Empire: The Rise And Demise Of The British World Order And The Lessons For Global Power, by Niall Ferguson
I get the feeling that this is a book that will fall in between the two hostile camps when it comes to empire. There are some people who so hate and abhor Western imperialism that they are unwilling at all to admit that empire did have very good sides and managed to occasionally be of benefit in bringing better Western standards and ways to a world that would have been content if left alone to live according to its own indigenous darkness. The author himself springs from a suitably imperial background as a descendant of colonials that had left Scotland, some of them as criminals punished by transportation to the far reaches of the earth (as was the case with some of my own ancestors as well), and this experience gives him a certain degree of ambivalence concerning the lengthy British imperial project in such places as Ireland, the United States, the various settler colonies, India, Africa, and the contemporary last resorts of British control. On the other hand, those who are very fond of the British imperial approach will find the author’s forthright discussion of the ambivalence and occasional horrors and brutality of British imperialism to be libelous.
This book is almost 400 pages long and it is divided into six lengthy and complex chapters. The book begins with a list of maps and figures and an introduction that sets the author’s own nuanced views and his own background as a child of empire who has an obvious perspective and context that he brings to the subject of the British Empire. After that the author talks about why the British had an empire, looking at the slow beginning of British imperialism in Ireland and the factors that led England and then Great Britain to increase their imperialism (1). The author then looks at the “white plague” of imperial population transfers, both white and black, throughout the early British empire that led to certain places becoming settler colonies (2) as a result. This leads to a discussion of the civilizing mission of British imperialism in the 19th century and the issues that this created as British imperialists interacted with other empires and native peoples (3). After that the author discusses the rise of imperial fervor in Victorian society (4) as well as the use of maxim force that led to the conquest of large swaths of the globe and the destruction of a great many overmatched enemies (5). Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the fall of the British empire (6) in the face of British economic weakness after the world wars and some lessons that can be learned by contemporary empires like the American one, after which there are acknowledgments, a bibliography, and an index.
For me, as a reader, I find that my own thoughts about imperialism are somewhat more complicated and ambivalent than is generally the case, even if that view is a bit different than the author’s own. I’m not sure that the author fully appreciates the way that imperialism is viewed as such a pejorative term that a great many people and their political supporters, including the United States, Soviet Union, contemporary China, European Union, do not recognize the imperialistic aims of their societies given the notoriety of the concept. What makes this book a joy to read, even if its ambivalence robs it of some of the rhetorical power or coherence that it would otherwise have, is the rich level of detail and irony by which the author approaches the topic, pointing out that empire was something that had been practiced and done badly before it was improved in various aspects. The author is also right, if politically incorrect, to note that the British empire did not fall because of the rise of the colonized peoples themselves but because of rival empires, namely the United States. The author also explores aspects of the empire, including various population transfers and the legal and cultural order of various colonies, and even the sexual politics of imperialism, all of which should be of interest to at least some potential readers.