Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

By Niall Ferguson

7,092 ratings - 3.9* vote

Once vast swathes of the globe were coloured imperial red and Britannia ruled not just the waves, but the prairies of America, the plains of Asia, the jungles of Africa and the deserts of Arabia. Just how did a small, rainy island in the North Atlantic achieve all this? And why did the empire on which the sun literally never set finally decline and fall? Niall Ferguson's a Once vast swathes of the globe were coloured imperial red and Britannia ruled not just the waves, but the prairies

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Book details

Paperback, 422 pages
2003 by Penguin Books

(first published 2002)

Original Title
Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
ISBN
0141007540 (ISBN13: 9780141007540)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Jonny

I wrote a paper on my initial reaction to the book, and after finishing it, I think my intuition was right. Here it is (I think I'm pretty harsh in this review--I don't think the book is "one-star bad" though):

"A brief Google search of Niall Ferguson provides an ocean of information on him and his political leanings. Without a doubt, the most controversial is his defense of British Imperialism. After reading the introduction and first chapter of his book, “Empire,” it becomes clear why he is a target for so much criticism. Although one cannot form elaborate and sophisticated argumentation regarding Ferguson’s pro-British principles, my initial knee-jerk reactions are not too pleasant.
Ferguson ends the introduction saying, 'The question is not whether British imperialism was without blemish. It was not. The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity.' This loaded statement reveals a lot about Ferguson. First, it shows that he’s particularly interested in marginalizing and dismissing the harm that the British Empire caused to millions of people. Secondly, it shows that he wants to emphasize the good that the Empire caused—even if it is unjustified. And finally, it shows that he has a preoccuption with modernity as the West defines it.
This concern with modernity is shown further in the opening chapter to the book. Ferguson views history, and in this case British history, from a liberal or a modernist perspective. He’s certainly not a political economist. He tells the story with the major, wealthy players in mind (the British, the Dutch, and the French) and rarely discusses the colonized, so to speak. He’s very concerned with talking about the ‘metropole’ and not the ‘periphery.’ He does not question the actions of the British when they were pirates, monopolists, or conquerors. He tells the story as if Britain was some disadvantaged underdog in international affairs and they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and then rained grace upon the chaotic and anarchic Indian people. The imagery he uses makes it seem like, in a sense, Britain was a victim of the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the French.
When there is a nation being colonized and taken advantage of (in this case, India), the least he could do is devote more than a couple paragraphs to the people of that nation and their struggle. Without a doubt, Ferguson knows British history well. But when one reads his version of the story and contrasts it with an alternative history book, the difference between a modernist and a political economist becomes very clear. And it also becomes clear that the world may not need another modernist historian like Niall Ferguson."

Riku Sayuj

I so wanted to launch into an outraged invective against the temerity of the author - but find myself in reluctant agreement with most of the arguments. Let me read and research the period even more before any attempt at a conclusion.

Related review, for the interested: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

William2

This is a highly compressed history of 300 or so years of British imperialism. It isn't pretty, much of it. The Mutiny, 1857, the Boer War, 1900, Amritsar Massacre, 1919, are gone into with some thoroughness. What I missed was Ferguson's facility with statistics. His manipulation of them made The Pity of War a fascinating read. Empire is by an large straight narrative with little statistical support until we arrive in the 20th century, at which point the author reverts to form. The narrative was satisfying to me in that it gave me a snapshot of the entire breadth of the British imperial high jinks. I think the "implications for the US" aspect of the book is actually quite weak and was oversold by the publishers. There isn't much of that really, save for the occasional facile comparison. What was interesting, however, was Ferguson's description of how the dissolution of the Empire was one of the precursors to American participation in World War II. It makes sense. How could the USA fight with Britain to save its empire when its aim was that everyone else (Germany, Italy, Japan) had to give up theirs? Roosevelt and his minions were actually anti-imperial. The Brits, especially Churchill, pointed out the hypocrisy here, and the complaints had merit, if questionable relevance, given the comparitive geographic quantities and historic durations involved. Recommended survey text for general readers.

Shuprova

Wow. When Ferguson started this book by acknowledging his positionality as a child who was brought up to love the Empire, and only later understood the horrors that came with it, I wrongly assumed that he might have been able to break out of that pro-Empire point of view. But I was completely wrong. The apologist tone of this book just got worse and worse, with Ferguson basically arguing that although the Empire was bad, it wasn't THAT bad, which in my opinion is no argument at all. This book is also based on his view that the European liberal economic system is the highest achievement of modernity, and despite all the negative sides of the Empire, it at least allowed the rest of the developing world to become 'modern'.

