Thursday, September 5, 2019

Empire by Niall Ferguson

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. 


mudpuddle said...

a broad-minded analysis: without reading the book i notice my back hairs bristling, though... Ferguson's shotgun approach to historical interpretation seems questionable, but in justice i think a case can be made for almost any variety of historical investigation, even with complete utilization of all available information. I think Ferguson might be guilty, as are many conservatives, of arranging his evidence to support his theory instead of studying the facts to formulate an unbiased hypothesis...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle- Ferguson certainly has controversial ideas. I think that the most questionable one is that the Empire would not have fallen without the strain of the World Wars. I like your shotgun analogy.

James said...

Ferguson is one of my favorite historians. As you noted, he provides both sides of issues, while I found is overview reasonable if not comprehensive. I've enjoyed this book as well as his work on the First World War, and his foray into financial history: The Ascent of Money.

CyberKitten said...

This is definitely on my 'To Read' list for a whole host of reasons. We both have an interest in this sort of thing and I'm sure that both of us will be reading more about this fascinating subject going forward.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I need to give his The Ascent of Money a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - I think that you would like this. I would be curious to know what you thought of it.

Whispering Gums said...

Thanks for this Brian. Both you and Ferguson make a lot of sense, but of course it does, as you imply depend on definition and world views. If you support capitalism and free trade, for example, you will support his views more than the post colonialists. It also depends on who you are talking to - a settler, like me, or an indigenous Australian.

For all these reasons, plus my lack of economic analysis expertise, I can't say whether I agree with Ferguson's contentions or not, but I thoroughly enjoyed your review of them, and his book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks WG - I think that anyone who read this would find that Ferguson makes no excuses for things that happened in Australia and elsewhere.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I have really enjoyed this series you have been doing on colonialism first from a left perspective and now more conservative. As you say,Ferguson doesn't sugar coat how the British Empire behaved and I don't think Ferguson necessarily approves of colonialism but just wants to make the point that as Empires go, Britain brought a certain amount of enlightenment, democracy, women's rights etc to the countries they ruled in contrast to other countries who conquered lands and were very brutal.

India I think is a good example. Granted the country is going through serious problems with tne Hindu/Muslim tensions but would India be in a better place right now without the centuries of British influence?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy- I agree the question is what the word would have looked like if the Empire had never existed. Such what if history is really difficult. Nevertheless Ferguson tries it.

So many books, so little time said...

As you know I don't read a whole lot of historical but I think this is something I need to look into, I often find after reading your reviews I am like I need to pick up X book! xxx


Sharon Wilfong said...

This sounds like a great book and your informative review really makes me want to read it. I don't care what stance the author takes but, as you say, if they can adequately support their argument I will respect it. I especially appreciate that he does not sink to creating straw men to prove his point.

You and I have (at least) one thing in common. We get interested in a certain topic and pursue it through all sorts of literature. I have been enjoying your reviews on colonialism and you have inspired me to read more about it.

Judy Krueger said...

Once again I salute you for your commitment to study and learn history. Though we have chosen different books, I feel we would agree that perusing history and following varying viewpoints makes the world as it is today more comprehensible if not less worrisome. If more individuals would make their own studies of history, we would have the level of awareness necessary for democracy to function.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. A lot of people dislike Ferguson’s views . But he really makes argument in good faith. It is so nice that we have access to so many books that we can pursue these interests.

Though we differ on some issues, I think that we have a lot in common!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy. I think that this is s good book to start with when it comes to history. If you gave it a try I would love to know what you thought.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy. History is so important to delve into. I agree that it would benefit everyone to know more of it.

Caroline said...

This sounds very interesting but I have a feeling it would infuriate me nonetheless. Assuming people and places were better off through colonization is, in my opinion, based on the idea that there is only one valuable way for a society is condescending. I very much doubt that the American Indians, many African people . . . See it that way. It almost sounds as if he’s mourning the end of the Empire.

baili said...

Dear Brain
how can i thank you enough for such rich and dense post

this is one of the best commentary i have ever read ,your strikingly great review loose no corner hidden
this book is definitely powerful and quite authentic

will you believe that the very basic points writer raised here are same we (me and hubby) talk about of ,not with such accuracy or authenticity of course but struggle of powerful nations to overcome and weaker to resist and main events that changed the scenario after world wars

i think i certainly will read this work
thank you so much for incredible review

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Though Ferguson has some views that I disagree with, I think his highlighting of the evils committed by the Empire indicates that not everyone was better of as the result of the Empire. Instead he argues that the Empire helped bring about modernity or liberal democratic values and society. I think that liberal, democratic values benefits almost all humans in the world today, regardless of ethnicity or geographic location.

As for Ferguson’s nostalgia for Empire, I grant that he does give that impression.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili. I was curious as to what you thought about this book. The world has been changing so quickly over the last century or so.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

I thought I recognised this book as one we had on our shelves. Not one I have read (maybe some day) but I know Mr T has read it. In fact with some post-it notes still in place I might have a quick look to see which pages/paragraphs he has marked.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity- It sounds as if Mr. T is like me. When I read a traditional book I tend to use a lot of stickies for notes.

I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, I am glad you ended up enjoying this one and learning about the British Empire. It's good when an author shares both sides of an argument and as you mention it's important to look at things from different views even when we don't agree with them. Fantastic post as usual.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - An author of shares opposing views and who makes good faith arguments really earns a lot of credibility.

thecuecard said...

Nice post Brian. I have not read Ferguson yet but you sum up this book nicely. I can not say I disagree with the contentions that the Empire was terrible as well as beneficial to humanity or that a weakened Empire allowed for stronger liberation movements that ended its rule. Though I'm sure other forces were involved as well, like the drive toward self-determination by leaders like Gandhi etc.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan. Like many things on the Empire probably reaped both good and bad. Ferguson actually compares Gandhi’s movement and thought that it was equivalent to earlier movements.

Marian H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marian H said... I think I'd better read this! It sounds more dimensional than I'd have given it credit for on the surface. I agree with you, it seems like a stretch to say that Britain sacrificed her Empire for WW2 (though it makes for a pretty spectacular thesis statement).

I have so enjoyed your series on this topic and that you are reading about it from different angles. I tend to take a pretty cynical view of both perspectives, and find both sides err when they put too much of a moral emphasis on what are largely economic issues. Anyways...more dialogue is always good, and hopefully the truth will get sifted out from hyperbole.

Paula Vince said...

The cover is very compelling to start with. Ferguson's take on the bloodthirsty colonisation of America and Australia is intriguing. If not the British, there's probably enough history in both cases to suggest it would have been the Europeans, sadly. Whether or not Ferguson's claim that the British Empire was beneficial is a good debate point. I like the theory that it actually helped disperse worse Empires. Thanks for another interesting wrap-up of a contentious book. Interesting how some of the authors you've read contradict each other.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Marion. Ferguson is multidimensional. Indeed. Both this view and the postcolonial view are not perfect, but the postcolonial view is based upon a rejection of the basic values that are the building blocks of human civilization and well being. Ferguson at least argues from a more conventional, and I would say rational angle.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Paula - I think that at the very least Great Britain gets credit for helping to defeat the Axis. The resources of the Empire clearly helped in that cause.

I think that it is important to read authors witch different views.

That is a great cover.

Sandi said...

"...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."

Very eye-opening!

It is interesting that though the US opposed the British Empire, we now seem to be building one ourselves.