Empire Niall Ferguson Essay
Empire Niall Ferguson
* To the British, as to people in the rest of the world, imperialism’s golden age is now considered a stain on human history, an era of slavery and racism and the plunder of native lands and peoples. The notion that imperialism is inherently evil, and that no empire can be a good empire, is an axiom in today’s geopolitics. * Examines the British Empire from an economic perspective, controversially concluding that the British Empire was, on balance, a good thing * Globalisation is the biggest thing that Ferguson thanks the British for * English language and ties to London made it possible
* The Leftist opponents of globalisation naturally regard it as no more than the latest manifestation of a damnably resilient international capitalism. By contrast, the modern consensus among liberal economists is that increasing economic openness raises living standards, even if there will always be some net losers as hitherto privileged or protected social groups are exposed to international competition. * But economists and economic historians alike prefer to focus their attention on flows of commodities, capital and labour. They say less about flows of knowledge, culture and institutions. They also tend to pay more attention to the ways government can facilitate globalisation by various kinds of deregulation than to the ways it can actively promote and, indeed, impose it.
* Ferguson concedes that slavery, racial discrimination and brutal response to insurrection were abhorrent but the free movement of goods, capital and labour, as well as the imposition of law, order and governance across the world were unparalleled triumphs * No one would claim that the piratical empire of the 17th century or the mercantilist one of the 18th century were forces for much more than expropriation, expulsion and enslavement. But by the early 19th century, the British Empire had mutated into the world’s first liberal empire.
* Book seeks to explain how an ‘archipelago of rainy islands… came to rule the world’ and examines the costs and consequences, both good and bad * Ferguson argues convincingly that between about 1750 and 1945, and especially 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. * Why was the British Empire ‘A Good Thing’?
* Emphasis on free trade (ended with WWI as tariffs went up since other countries had not industrialised) * Sent raw materials, manufactured it and then send it back for profit (one-way free trade!!!) * Ruled are also gaining power – no country is able to rule another country without the support of its people (e.g. The Indian Civil Service – Indians benefitted from it)
* Ferguson suggests that the Empire was not planned but rather came 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 * Did not want to be marginalised into a second-rate power by the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Dutch who at the time were striding the globe and claiming vast areas of land in the Caribbean, the Americas and the East Indies * British almost got left behind – resorting to piracy on the Spanish to try and claim a small piece of the action * The Empire was not acquired, as apologists used to pretend, ‘in a fit of absence of mind’; its earliest trophies were the result of piratical plunder, stolen by Elizabethan buccaneers from the Spanish (who’s El Dorado the British so rancorously envied).
* Later, a more concerted campaign of expropriation set out to satisfy the modish cravings of a new consumer economy. * Eighteenth-century England rapidly grew addicted to ‘new, new things’ like tea, coffee and tobacco, while the national sweet tooth required imports of sugar from the West Indies, where the cane was tended by slaves. * However, this was not all done ‘in a fit of absence of mind’ since from the reign of Elizabeth I onwards, there had been a sustained campaign to take over the Empires of others * ‘They had robbed the Spaniards, copied the Dutch, beaten the French and plundered the Indians. Now they ruled supreme’ – Notion of imitation, founded on the premise of copying others
* Commerce and conquest by themselves would not have been enough to achieve an Empire no matter what the financial strength or naval power of the British – there had to be colonization * Ferguson is disinclined to believe in the authorised American view of 1776 as a ‘struggle for liberty against an evil empire’. * The imperialists were already experimenting with schemes for devolution, and politicians at Westminster imagined that American colonies might settle down into membership of ‘a prototype Commonwealth’, with the monarch as a unifying figurehead. * The battles across the Atlantic merely extended a conflict at home between Whigs and Tories. ‘This,’ Ferguson argues, ‘really was the second British – or perhaps the first American – Civil War.’ * Some myths about the American War of Independence are shattered
