferguson made in that book are related to the arguments that he makes here. In that book, the author also contended that the stress of two world wars was what caused France and England to lose their empires.
I want to note that Ferguson is very much at odds with the postcolonial writers that I have recently been reading. In fact, a few moths ago, I read Colonialism/Postcolonialism in which Ania Loomba was specifically critical of Ferguson’s views. Loomba and several other writers tend to be highly negative about capitalism, free trade and globalism. Ferguson champions these things. In addition, arguing that the Empire was in some ways beneficial seems like anathema to postcolonial thought.
I commented in a previous post that I had perused several postcolonial academic reading lists. I thought that these lists represented an echo chamber with little diversity of thought with a lot of emphasis on anti – capitalism, Marxism, intersectionalism, critical race theory, etc. It seems to me, that books such as Ferguson’s should be included as part of postcolonial readings. Even if most professors and students disagree with these more conservative contentions, it is important to consider differing views.
Though I thought that this book could have been more comprehensive, it is a very good book. It is interesting and informative, I learned a lot about the British Empire. I agree with some of Ferguson’s contentions but disagreed with others. However, he is a sharp and coherent thinker who presents his arguments well. He is also not hesitant to present evidence that might support both sides. In the end, this was a very worth - while read.