Customer Review

128 of 145 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A welcome review of the history of the British Empire, 29 Jan 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Hardcover)
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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Initial post: 24 May 2013 18:36:29 BDT
This book is entertaining but seriously flawed.

It makes some serious factual errors. The British empire allowed famines in India that killed millions of people even while food was exported from that country. Preferential tariffs seriously impaired the textile industry in India so that British textile imports to the subcontinent could flourish.

And Ferguson's assertion that Britain willingly sacrificed its empire to preserve democracy at home is pure fantasy. The UK's anti-insurgency campaigns in Kenya and Malaya in the postwar period do not fit the model of noble sacrifice of empire, so he simply ignores these wars.

Ferguson writes well and vividly, but his love of British imperialism impels him to some strange positions. For a thorough critique of this book, see Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis, chapt two.
For a witty, yet scholarly account of British imperialism, see Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.

In fairness, Ferguson's book has better pictures.
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