Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson (2004)

Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate Governor of Aden, once told Labour politician Denis Healey that, “when the British Empire finally sank beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind it only two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’.” (p.365)

Niall Ferguson is a bit of a rock star among historians – youngish, good looking in a rugged Scottish way, he’s been the presenter of a number of TV history series for Channel 4, writes combative articles for newspapers and magazines here and in the States, has been a contributing editor to Newsweek, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, has actively helped US Presidential campaigns, appears regularly as a pundit on TV shows – all logged and available on his busy website.

Three things make him stand out:

1. He is an economic historian He has an impressive grasp of the economic and banking and business aspects of history. Most history books rely on government and administrative documents and interpret policy in terms of political parties or the individual psychology of a Disraeli or Churchill, with a smattering of culture (quoting poems) thrown in. For their part, most economic historians are dry specialists, working deep in the bowels of Treasury or corporate archives to produce very technical tracts.

But in the book which brought him to general attention, The Pity of War, Ferguson combined his economic perspective with a popular style and approach, taking a detailed look at defence budgets, steel production, armaments output and so on, to present the Great War from a purely economic point of view, resulting in a number of surprising insights & conclusions.

Ferguson’s unique selling point is his ability to cut through political discourse to show the economic realities – the profit and loss, the problems of issuing bonds, obtaining credit, securing loans, paying back interest, finding new markets, keeping down overheads – the sheer business of the Empire, and the challenges it threw up and the difficult decisions political and business leaders had to take as a result.

2. He is an unashamed capitalist He’s not a Marxist or a socialist or a liberal, he isn’t into cultural studies or feminism or post-colonial studies, as so many contemporary historians are. He is an unabashed Thatcherite capitalist. He has been employed by New York investment banks and has worked for Republican presidential candidates. Despite its obvious inequalities, he defends free market capitalism as the bringer of prosperity and freedom to all the countries which embrace it. After all – look at the alternatives.

3. He is a populist Three of his books are based on Channel 4 TV series which he wrote and presented – this history of the British Empire, another on the Rise of America, and the third on reasons why the West beat the Rest to world domination (all handily available to view on YouTube). He is not shy of tackling the Big Subjects.

Having worked for Channel 4 myself, I know that they value controversy above anything else, they like to encourage contrary and unexpected viewpoints, they like to feel they are stimulating debate. Ferguson, with his confidently conservative views, his brash way with economic statistics, and his Celtic good looks (it is a visual medium, after all) was perfectly placed to present the series and write the books on these epic subjects. He will have mapped out the overall approach or message – broken it down into hour-long episodes / chapters, which are built around key (ideally, controversial and ‘against received opinion’) propositions. Then teams of assistants will have been despatched to assemble the material required to fill them out. ‘We want striking locations, powerful stories, strong messages!’

This, the first of the three books-of-the-series, is hugely enjoyable, fluently written, full of deliberate provocations and journalistic summaries, pithy phrase-making and telling stories (I liked his quip that if Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, Australia started out as a nation of shoplifters) – liberally studded with graphs and diagrams displaying impressive-looking arrays of figures for the economically illiterate. It is designed to impress and persuade a broad popular audience, of which I am one.

Empire is a solid-looking Penguin paperback of medium length for such a vast subject (380 pages) and divided into six chapters which summarise the narrative arc of the story – Why Britain?, White Plague, The Mission, Heaven’s Breed, Maxim Force, Empire For Sale.

The British Empire A Good Thing

The biographical background sketched above helps to explain why Ferguson’s history ruggedly and abrasively declares the British Empire was a Good Thing. It had its fair share of atrocities, terrible behaviour, oppression and subjugation. But overall, on balance, from a high-level perspective, Ferguson in his Introduction asserts the British Empire was a civilising, globalising influence, and then spends the rest of the book going into detail to back his assertions.

The Empire was a good thing because it:

  1. Imposed free market capitalism around the globe, encouraging the free movement of goods, capital and labour on a vast scale.
  2. Spread the rule of law, specifically English common law, fairer, quicker, more efficient than other systems.
  3. Spread English forms of land tenure, which encouraged investment and development.
  4. Spread representative democracy: this has survived in eg India, to the ex-colonies’ lasting benefit.
  5. Spread the idea of a small, incorrupt state: its critics may have criticised Imperial administrators for arrogance and sometimes criminal neglect; but they weren’t venal and corrupt, and the administration was astonishingly small: at its height, the Indian Empire of 250 million was administered by a civil service of 1,000.
  6. Spread the English language.
  7. Spread Anglican Protestantism.

