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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 30 August 2004
This book is only about 400 pages long but manages to cover the whole history of the British Empire in depth. There is a startling fact on almost every page. Loads to think about, since Ferguson has some original ideas. Readable prose - I would even call this book a page-turner. And the book is well organised, with each chapter having its own theme, and the conclusion being that whatever suffering the Empire caused, viewed in the light of the plausible historical alternatives (for example, French, Russian, German or Japanese hegemony) it was a Good Thing.
This doesn't mean that Ferguson glosses over or excuses the bad points of the Empire. There is a lot in here that is shocking.
I have only one criticism of this book. Ferguson loves to quote people or texts but he never gives references! This is unforgivable in a history book, even a "popular" one.
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on 29 January 2003
Niall Ferguson has brought, what may be considered, an updated view to this subject. For some time the British Empire has suffered criticism as something that was a force for bad in the world. What Ferguson does is to re-examine this point of view and balances the good the Empire gave the world against its negative aspects
The book's early premise is that Empire was not pre-planned, coming about initially from the activities of pirates in the Caribbean, leading to traders and adventures and the mass emigration of white settlers to America, Australia and New Zealand. By Victorian times the Empire had become a burden costing too much to administer, in fact Britain was exporting more capital into the Empire than was being taken out
In the section on the American War Of Independence, which Ferguson points out was a civil war, the book warns against the history produced by Hollywood. As well as explaining how it really was, he shatters some myths. The Boston Tea Party was made up of smugglers gangs enraged that the tax on tea had been reduced. A quarter of the population fought on the side of Britain and when the war had ended 100,000 Americans moved to Canada rather than live in a country independent of Britain. These are only some of the issues which point to the American colonies being more loyal to Britain, and the colonists better treated, than some may have previously thought.
Quite a large proportion of the book is taken up with India. Ferguson explains how the East India Company first edged into the sub-continent for purposes of trade and how this eventually, through competition with the Dutch and war with the French, turned into control of the country. What is interesting is that later political control direct from London came about to ensure that the Indians were well treated and administered. Later, the first signs of unrest began when a viceroy tried to pass a bill to allow Indian judges to preside over whites. The objection to the bill by the white residents indicated to the Indians that British intended to keep them subjugated, and this led to the beginnings of the independence movement.
Ferguson goes on from there to deal with the New Imperialism of the late 19th Century centred on the European drive to possess Africa. Here private companies led the way in claiming land for their minerals, and only when things became difficult to handle did the government in Britain took control and created colonies. There was also the problem of the competition with other European powers and colonies were often formed to ensure that another power did not.
This leads to Ferguson offering the reader to speculate to how the world might have been without the British Empire. What would have India been like under the Dutch? How would it have progressed under the Moguls? Would they have brought industrialisation, built railways and been able to administer a population of 400 million with a civil service of only1000?
All-in-all this is a book in which Ferguson's enthusiasm for the subject comes through and makes it an enjoyable read as he challenges the negative issues of the British Empire. Whilst he put some matters right he does not hold back in admitting mistakes were made - and they were mistakes, not incidences of ill intent. And along the way he explodes a number of myths.
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Niall Ferguson is a young, brilliant, prolific and rather controversial Professor of History who steps outside conventional academic thinking and argues convincingly for a more enlightened and overarching appreciation of historical events. He is a true original, a great writer and communicator who brings a fresh perspective to make us re-think history and appreciate the past in a new light.

The subject of this book, one of his best - and they're all good - is a new historical examination of the British Empire. The full title is 'The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power' which indicates the author's ambition. Ferguson argues convincingly that between about 1750 and 1945, and expecially so in the 1800s, this unique institution which brought together a quarter of the world's population and spanned every continent was 'the nearest thing Planet Earth has ever had to a global government.' This he sees, overall, as A Good Thing, so firmly places himself amongst modern thinkers in the 'controversial' camp.

It has been claimed that the British acquired their enormous global Empire 'in a fit of absence of mind' and though Ferguson does not agree with this memorable line he does illustrate with some humour that there was never any intention to end up owning 25% of the world. In the 1500s and 1600s the Brits just didn't want to be marginalised into a second-rate power by the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Dutch who at that time were striding the globe and claiming vast areas of land in the Caribbean, the Americas and the East Indies. the Brits were Johnny-come-lately and almost got left behind, initially resorting to piracy on the Spanish to try and claim a small piece of the action. From this robbery-on-the-high-seas in the 1500s came possession of islands in the Caribbean, outposts in North America and West Africa and later involvement in the transatlantic slave trade in the 1700s.