What really struck me the most is the language he used throughout the book. It's interesting he wrote an entire book on Empire that is only filled with names of British Lords and Viceroys and businessmen, complete with romanticised character descriptions. Asian and African names were almost non-existent, and even then just thrown in casually. Starting from the overuse of the word 'natives' to using 'Indian nationalism' and 'terorrism' in the same paragraph to suggesting the Boer concentration camps where almost 28,000 women and children died was 'gross negligence' but the Belgian empire was rife with 'abuse of human rights' - this book is simply written about the elite by the elite about their glory days of world control.

What's worse is that he acknowledged many of the negative things that happened, like the famines and the slave trade, and it gives you the impression that he is talking about both the bad and the good of the empire. But when you dig deeper, you realise how whitewashed these good examples are. For example, he talks about the Muzzafarpur incident, and how the justice of the British system meant that the masterminds of the attack were only imprisoned, not murdered or tortured. He fails to include that Khudiram was only 18 when he was publicly hanged for the crime, and the other accused was cornered and committed suicide, and then his severed head was sent to Calcutta for identification. But if you were new to South Asian history, you would simply have taken his word for it. So what else has he omitted from this general and very biased overview of Empire?

If you want to grasp at straws and find some faint excuse for feeling proud about the British empire, and also if you believe for some bizarre reason that the neoliberal system that allows corporations to benefit at the expense of people is a good thing, then this book is for you. If you're interested in people's history and want a more nuanced and comprehensive history of the regions that to this day continue to be affected by the consequences of imperialism, I'd suggest you steer clear.

Mark

For as long as I can remember I have always been fascinated by the British Empire; this enormous edifice which towered over the world and 'bestrode' enormous amounts of the world's land-mass.
Its fascinhation stems in part, I think, because it is an aspect of the world's history which stirs up so many conflicting emotions.

Ones which sometimes seem diammetrically opposed to each other; shame because of the abuse and oppression which is undoubtedly present in some corners or even whole rooms of the aforesaid edifice whilst at the same time recognizing that the heritage, if that is the right word, of its long rule in other parts of the world produced stability and security. Having to face up to the reality of the intolerance and patronizing attitudes which infested the british ruling classes
('Liberty does not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed'...inscription on the New Delhi Secretariat from the British Consul) whilst also acknowledging that these same men, and it was largely men though not exclusively of course, enabled the development and opening out of huge swathes of the world.

This also brings you up against the uncomfortable truth of the pillaging and stripping of these same swathes of land, the artificial creation of nations which were never truly real, the subjugation of independant tribes and ancient kingdoms and this collides with the British Empire's battle to rid the world of slavery, to encourage free trade and prevent protectionism. I could go on but Ferguson does an admirable job in attempting to shine light on all these aspects and shows, wittily and, it seems to me, fairly justly, the fact that any too simplistic treatment of this complex question so as to result in its dismissal as heinous or elevation to some sort of hagiographical utopia is crass and disingenuous.

Attempting, as he does, to crush four hundred or so years of the world's development into under 400 pages was never going to be an easy ask. His treatment of various passages of history is surprisingly quick and almost dismissive though this may be because so many other volumes deal with these periods but I did find his emphasis intriguing where the construction of the Empire was detailed, in certain areas, microscopically but others were almost footnotes and similarly the collapse of the Empire was whistled through as if an attempt to mirror the rush from responsibility which is sometimes levelled at the UK's swift removal from Africa in the 50's and early 60's.

This book deals with repression and cruelty which is quite shocking in parts, it shows the gradual development of a sensitivity to other nations and races which, with the inevitable embarrassing occasional retreat into bigotry and intolerance, did begin to take the upper hand in the british dealing with the 'outside world' but it also glittered with some real gems of wit and humour and wonderful sarcastic asides towards the hypocrisy and blindness, purposeful or otherwise, of those in power. This however leads into an interesting reflection on the new reality of empire now in our time. In his conclusion Ferguson points out the good and ill that resulted, in his opinion, from the 'largest empire the world had ever known' but he also points out by twisting Dean Acheson's aphorism that Britain had lost an Empire but failed to find a role that

'The Americans have taken on our old role without yet facing the fact that an empire comes with it'

Not everyone will agree with his conclusions, some will say he is too generous to the British Empire, others that he is too harsh; some will see his defence as mealy-mouthed or disingenuous others will see his attack as underhand or deliberately negative; He is too provocative, he is too entrenched, he allows himself to be too historically circumscribed, he is not conscious enough of historical factors....i am sure all of these things might be said by individuals as they read this book but the fact that so much of this might be said would point to the fact that he does, in a small concise way, make a fair stab at encapsulating an enormous sprawling historical one-off.

Lobstergirl

This is an utterly engrossing and entertaining history of the British Empire. Ferguson is a terrific storyteller and his narrative has scarcely a dull sentence. He emphasizes the empire's rise much more than its fall, which is confined to the final chapter. The six chapters cover commodity markets, labour markets, culture, government, capital markets, and warfare, "or, in rather more human terms, the role of" pirates, planters, missionaries, mandarins, bankers, and bankrupts.