British ideals

Lastly, he emphasises the way the Empire disseminated English ideas of personal liberty. Critics immediately reply, ‘How could an Empire devoted to freedom have made so much money out of slavery?’ Ferguson doesn’t underplay the cruelty or neglect of the Imperial authorities. There are strong passages about slavery, including his description of visiting the slave cells on the West coast of Africa. But the history of the Empire can be split into two parts, Slavery and post-Slavery. Anybody who condemns the British Empire for its use of slavery needs to be reminded that it was the British who were the first nation anywhere in the world to outlaw the slave trade (1808), to abolish slavery altogether (1833), and then to enforce that ban on other nations. The Americans, famously, fought to defend Slavery into the 1850s.

Ferguson makes the profound point that, no matter how rapacious, violent or unjust its activities abroad, there was always a strong party at home which tried to hold the Imperialists to account against the highest standards. Even if the ideal of liberty was betrayed again and again in practice, it was nonetheless an ideal that a significant number of Britons aspired to, and the anti-slavery movement is proof of its power. (After all, a generation earlier, the American colonists had rebelled against their king in the name of a higher ideal than monarchy, in the name of Freedom, and a lot of 18th century Englishmen sympathised with them.) Thus, throughout the nineteenth century, economic and political Liberals criticised the idea and the implementation of Empire, against a range of higher ideals about freedom and national independence.

It was the very power of this British notion of liberty, holding the Empire’s rulers to account against nobler ideals, which meant the Empire’s days were always numbered. By about 1900, as domestic discourse became divided between shrill Imperialists (Kipling, Rhodes) and even shriller opponents (Gladstone’s heirs like John Hobson, author of the stinging critique, Imperialism) the whole idea of Empire was becoming difficult to defend, when it was dealt a body blow by the stupidity of the Boer War.

The alternative empires

The grossest, the most obvious defence of the British Empire is – Look at the alternatives. Empire critics tend to base arguments on the notion that, if the British hadn’t arrived, the ‘native’ red Indians, or Indians or Africans or Maoris or Aborigenes would have continued living their environmentally-friendly, spiritual lives. But no they wouldn’t have. They would have been colonised by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, or God forbid, the Belgians or Germans. And, after the Great War, in the 1930s, the new empires were the totalitarian ones of the Japanese, the Russians and the Nazis. Without a shadow of a doubt, much much worse.

The Soviet Union, the Nazis, the fascist Japanese did not emphasise the rule of law, did not have powerful parties at home holding the Imperialists to account. Critics of their totalitarian policies were shot. Opponents in colonised countries were shot. Anyone complaining about British rule in the 1930s should spend a few minutes reading about the Japanese Rape of Nanking, or the way Germany behaved in its new East European colonies after 1939.

The economic end of empire

Ferguson is perhaps deliberately controversial, when he asserts that what ended the British Empire wasn’t the various rag-tag nationalist movements which agitated in their countries (Sinn Fein, the Indian Congress, Mau Mau) it was that in a few short years Britain comprehensively bankrupted itself fighting off other empires which were significantly worse, undoubtedly evil.

He gives pages of figures showing the collapse of Britain’s economy in the 20th century, begun in the Great War and ruined in the second. We were only able to continue fighting after 1940 because of huge American loans. Whatever the military or diplomatic facade, the baton for policing the world and combating evil empires had been handed on to America, an America reluctant to take on the role.

How the British made the modern world

Despite listing the things the British Empire gave to the 25% of the world it governed, I thought the book didn’t really address its subtitle, ‘How the British made the modern world’. In the introduction and again in the conclusion, Ferguson repeats the roll call listed above, but I don’t think that’s quite the same as showing how Britain made the modern world. All kinds of other things made the modern world as well. Oil. Coffee. Cars. Airplanes. Computers. Some Brits might have had a hand in some of them, but so did Germans, French, Americans.

Instead, the lion’s share of the text is taken up with a fairly traditional narrative of the key events in the Empire’s history, with a kind of running economic commentary. Insofar as it is a chronological narrative, it covers an awful lot of familiar ground, albeit littered with entertaining stories and stunning stats. So we get:

  • The early years, the Elizabethan settlements in Ireland and America.
  • A history of the East India Company as it takes over pieces of India piecemeal, fights off the French, in the 1700s, develops its own army.
  • The Slave Trade: the triangle of trade taking slaves to Africa, sugar from the Caribbean to Britain, then gewgaws to buy more slaves back in West Africa, from the 1600s until  the rise of the Evangelical anti-Slavery movement in the 1790s.
  • As we move into the Victorian era, the narrative thickens, becomes slower and more detailed, as:
    • Britain invents loads of stuff, better maps, theodolites, the steamship, the steam engine, iron, coking coal, factories, the telegraph – and sends explorers deeper into Africa.
    • The Indian Mutiny (1856) transforms Imperial power in India from its old relaxed amateurish basis, onto a more formal, hierarchical affair.
  • And thickens further in the era of High Imperialism from the 1880s onwards, as we fought small wars all across Africa and northern India – the era of the Great Game, Kipling, Pomp and Circumstance etc etc.
  • Then the twin catastrophes of the Boer War which sowed the seeds of doubt about the morality of the whole thing, and then the catastrophe of the Great War.
  • The odd twilight between the wars when we still had an Empire, in fact it reached its widest geographical extent, but somehow nobody took it seriously any more, except pompous administrators collecting gongs.
  • And then the hurried decolonisation between 1947 and the 1960s, marred by last-minute crackdowns in Cyprus, Malaysia, Kenya.