Each chapter introduces a new theme and all-in-all the narrative is racy, informative and crammed with astounding facts, like the details of the examination which prospective bright young men from Britain were obliged to pass before being considered for a posting to the Indian civil service. There are pages of graphs and charts, economic data a-plenty and the book (the hardback edition) is beautifully and lavishly illustrated.

The chapter on the American War of Independence convincingly explains the conflict as a civil war/family quarrel. Against the more conventional revisionist modern American narrative of 'freedom' and 'independence' Ferguson points out the 'revolution' was more about colonial plantation owners ruthlessly promoting their own financial interests. The government in Britain was half-hearted about keeping the 13 colonies and more interested in India, a perspective which looks odd from our time but made absolute sense in 1776 (India looked like a much bigger prize and far more important). The necessary resources were never committed and so Britain lost the then-insignificant American colonies but ended up administering not only India but Canada.

Ferguson does not play down the less benign aspects of the Empire, whether the slave trade (learned by British sea captains from the Spanish, Portuguese and West Africans who taught them how to be successful at it), famines in India and Ireland caused by mismanagement and neglect, the penal colonies of Australia or hordes of Zulus being mown down by Maxim guns. There's enough gory statistics here to keep any unreconstituted liberal or left-inclined activist foaming with indignation.

However, that's not the whole story. Ferguson demonstrates that the British Empire was a huge net exporter of capital, and that the economic and social differences in the heyday of the Empire between the British Isles and the colonies were consequently far less than between the 'first world' and the 'developing world' in the 21st century. Roads, railways, educational and government institutions were built throughout the Empire with the transfer of vast sums of money earned from British industrial manufacturing out to the colonies, all administered (in stark contrast to modern times) by a virtually incorruptible and principled civil service. There were no 'failed states' in the days of the Empire: in contrast investment, progress and growth were the order of the day, and universally taken for granted. It was, for example, the British Empire which first connected up the world with undersea telegraph cables leading, eventually, to our current global telephone system (and to the www and the internet - the author refers to the global undersea telegraph network as the 'information superhighway' of its day).

Other legacies of the Empire include the global dominance of the English language, the acceptance of democratic parliamentary institutions, the whole Anglo-Saxon concept of human and civil rights and free trade and movement of peoples.

As other reviewers have pointed out, Ferguson's analysis of the Empire's eventual demise centres on Britain deciding to commit to fight and defeat the powerful but less benign empires of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, struggles which effectively bankrupted Britain and forced imperial dissolution. The Empire was expensive to run: after 1945, Britain was broke and could no longer afford the vast subsidies and drain on capital necessary to sustain it. He also demonstrates that until the 1920s there was virtually no appetite for 'independence' from the peoples of the Empire. On the contrary they thought they had a good thing: it was in all cases anglicised, British-university educated middle-class elites from the colonies who embraced quintessentially western liberal ideas of 'independence' following WW1, and went on to sieze power in the new 'independent' nations.

A final and relevant question asked by the author is: without the British Empire, what would the world have had instead? Would the available alternatives have produced a similar end-result, or something far worse?

Whether you embrace the author's mainly positive attitude to the idea of a benign global hegemony in place of (according to him) the present-day reality of a fragmented world of 180+ squabbling/warring nation states with mainly corrupt and unelected rulers, the book is a great read: lively, literate, occasionally funny and thought-provoking. The reader can't fail to be impressed by Ferguson's achievement even if he rejects the author's self-confessed bias: 'How Britain made the modern world' really is not an overstatement. It's a rollicking good read and I defy any open-minded reader not to enjoy the experience and learn more than a few things in the process. The prose is first-rate, it's a can't-put-it-down page-turner, and the vast amounts of economic data (which the author always makes interesting and relevant) alone are so enlightening they are worth the price of the book.

Sometimes it's good to be mildly controversial, if accompanied by intelligence and original thought. Recommended unreservedly.
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on 25 October 2011
perfectly puts the British Empire in context, neither condoning and condemning, some good cold hard facts with logical conclusions, my only slight criticism is i would like much more photo's to help bring alive the British Empire, but perhaps i'm just a simpleton who can't handle too many words!