* Ferguson argues that the ‘revolution’, contrary to the conventional revisionist modern American narrative of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, was more about colonial plantation owners ruthlessly promoting their own financial interests rather than liberty * At the time, Britain was half-hearted in its efforts about keeping the 13 colonies as it was more interested in India – which although seems strange now, it made absolute sense in 1776 as India looked like a much bigger prize and far more important * Boston Tea Party was made up of smugglers gangs enraged that the tax on tea had been reduced (as tea had never been cheaper in New England) rather than a protest against the hike of taxes like most people assume
* ‘The reality was that membership of the British Empire was good for the American colonial economy’ whereas it was the ‘constitutional principle – the right of the British parliament to levy taxes on the American colonists without their consent – that was the true bone of contention’ * A ¼ of the population fought on the side of Britain and when the war ended, approximately 100,000 Americans moved to Canada rather than live in a country independent of Britain * Evidence that points to the argument that the American colonies were more loyal to Britain, and the colonists better treated, than some may have previously thought
* How were the British able to gain so much of southern Africa so quickly? * They’d invested in American-made Maxim guns, the world’s first portable machine guns, huge death-machines that fired 500 rounds per minute and completely devastated native armies. * How did the empire manage to persuade Arabs to fight on the British side in World War I, stymieing German efforts to provoke an anti-British Arab jihad? * Because they had men like T.E. Lawrence — men “with the ability to penetrate non-European cultures” that was gained from the “centuries of Oriental engagement” that other empires lacked. * The British Empire stretched over hundreds of years and millions of miles; its legacy hangs over almost the entire world. It was, at times, a force for good. But just as often, people who lived under the British were manifestly worse off for it, and for others — as in the case of Indians, for whom empire’s consequences are hardest to judge — British rule was at best a mixed blessing.
* The British may have improved the course of history in some lands, but only at a cost — in terms of lives and in lost culture — we would find unpalatable today. * Ferguson recognizes these costs, but he can abide them, he says, because other, worse empires might have come into power were it not for the British. * Britain became the first empire to abolish slavery, and it took to the task with zeal, stationing the Royal Navy off the coast of Sierra Leone to disrupt the Atlantic slave trade to, among other places, the newly independent United States.
* ‘It is not easy to explain so profound a change in the ethics of a people. It used to be argued that slavery was abolished simply because it had ceased to be profitable: in fact, it was abolished despite the fact that it was still profitable. What we need to understand, then, is a collective change of heart.’ * Ferguson delves deep into what might have caused this change, and he discovers a fact of being British that he uses more than once to justify the empire: The British are an essentially good people. * Highly patriotic/nationalistic outlook on the part of Ferguson * Highlights the abolition of slavery rather than also the British’s’ involvement in the slave trade in the first place
Empire for Sale
* Churchill – ‘I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world… but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and the Empire from disaster’ (pg. 295) * Astonishing prophetic words – that he was able to predict the impact that he would have not only in politics but also in the 20th Century * In the end, not even Churchill could save the British Empire as within his lifetime, the Empire unravelled * Why was Churchill able to predict these changes?
* Saw the flaws in the Empire, even at its height * Lines had been drawn and alliances made – start of the battle as the ‘spheres of influence’ had already been decided * People had alliances and enemies – this was a very different world to the one in which empires operated in * Most of the world had now been drawn out and divided between different empires; the only thing that was left to do was to take land off somebody else which meant fighting for it * Inevitability of conflict within the imperialistic climate * Fascinating exchange between the US ambassador and the then foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey after a 1913 military coup in Mexico; the US will remain in Mexico and ‘make ‘em vote and live by their decisions’ for as long as it takes – the US will ‘continue to shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves’ (pg. 350)
* ‘Anything, in other words, but to take over Mexico – which would have been the British solution’ * Roosevelt believed that the ‘colonial system means war’ * ‘To the Americans, reared on the myth of their own fight for freedom from British oppression, formal rule over subject peoples was unpalatable’ * To Ferguson, the problem with the United States is not that it is too committed to imperial hegemony, but that it is not committed enough. Its attention span is too short. It wants to get in, fix things and get out. Americans have not truly accepted the “white man’s burden.” * 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 * 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.