The book is punctuated with small but vivid details, such as how George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India and "a most insufferable person," had been "entrusted as a child to a deranged governess" who "periodically forced [him] to parade through the village wearing a large conical cap bearing the words 'liar', 'sneak' and 'coward'." In the northern-Indian hill country to escape the summer heat, Curzon and his wife found the Viceroy's Lodge "odiously vulgar." 'I keep trying not to be disappointed,' confessed Lady Curzon. 'A Minneapolis millionaire would revel in it.'" And how the British economist John Maynard Keynes - "everyone was in awe of his great brain" - in Washington to arrange American financing for the British in World War II, "disliked the way American lawyers tried to blind him with jargon - speaking (as Keynes put it) 'Cherokee'. He loathed the way politicians would answer phone calls in the middle of meetings with him."

Choose this Penguin edition over the Basic Books edition - in spite of its lower price, it has color plates and the latter has black and white.

Palmyrah

Earlier this year, I read (and reviewed on this site) a nasty piece of work called The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon. Like the present volume, it was a history of the British empire. Unlike the present volume, it was a determined hatchet job, in which all the crimes, follies and failures of British imperialism were noted at great length, while its achievements were ignored or decried. Jonathan Rashid, whose review of Empire appears just below mine on this page, would probably love it.

Niall Ferguson’s Empire (subtitled ‘How Britain Made the Modern World’) is a more nuanced piece of work. He begins it by declaring his own relatively sympathetic position but goes on to give an extraordinarily well-balanced account of the course of empire. His starting-point is earlier than Brendon’s; he identifies Sir Henry Morgan’s adventures in the Caribbean as the beginning of Britain’s imperial project. Commencing there, he takes the reader on a thematic tour of imperial history, overflying great swathes of territory at high altitude but landing at key points along the way. This isn’t a traditional history, detailed and larded with quotes from sources; the subtitle really is the point.

Ferguson neglects none of the eyesores of British history, nor does he try to daub whitewash on the dark side of the empire. He does, however, make a strong case that the modern world would have been a much nastier place without the Empire – both in imperial times and in post-imperial ones. His last chapter sums up the case for the defence, and it is a strong one. The world is not, and has never been, a nice place; but without the British empire (no nice thing in itself) it would be a much nastier one.

Christopher

This was an absolutely wonderful read! Niall Ferguson, author of this book's sequel, "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire," gives his readers a crash-course in British imperial history starting with the English privateering raids on the Spanish empire and ending with the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. Ferguson's main point is that, all things considered, the British Empire was a good thing for the world. And, it must be said, he makes a very strong case for this using economic, political and historical analysis to bolster his case along with some thumping good tales. But this is not a jingoistic or details-oriented book. Quite the opposite in fact! This book was written with the general reader in mind and is the most accessible book on British history I have ever read. Also, rather than avoid the empire's darker incidents, he uses them as evidence that when the British did bad things, bad things happened not just to the native people (tragic enough as that is), but to the empire as a whole. A reasonable point to make when one considers how poor policies in Iraq nearly screwed the U.S. over internationally as well as domestically (read Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco" for details). There were a few nit-picky issues I have with him, but I feel that this is great book that makes a far better case for, weird as it may sound, a Liberal American empire than his sequel to this book does.

Tim Pendry


I was initially quite impressed by this book but I suggest you read a standard narrative of empire and return to this afterwards as a useful and often wise interpretation of that history. I can strongly recommend the old but still serviceable trilogy by James/Jan Morris.

Where Ferguson scores is in his thematic approach which is revealed in the Acknowledgements as having been driven by a link to a Channel Four TV series. This explains some of the book's oddities where the narrative seems to be driven by scripting concerns rather than by the history itself.

This background is shown most clearly when Ferguson dwells periodically on one case study to illustrate a thesis in a way that suggests a marginal distortion simply to make the thematics interesting for a popular audience - the human interest angle that television desperately craves.

Similarly, 'news' rather than historical values intrude when it becomes clear that Ferguson is playing to polemics about empire, again distorting the story somewhat to create a binary good-bad comparison that he carries well until it all comes to a shuddering halt in a weak final chapter.

There is something worrying about popular history that is driven by the attention spans of a half-educated and easily bored audience. It is neither fish not fowl because Ferguson is compromising on something he undoubtedly is - a very fine historian indeed.

From from the negatives to the positives. The thematic approach (so long as one understands that it leaves out as much as it covers) is very insightful. I learned a great deal of new things derived from current research and Ferguson's own interesting conservative but humane overview.

I may not have changed my overall opinion of the imperial project but my understanding was changed of how it operated and developed and from there my opinion on some matters changed. This is very much to the credit of Ferguson.