I loved the book, and if you're the sort of person whose interested in the British Empire, and its role in history - this is a very good start.
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on 25 March 2013
With an African background similar to the author's I thoroughly enjoyed his well researched and comprehensive review of the Empire. It painted a far fairer picture than Kwarteng's book "Ghosts of Empire," which was so selective it seemed as though everything wrong was the fault of the British. There was the good and the bad and as Ferguson shows it was far better than the evil empires that brought about its demise. While it very expertly covered the history of the British Empire it perhaps did not focus enough on the second part of the title. After all the modern world covers countries from Chile to China and I did not get any ideas about how it had affected them apart from indirectly via America.
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on 1 June 2004
As a non-specialist, this book was a delightful introduction to 'The Empire'. It contained sufficient detail to retain my interest throughout, described in very compelling prose.
It gallops through history and across the globe, from the pirates in the Caribbean, to emigration and settlement in America, Australia and New Zealand. The American War Of Independence, African Imperialism and the history of the East India Company are well covered. The book shows you just how simplistic taking a polarised view of whether the Empire was 'good' or 'bad' really is. However, Ferguson's argument that the benefits of industrialisation meant the English might not have been as bad as the other options on the table for some countries was not completely convincing, although it was argued honestly.
The excitement Ferguson feels for his topic bursts out of the book, and I would definately recommend it.
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on 30 April 2008
Apart from some isolated facts, I knew next to nothing about the British Empire before having read this book. Now I have done so I can honestly say that I at least feel to have (more than) a grasp of the basic facts, and a very good general overview of the biggest empire ever: how it came about, how it evolved, and how it came to end. And what's more, Ferguson tells this incredible tale in a most engaging and lucid style. Never a dull moment!
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on 22 July 2004
You may not agree with Mr. Ferguson's conclusions (although his arguments are compelling), but this is one of the most thought-provoking history books that I have ever read. Interestingly enough, much of the material in this book is also covered in Simon Schama's third volume of his History of Britain, yet this book demonstrates Ferguson to be unquestionably the better historian. Whilst Schama is content to trot out the old, hackneyed liberal view that the British Empire gave little to the world, Ferguson is prepared to challenge this , equally giving weight to the benefits bestowed to other countries and the problems as well as comparing the fortunes of those nations ruled by less well-intentioned leaders. In a few words, this is a very balanced view and the author must be applauded for the convincing manner with which he supports his (currently) unfashionable arguments.
The book concludes that the world needs dominant powers to counter-act the malevolent actions of the world's less scrupulous leaders. As Ferguson says, the greatest contribution to the world by the British Empire was the fact that it sacrificed itself to prevent the world being ruled by the two evil empires of Nazi Germany and Japan. With the demise of the British Empire, more through economics than the quest for independence, Ferguson argues that the USA must now take on the role vacated by Britain.
To conclude, this is a brave piece of historic writing made even better by the fact that it is so enjoyable to read. This is an essential purchase for history lovers and deserves to be read by every Briton. So strong are his arguments, this book could lead to a sea change in way in which we view our past. Niall Ferguson's "Empire" is the most relevant history book I am aware of in today's troubled times. Thoroughly recommended.
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on 21 January 2003
"Empire" tries to show how a mixture of luck, circumstance, personalities and historical imperative created the Empire on which the sun never set and, perhaps more importantly, how it worked. It does this pretty well, although suffers from attempting to cover a lot of ground in a relatively small and well-illustrated book - this is very much history in broad outline, with few piercing insights into the characters who made the Empire.
Ferguson comes across as very much an economic and social historian in the book - and, rather surprisingly, as an apologist for Britain's post-WW2 decline. His logic is bleak but rigorous, and the overwhelming feeling after reading the book is that of opportunities missed.
Ferguson is at his best when discussing the effects British migrants and politicians had on the lands they invaded or colonised - yet, paradoxically, at his weakest when trying to hint at how the Empire affected individuals inside and outside it. Broad trends are allowed to overrule the interesting individual anecdote.
Ferguson is primarly an academic historian and while this approach is ideal for his more rigorous books I feel that this work (which accompanies a tv series) is just too dry to successfully partner the TV programmes.
The problem is, Empire has been done better in print before - Laurence James' "The Rise and Fall of the British Empire" tells almost the same story in a more detailed and compelling way, albeit with less pictures, and Simon Schama's epic "A History of Britain", although told from a slightly narrower perspective (what did Britain to do the world, rather than how did the world interact with Britain) reads better.
So, a good overview of the rise and fall of the Empire, and a good global perspective, but not a compelling read.
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on 29 January 2015
Such a vast period of History, starting with Sovereign backed pirates and thugs all out for personal gain to the real collapse of Empire in 1947, which on retrospect mostly seemed to have left a final beneficial effect (railways, communications, sanitation and a whiff of democracy). This book is a great read if you don't want to get bogged down in all the small detail of 300 years of British expansion and then demise. The original Empire builders were men of great military and commercial foresight. The French had great tracks of sand in North Africa, but the Brits took Gibraltar, no bigger than a postage stamp... but you couldn't get into the Med without passing Gib. The same with South Africa, crossing from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean you had to be on friendly terms with the Brits (food and water) etcetc every strategic port around the world was a focal point for the Empire..... read this book if you want the flavour, warts and all, of an incredible period of history.
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