* Focuses on other nations as the cause for the ‘decolonization’ rather than the traditional view that it was national movements within the colonies * ‘When faced with the choice between appeasing or fighting the worst empires in all history, the British Empire had done the right thing… even if it did not last for the thousand years that Churchill hopefully suggested it might, it was the British Empire’s ‘finest hour’’ * In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japs and the Italians keeping theirs * From Masters to Slaves: Despite Churchill’s desperate exhortation to fight ‘to the death’ the British surrendered Singapore rather easily to the Japanese
* 130,000 Imperial troops gave themselves up to a force of half that size; ‘never had so many given up in the face of so few’ * Since the mid-18th Century, it had been one of the Empire’s proudest boasts that ‘Britons never, never shall be slaves’ yet that is exactly what the POW on the Thai-Burmese railway were * 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.
* Ferguson 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 seize power in the new ‘independent’ nations.
* In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and the Italians keeping theirs – did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins? * In comparison to the other plausible alternatives at the time – the Germans, the Italians, the imperial Japanese – the British Empire was A Good Thing * There’s strong evidence, in fact, that German militarization was pursued directly in response to the threat the Germans saw in the British Empire. * With that in mind, here are some counterfactual questions that Ferguson doesn’t answer but ought to: If there had never been a British Empire, would there have been a German Empire? Would we have endured two world wars? * Did the British sacrifice their Empire to defeat Nazism, or was it merely a by-product of doing so?
* I doubt that Churchill and his administration consciously made the decision to sacrifice the Empire in order to defeat Hitler * Before WWII the Empire was costing too much to maintain and the “natives” were becoming more educated, thus they had already started to want more rights and more independence from the British; in this way, the Empire’s dissolution was always going to happen. WWII simply expedited the process * Without an Empire, what would the world be like today? Would the available alternatives have produced a similar end result or something far worse? * Would there have been a German Empire? Or two world wars? * Strong evidence to suggest that German militarisation was a direct reaction to British imperialism
* There is so much talk nowadays about a globalised world and ‘globalisation’ yet I would argue that it is nothing new, since the British Empire had done this since the start of the 17th Century with unprecedented human migration, trade, capital, communications, science and technology * Is it a good thing that English is an international language? * The attitude of the Indian writer Arundhati Roy springs to mind. When her English-language novel “The God of Small Things” was published in 1997, Roy was praised — somewhat patronizingly — by a number of English-speaking critics for her facility with the language. * The British historian Edward Chaney famously called the book “a tribute to the empire,” and Roy, as she is wont to do when faced with any question over her stance on imperialism, lashed out, telling a London radio station that the only reason she spoke English was because she had been forced to. The empire had rolled over her native tongue.
* On the BBC recently, Ferguson was asked about Arundhati Roy’s anger over having been forced to speak English, and whether India would have been better left alone. “The real question that I think we need to ask ourselves is, should they be ruled by bad empires or slightly better empires?” he said. “Because after all, India, when the British turned up, was already ruled by an empire — the Mogul Empire. The Mogul Empire was an organization which existed to tax peasants in order to pay for the Moguls’ consumption. I don’t think there would have been many railways built if the Mogul Empire had remained in place, or had been restored in 1957 … So I think it’s completely fallacious to imagine that if the British hadn’t been there, India would have been some kind of liberal democratic Indian nationalist government of the kind that it has today.”