An over-familiar story?

A lot if not all of this is familiar from other books I’ve read, like Robert Hughes’ harrowing history of Australia, The Fatal Shore (1986), Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery (1997), Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble For Africa (1991), Lawrence James’s The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994), The Crisis of Imperialism by Richard Shannon (1974), Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy (1968–78), Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987).

Like these predecessors Ferguson takes this well-worn story and tries to make it new by studding it with telling anecdotes or accounts of significant figures, garnished by sections on the economics of imperial trade or slavery or the East India Company etc. These economic sections, frequent though they are, somehow don’t have the same impact. A graph about, say, English net migration 1601-1801, while mildly interesting, has little or no impact compared to the 40 or more pages he devotes to a long biographical sketch of David Livingstone, from his impoverished childhood, through his training as a doctor and missionary, and then a thorough account of his adult explorations. Or the long account of Indian Viceroy Lord Curzon, seen as epitomising the cultural moment of high Imperial pomp in India.

Imperial legacy?

In this book and in the Tate Britain exhibition about Artist and Empire I went to recently, I read that the legacy of Empire is ‘all around us’. Hmm. I don’t really agree. My daily commute to Clapham Common, travelling by Tube to Old Street, walking through dirty streets to a 1970s concrete tower block where I work for part of the NHS – not much of that strikes me as a legacy of the British Empire. It all happens to take place in the capital city of the same country, but none of those things were created by or for the British Empire. (Indeed, Ferguson points out that the cost of the NHS and the new welfare state, created after the Second World War, was one of the reasons running an empire became unaffordable.)

To me the most obvious and by far the most important legacy of the British Empire is America. America is the world’s superpower. We founded it, gave it its language, religion and political ideals, and then it grew up and went its own way.

The next most important thing we gave the world was the Industrial Revolution: coal and iron and steam power, railways, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, preparing the way for the oil economy – cars, airplanes and computers. These are the real and immediate physical and technological presences in the life of me and most Londoners. The fact that Indians have parliamentary democracy or Ghana’s judges wear British wigs or Australians play cricket are nice aspects of the world, but as irrelevant to me as the statues of all the generals and viceroys who line Whitehall.

Grace notes

In such a densely researched account, packed with stories, quotes, biographical accounts, facts and figures about such a vast undertaking over such a long period, a number of thoughts stood out, things I never knew or had forgotten, twists or turns in the familiar story:

  • The composer of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton, became a slaving captain after his born-again religious conversion.
  • Obviously I knew about David Livingstone: I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that Livingstone’s explorations were based on an economic theory ie mid-Victorian laissez-faire capitalism. Livingstone was a life-long opponent of slavery but he completely failed to make Christian converts among the Africans he visited or to persuade the African and Arab slavers to cease trading. Therefore, he switched his activities to a messianic mission to ‘open up’ Africa, to carve trade routes into deepest Africa, in the belief that, once British traders and businesses could be persuaded to set up trading posts, to start to grow coffee or cotton or whatever in the areas he opened up, free trade would kill off the slave trade. It would simply become more profitable to let Africans do honest labour in their own regions and rake in a profit, than to capture them and drag them down to Zanzibar in chains.
  • By the 1830s and 1840s 40% of the total value of Indian exports took the form of opium. The fact of the Opium Wars against China in which we stole Shanghai and Hong Kong never ceases to amaze me.
  • The very Evangelical Christians who powered the anti-slavery cause and successfully abolished the slave trade, then set their sights on converting the heathen in India, but the rapid growth of missionary societies and missionaries in the field trying to convert Hindus and Muslims was to have a disastrous result. Ferguson says that one of the main contributory factors of the Indian Mutiny was that the soldiers of the Indian Army felt their religion was under threat from the floods of missionaries.
  • The Indian Army was a vital support of the Empire. By the 1880s 62% of all the soldiers of the Queen were Indian. In autumn 1914 about a third of British forces in Flanders were from India. By the war’s end a million Indians had served, as much as the four white Dominions put together.

The Channel 4 TV series

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

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