- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003


By Niall Ferguson

Basic Books, $35, 392 pages, illus.


Imperial triumphalism is in fashion, which is an ominous omen. The British people were admirably immune to it through almost all of their illustrious history, but once they fell for the pomp and pageantry, the glory and the glitter, of Queen Victoria’s Gold and Diamond jubilees, the hideous nemesis of World War I was just around the corner.

Americans should, therefore, draw a caveat at British historian Niall Ferguson’s evident enthusiasm to cast them as the heirs to the King-emperors and queen-empress of Buckingham Palace. But otherwise, they should welcome this vividly written, masterfully researched and freshly, originally argued major history from one of Britain’s most brilliant and productive young historians.

As he has already shown in “The Pity of War” and other works, Mr. Ferguson is already one of the leading exponents of what he calls “counter-factual history” — a liberating escape from the gloomy determinism and intolerance of Marxist cultural theory and the French “Annales” school that humanity is put helpless puppets in the grip of vast, implacable cultural and material forces and that what has happened is the only thing that possibly could have happened.

Here, he uses that freshness of mind to explore not only the apparent inevitabilities of Britain’s imperial rise and fall, but also the many surprises that took place along the way. Perhaps the greatest is the extraordinary reversal policy and popular sensibility alike that swept Britain as long as 200 years ago on the issue of slavery.

Shameful involvement in the slave trade generated vast profits for England and then the growing British Empire for 250 years. The British did not start it and, indeed, came late to the game compared with the Muslim powers of Saharan Africa and the Middle East, not to mention the indigenous rulers of West Africa itself who defined their glory and success by how many slaves they owned, could capture and trade. But no power then did it on a greater scale for a quarter of a millennium.

However, at the very time the British Empire entered its greatest and most rapid period of expansion, Mr. Ferguson documents, moral revulsion against the trade and very practice of slavery mounted rapidly too, and it quickly led to the deployment of the Royal Navy, the most consistently powerful, long-lasting and far-reaching military force the world had ever seen since the days of the Roman legions, to suppress the trade worldwide.

This theme — a dominant strand though by no means the only major theme in Mr. Ferguson’s especially rich and satisfying book — illustrates many of the surprising and thought-provoking truths about the nature of empire that fly in the face of the leftist and liberal pieties of recent generations.

First as Mr. Ferguson makes clear, empires are far from all alike. They can be liberal and tolerant, as Britain’s overwhelmingly was at its time of greatest expansion and subsequent, post-World War I twilight, or they can be grimly repressive, as the Czarist and Soviet communist empires and Adolf Hitler’s mercifully brief Nazi one was over Europe. Therefore, while the fact of empire is an inescapable and prominent reality throughout recorded history, that does not make the concept automatically good — or bad either. Second, while empires can be terrible forces of terror, repression and destruction, as Joseph Stalin’s and Hitler’s were, they can also be liberating and enlightened, as the Romans largely were and Britain’s was too.

Empires can be either generous or selfish in their imperial policies and of course, often both at the same time.

Mr. Ferguson assesses the British record here as almost entirely on the positive side. Ironically, he — apparently unconsciously — thereby complements the revolutionary conclusions of Correlli Barnett 30 years ago in “The Collapse of British Power” that a sense of imperial responsibilities ultimately weakened and drained the industrial and military power of the British metropolitan homeland itself.

Third, Mr. Ferguson also draws a telling contrast between the British Empire and its contemporary German, Russian and French rivals, all of which were run on far tougher and more selfish “realpolitik” lines. Yet the British ran a larger Empire for far longer than all of theme except the Russian one and got out of their own far more easily and with far less suffering among their own home population unlike, for example, the French, who lost 100,000 dead of the best and bravest young men fighting un-winnable colonial wars in vain efforts to retain Indochina — (modern Vietnam) and Algeria.

Mr. Ferguson concludes by crowning the United States as the heir to Britain’s dominant global imperial rile. Here, he vastly underestimates the powerful — even, for long periods, dominant — role that anti-British suspicion and prejudice played in American politics for three quarters of the history of the republic to this date, up to the “Grand Climacteric” of 1940-41. The British-American melding is a much more recent phenomenon than many of its enthusiastic champions realize, or want to know.

Having said that, this is for the most part a balanced and clear-eyed, while clearly sympathetic chronicle of Britain’s imperial odyssey. At its height, the British Empire long ruled over one quarter of the territory and one quarter of the population of the entire globe. No other imperial system, not the Romans, the Chinese, the Mongols or the Russians, ever came close to either. It is a rich, extraordinary and thought-provoking story done full justice in this most welcome book.

Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International.

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