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on 16 December 2010
Predictably some other reviewers have condemned this book for not taking the politically-correct view that in all respects the British Empire was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany. At no point does Niall Ferguson shrink away from the fact that a lot that was done in the name of the Empire was indefensible. However his argument is that a lot of good things came out of Britain's imperial past as well.

While I may not personally agree with all of his list of the "good" things I believe that the book as a whole gives a balanced view of the Empire, far more balanced than those who try to suggest that the Empire was pure, unadultered evil!

Worth reading.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 February 2006
This was the first Niall Ferguson book I read and certainly won’t be the last… I chose to read this book specifically because I was interested in learning more of the history of the British empire but did not really want to end up reading a text book. In Empire, Ferguson provides the perfect medium to cover the history of the British empire, in enough detail to answer certainly the questions I had, but not in so heavyweight a style to be boring.
Aspects of the empire which people would prefer to forget (notably slavery) are dealt with honestly and fairly, and the overall aims of the empire as it first established are excellently detailed. If I had to say something negative I would suggest that the end of the empire, with the drive of member countries towards independence is perhaps covered a little too quickly.
That said, if you are looking to learn more about British history over the past 300 years and its influence on the world, this is an excellent place to start.
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on 10 July 2015
Ferguson is never dull: he is capable of extraordinary insights. I think that he convincingly proves his thesis about Britain shaping the modern world. He certainly proves that mindless critique of the Empire is nonsensical. I have enjoyed this book, and learned much from it!
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on 24 November 2017
As the sun finally set on the British Empire a senior diplomat is said to have told Denis Healey that all that Britain would leave behind as its legacy would be Association Football and the words F**k Off. On the contrary argues Ferguson who seeks to show that the legacy of the British Empire was essentially positive. Whilst he acknowledges that racism, discrimination and xenophobia were themselves legacies he writes these off as having existed before colonialism anyway though he fails to adequately accept their effects in an imperial context and solely resulting from the scramble for empires by European states were for many individuals simply horrific. On the positive side of the balance sheet were:

1. The triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organisation
2. The Anglicization of Australasia and North America
3. The internationalisation of the English language
4. The enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity
5. The survival of parliamentary institutions – this particularly reference against the rise of Nazism and WW2

Frankly, apart from number 5, I am not sure that all the above were or are unalloyed successes, and I’m sure the indigenous populations of Australia and N America would not have thought so. Today’s problems in the middle east have much to do with the scramble for imperial positions by Britain and France in 1919. I could go on but I am being too hard on the British Empire but only because the author over-plays his hand. This is a good short history of the largest empire in human history, created almost accidentally and created often from the rubble of other people’s empires and possessions, particularly from those of France and Spain. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the jewel in the crown – India -was never a single political entity but an empire itself to which the British arrived late and supplanted other non-native rulers – in this case the Mughals.

The story that is told is a good general history of the rise of Empire from the Elizabethan privateers brought England into contact with the Spanish Empire to the granting of Royal monopolies the trading companies, most famously the East India company, on the Dutch model. Oddly, given the later hegemony of the British Empire, the English rarely achieved first mover advantage. As Johnny come lately, England was excluded exclusion from the rich S American continent having to make do with North America instead – then seen as a poorer alternative. Later the Seven Years War brought many French and possessions under Britain’s control but also sowed the seeds of cessation by her 13 N American colonies.

Private enterprise was hugely acquisitive in the name of Empire. India, through Clive and Africa from Cairo to Capetown, through Rhodes were largely obtained by adventurers whilst Australasia was to a large degree incorporated because of the publicly funded work of explorers such as Cook. Unlike previous conquerors, the British exported huge numbers of their population, Ferguson calls this largest mass migration in history of some 20 million people over the life of the Empire the ‘White Plague’, to their colonies through Plantation, Transportation, Religious Persecution or into the 19th century through Missionary Zeal and a whole host of other push/pull factors. As immigrants everywhere tend to these added dynamism to the colonies that helped keep ties back to the old country whilst developing the new ones.

It is possible to see several upside items on the balance sheet of the British Empire – the ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (after at 1st being a key participant) – Pax Britannica, the proliferation of Free Trade from the mid-19th century, significant investment in developing economies, the ending of harmful practices such as suttee in India. Ferguson also identifies that the Empire system was remarkable efficient. In India, just 1000 civil servants administered to a population of some 400 million! It is remarkable that by spending just 2% of its GDP (comparable to today’s % of GDP spent on Defence) Britain not only possessed the largest and most modern navy in the world but also an Army of some 300 000 men (excluding the much larger Indian army funded by the Raj rather than the British taxpayer.

