Thursday, September 3, 2009

Empire by Niall Ferguson

If it goes without saying that the British Empire is a great setting for tales of adventure and derring-do (and it should), then it must also be stated that, properly considered, the British Empire itself was really the greatest adventure of all. Of course, it may not have appeared that way to those executed in Delhi in 1857 or in Dublin in 1916. But to those who were in a position to appreciate it, the Empire certainly provided ample scope for thrills aplenty as fortunes were sought and squandered across the breath of the red-tinted globe. Not a view many would have qualms with, however they may now scoff at the seemingly simple-minded Victorian interpretation of events. But in Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson seeks to convince the reader of an idea which may today seem far less palatable to many- that, by and large, the British Empire was a good thing. How well does he succeed?

The book functions by taking the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the Empire from its nebulous beginnings to its still-ongoing dissolution. Ferguson feels that the Empire (and thus the book) can be divided into certain periods- the scattered early Empire founded by pirates and privateers for strictly profit-based reasons, the continent-run-by-corporation that was early British India, the consolidation of government control in the mid 19th century and the more familiar (and frequently ridiculed) 'missionary' period during which Britain felt it was its moral and spiritual duty to 'better' the worlds lot. And all in under 400 pages.

Quite literally, it's a terrific story; as much a page-turner as any novel. Ferguson shows his skill at being able to juggle events occurring thousands of miles apart over a period of several hundred years and manage to keep them in some kind of context. Of course, many, many important events have been minimised or even left out. Pretty much anyone from a nation once affected by the Empire will have their own particular bugbear about this (my own is his one-line dismissal of Ireland's wartime policy of neutrality as 'shameful'), but considering what Ferguson is trying to achieve- an overview of the entire Empire in under 400 pages- there is surprisingly little to quibble about. He gives a fair indication of what attitudes and actions were prevalent in the Empire during the various time periods by focusing on certain key events. It seems beyond the wildest notions of even the most fantastic tales of Burroughs or Conan Doyle that events as varied and fascinating as the American Revolution, the Indian Mutiny and the Opium Wars could have their roots in the same political juggernaut.

As may be evident by now, Ferguson is not shy at exposing the brutality, hypocrisy and greed of those who ran the Empire. His is no one-sided polemic, and he refuses to whitewash the Empire's many sins. But his overall thesis is that, on the overall 'balance sheet', the good outweighs the bad. Yep- railroads, democracy, free trade and the end of slavery- all the usual suspects are present and correct. But Ferguson, known for his 'counterfactual' history, goes one step further and challenges us to answer some tough questions- what if the British Empire had never happened? How much better off would the poor, downtrodden colonies be?

Ferguson's rather convincing answer to this is- they'd be under the heel of some other Empire, and quite likely one that was a lot rougher than the British one. He chills the reader with visions of elseworld scenarios where Russia's brutal 19th-century land gobbling continued worldwide; where the Japanese empire followed the horrific rape of Nanking with the rape of all south-eastern Asia. Weather these visions strike you as realistic or ridiculous, they certainly provide some food for thought. These (and others) were 'political organisations' that did not construct Civil Services to look after the rights of conquered citizens. They did not punish members of their own race who wronged said citizens. And they certainly did not have cabinets at home full of liberal politicians always ready to sympathize with the colonised, criticize the colonisers and (however ineffectually) rally constantly for the independence of dominion states.

Certainly, Britain did not command the most evil empire in the gang, and things could certainly have been worse. Much worse. But does that excuse the evils that Britain did perpetrate? That's a debate for another day. Meantime, Empire does a terrific job of presenting a readable guide to the Greatest Adventure of All. Huzzah!

And for good boys who eat all their vegetables, here's a bonus link: Ferguson's recent and difficult-to-upload comments on Irish attitudes to Empire.

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