Conclusion: Part 2
* Ferguson notes that ‘the difficulty with the achievements of the Empire is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of the Empire’ * Controversially, Ferguson stresses that the British did do a lot of good for humanity in their quest for domination: * Promotion of the free movement of goods, capital and labour * A common law and governance
* Arguably in the light of the plausible historical alternatives (for example, French, Russian, German or Japanese hegemony) the British Empire was a good thing * Ferguson tries to glean lessons from this history of the British Empire for future, or present, Empires – namely America * Pointing out that the US is both a product of the British Empire, as well as an heir to it, Ferguson asks whether America – an ‘empire in denial’ – should ‘seek to shed or to shoulder the imperial load it has inherited’ * America refuses to accept the ‘White Man’s Burden’ as it doesn’t want to have to shoulder the responsibilities that come with an Empire
* ‘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’ * The challenge for the US is to use its undisputed power as a force for positive change in the world and not fall into the same traps as the British before them * Imperialism is clearly not dead thus if History does indeed repeat itself then the future could see the USA shifting from an informal Empire to a formal one much like Victorian Britain once did
* Was the fact that Germany did not have an Empire ‘A Good Thing’? * Yes – Germany was strong enough without an Empire * Would have been unstoppable if they had an Empire to call upon * Reluctance by Bismarck to have Cameroon even as he could not be bothered. His policy of welpolitik was only for Europe * No – Height of economic industrialisation thus could have helped the civilising mission * If they had an Empire, the country would have fared better in WWI and WWII * Is the American Empire rising? Is the USA, despite itself, bent on following in Victorian Britain’s footsteps? * The only way that the US could have risen was to destroy the British Empire, which it successfully did with the Marshall Plan in 1947 * Commonwealth countries were no longer supporting each other anymore as the Sterling had been sacrificed therefore the Commonwealth countries turned towards the dollar * US created a neo-imperialist Empire
* Ferguson views the American Empire as ‘A Good Thing’ as they would have responsibility * US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said categorically: ‘We don’t do Empire’, yet many remain unconvinced * Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in his 1987 book The Age of Empire 1875-1914, that states have often chose to portray imperialism as something nasty done by other nations and entirely different from their own expansion of power thus there is no guaranteeing that the US will ever admit imperial ambitions
* Speaking in 1999, Sandy Berger, President Clinton’s national security adviser, declared that the United States is the “first global power in history that is not an imperial power.” A year later, then candidate George W. Bush echoed his words, arguing, “America has never been an empire. … We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused.” * The prolific American journalist Tom Wolfe is one of those to liken America to Rome under Julius Caesar describing it as ‘the mightiest power on Earth’ * Informal Empire of the US in undeniable – is this so different from the early British Empire of monopoly trading companies and missionaries? * Empire of multinational corporations
* Hollywood movies and TV evangelists * Map of the US military bases looks remarkably like a map of the British Navy coaling stations a hundred years ago * Recent US foreign policy recalls the gunboat diplomacy of the British Empire in its heyday, when a little trouble on the periphery could be dealt with by a short, sharp ‘surgical strike’; the only difference is that today, gunboats fly * The American Secretary Dean Acheson famously said that ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role’ – perhaps America has taken this role without yet facing the fact that the Empire comes with it
* Ferguson, in his new book Colossus, argues that with over 750 military bases in ¾ countries on the Earth, America cannot be regarded as anything but imperial * For, if critics like Gore Vidal are to be believed, the US domination of the globe will be one of the shortest-lived and most disastrous in human history. An old witticism has it that the USA is the only nation to have gone from barbarism to decadence without an intervening period of civilization. On this view, internal social breakdown awaits what S. M. Lipset famously called “the first new nation,” and the wait will not be long
Criticisms of the Book
* Lots of quotations from people but no references! * Goes into a premise – ignores evidence that does not support his argument, hoping that people will not pick up on it * Any bit of historical writing has gaps but a good Historian is consistent in the argument * Looks at the Empire from an entirely British perspective – would be interesting to study it from a contrary view * Again and again in “Empire,” Ferguson champions the Britons at home, the people far removed from geopolitical decisions, who invariably, after an imperial outrage, pressed their government to do the right thing, or set out themselves on missions to remake the world
* Niall Ferguson is a glutton for exposure. From January to mid-February 2003 six one-hour television programmes, four lectures to substantial audiences in the University of London’s Senate House, and a large glossy book have been devoted to his theme of ‘empire’ or, as he also puts it, ‘how Britain made the modern world’. Elsewhere, for example in The Times (6-7 January 2003), there have been extracts taken from the book.
Subject: British Empire,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 29 September 2016
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