In the final analysis of Ferguson claims for the British Empire (alongside its prodigal colony the USA and the USSR) the honour of accepting its eclipse as a necessary condition for the liberty and liberal systems we see in the world today and here the book runs up against the stops. His point is almost that the Empire’s most important positive position on the balance sheet is that it was still around in 1940 to achieve its finest hour and to me this is simplistic in that it ignores entirely the question of to what extent it helped create the conditions for Great Power rivalry in the 1st place in the years prior to 1914. In the final analysis, having set out to answer the question ‘was the empire a good or bad thing’ (a question unlikely to ever have a definitive answer as it depends primarily on whether you were one of the winners or losers under the system) his position that for the most part it was a good thing is frankly not supported by his text which is less thesis than reporting. Furthermore, this book written in 2003 about an empire that lasted for 300 years is now out of date – made so by the likes of the 2008 financial crisis and 2016’s Brexit vote when Britain has decided to retreat not only from Empire but from the world and where the liberal systems, Free Trade and Capitalism, claimed as positive outcomes of empire (rightly so in my view) by the author are under attack across the Western World. In the end this book was something of a disappointment – maybe I should have read it in 2003 rather than in 2017.
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on 20 January 2014
This book is an excellent review of the good,bad and indifferenn aspects of the British empire over 400 years from the17th to 20th centurys.
The author considers 6 aspects in the history of empire-pirates,planters,missionaries,mandarins,bankers and bankrupts.
Chapter 1 discusses empire as an economic phanomonen,chapter 2 deals with migration chapter3 describes the voluntry non governmental character of empire building chapter 4 questions how such a small bureauocracy could could rule such a large empire.chapter5 the role of military forces and chapter 6 the role of empire in the 20th century.A remarkably erudite and comprehensive account of an empire we have nothing to be ashamed of.
Highly recommended.
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on 13 December 2016
Really enjoyed this book. It's real people examples help bring the book to life. It is not afraid to make some bold statements and also does give fair attention to all the good and bad aspects the empire brought the world.
At times I think a good understanding of the British Empire history and key people would have helped understand the insights Niall Ferguson brings to the fore a bit more. But nonetheless. A great read and would recommend for anyone who is interested in getting a good oversight of the history of the British Empire from start to near-enough end.
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on 11 October 2012
I enjoyed this book,both in its wide panoply of history within the Empire,and the authors views. Whether you agree with his views that surely is the purpose of a book. Ferguson's main emphasis is on India,which is not really surprising given its vastness in population and general size.I have always felt,and Ferguson supports it,that the development of the Empire was a selfish and arrogant attitude adopted by the British who neither cared or thought about the indigenous population,they were concerned with natural resources, and power,their methods were right and justified,and could illustrate rather weakly that God supported them in their actions.
This an interesting book,it is well written,and throws up areas that will encourage further research.
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on 19 April 2015
Great buy!
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on 7 February 2017
perfect, just what my daughter needed for her coursework
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on 19 November 2016
The British Empire was the biggest Empire the world has ever seen. At its height it governed around twenty-five percent of the world’s population and covered about the same proportion of the planet’s land mass. Through its navy it dominated nearly all of the earth’s oceans. As Niall Ferguson points out in his introduction to this excellent history of the British Empire: “How an archipelago of rainy islands off the north-west coast of Europe came to rule the world is one of the fundamental questions, not just of British but of world history.”

Across six chapters, roughly running in chronological order, Ferguson explains the part played by Pirates, Planters, Missionaries, Mandarins, Bankers and Bankrupts in constructing ‘The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets’. Packed with interesting facts and information it manages to be both concise and comprehensive - and fair and balanced. Indeed, Ferguson is one of my favourite historians precisely because his writing provides a balanced alternative to the kind of one-sided, Cultural Marxist history taught in Western schools and universities and promulgated by the mainstream media.

If you want to understand how Britain came to rule the world and the part our ancestors played in that achievement then you’d be hard pressed to find a better introduction than this. Today over 350 million people speak English as their first language and around 450 million as their second. As Ferguson acknowledges “the question is not whether British imperialism was without a blemish. It was not. The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity”. After reading this, I’m more inclined to be grateful that it was the British Empire which made the modern world and not some of its more ruthless competitors.
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