The first three chapters/programmes (as you will) give a plausible and informative outline of the piratical origins of empire, explore the dependence of the empire on mass white migration and explore the ideological impact of the verminous spread of missionary activity.

This is not to dispute the ambiguity of almost every aspect of the story. The miserabilist Christianity of the British did help to almost eliminate the slave trade after all and the positive side of piracy was the total push it gave to global modernisation which ultimately benefited humanity.

The book then goes on to explore the rise of a form of Tory orientalism that replaced the liberal missionary approach which had helped to trigger the disaster of the Indian Mutiny when the Empire showed its true and vicious colours.

Again, there is ambiguity. The British (in Jamaica, Tasmania and India - add Kenya and others not mentioned by Ferguson) behaved repulsively and violently but Ferguson is right that the alternative to the British Empire towards the end would have been Empires yet more vicious still.

Perhaps that does not justify Empire but it does cast a different light on the Anglo-sphere as progressively more civilised than its angry and hungry German, French, Belgian and Japanese rivals. But it is not as if any Empire is kinder when it is existentially threatened and this matters.

Empire is essentially a project about power. The British learned to rule through holding an iron fist ready at any time to strike (much like the American Empire today) but showing restraint in order to avoid having to use it. The Empire collapses when there is no more money for the iron fist.

Ferguson implies that the loss of empire was a matter of will power but I do not think it was so simple. It was also about cash and other ways of making money. By the end, the Empire was getting the attention of second rate minds.

Tory imperialism certainly triggered its own reaction after the Boer War (there is a sort of call-and-response between generations in this history) in elite contempt for its own creation amidst awareness that the thing was built ultimately on brute force and was not cheap to maintain.

The brute fact is that the Liberal blunder of 1914 and the moral crusade of 1939/1940 (which meant no deal with German aspirations) gutted the finances of the 'holding company'. It was then 'for sale'. Otherwise, the Empire might still be with us today as a set of conservative dominions.

At all times, Ferguson is fair and sophisticated in his approach. If one might dispute his conclusions at times, nevertheless he does lay out the facts that are relevant to the disputation and his opinions are always reasoned and plausible - at least for the first five chapters.

The final chapter is more problematic. Partly this is a matter of it being closer to our time. A lot of ground is covered in too short a space. Partly it is because he quietly and steadily slips into a sotto voce polemic in favour his conservative vision of neo-imperial Atlanticism.

It is at this point that the reader feels he is leaving the land of 'objective' history and moving into the land of tele-subjectivism - not entirely but enough to feel a little uncomfortable and exploited. Why - one asks - is there such an extended section on Gallipolli? For Australian sales?

It does not help that chunks of imperial history are left out - East Asia scarcely exists in the narrative. The Opium Wars are mentioned only in passing. The Americans exist only to revolt and save us without any significant mention Anglo-American relations in the meantime.

Nevertheless, the book is recommended for its insights which are considerable, especially in those five first chapters. It is best probably to see this as a selection of evidenced opinions and insightful anecdotes and tales that add understanding to the wider narrative history.

On balance well worth reading but do not take it as all there is to say on the subject by any means and use your critical faculties (not only in this case but all spin-offs from TV series) to weed out the tropes and conventions of television which 'educate' us through insightful simplifications.

Justin

The first two or three chapters of "Empire" are rather concise and informative, thoughtfully explaining the nuts-and-bolts of how the British Empire came to be.

Unfortunately, much of the book subsequently devolves into coy and seemingly unintentional comparisons between Britain's empire in practice with, say those of the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and others. Ferguson very dutifully and diligently condemns those excesses of the British Empire, which he tactfully describes as "at its best amoral". Unfortunately, these critiques are almost uniformly followed with unflattering comparisons with England's imperial brethren, as if to say 'The British imperial system wasn't perfect, but could have been worse!'.

For example, English ships, according to Ferguson's estimates, shipped some 3 million Africans across the Atlantic and into slavery--how dreadful--fortunately for the soul of the British Empire, its use of the Royal Navy in intercepting the 19th century slave trade shows that its heart was in the right place. Ditto the English treatment of Australian aborigines: they were treated horrifically, we are told, but at least the English weren't as complete in their extirpation as, say, the Americans in dealing with their own indigenous inhabitants.

The use of "what-ifs" and counter-factuals has a place in historical thought, and Ferguson has made great use of this rhetorical technique in the past. The utility of such a device, it seems to me, loses much (if not all) of its effectiveness when it is deployed jingoistically or chauvinistically, however. If only this or that had happened, then America would be part of the British Commonwealth, or the poor savages of Africa could have been "civilized", and so on and so forth. It all presupposes that a benign, market-driven, free-enterprise approach to empire produced the greatest the world had known to that point. That it produced a "great" empire is undisputed; that its greatness was of intentional benefit to anyone but the English (and a narrow, wealthy minority at that) is less clear.

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