'Empire' by Niall Ferguson (2003)

Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World - Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 422pp


Objective historical appraisal of the British Empire is largely hamstrung by the contemporary penchant for politically-correct handwringing induced by 'white guilt'. In writing the honest and dispassionate Empire, Niall Ferguson exposed himself to the attacks of those who indulge in such behaviour, and was labelled 'right-wing' and an 'apologist of colonialism'. In truth, Ferguson wrote a commendable, objective narrative of the rise (and fall) of the British Empire and the influence its period of predominance in world affairs has had on the modern world. There do exist, of course, right-wing apologists who, for reasons of misguided belief in national or racial superiority, go misty-eyed for the virtues of the Empire, but Ferguson is not one of them. I have read many history books and I found nothing in Empire that suggested the author was predisposed to any one entrenched viewpoint. Any respectable historian prides themselves on their objectivity.

Rather, Ferguson has provided a comprehensive work that is of remarkable detail given that it covers about 400 years of history in less than 400 pages. He seeks to counter the prevailing contemporary view that Britain constructed an 'evil' empire that oppressed millions of indigenous peoples, which has left him exposed to attacks and slurs by those who find such a view as irreconciliable with their prejudices. This is worrying, as historians should be free to make any valid argument, no matter how disagreeable it is to others. The argument that Ferguson makes, that Empire-building was an evolutionary process, not the malicious design of white men seeking to enslave the world, is a valid one. He acknowledges that abuses occurred, but rightly counterbalances this with the benefits that imperialism brought.

Indeed, it is perhaps wrong to judge Ferguson's book as a debate on whether the Empire was good or bad, which is what any book on the topic inevitably becomes painted as. His stated aim is to trace its influence on the modern world, not to debate the morality of imperialism or colonialism, and he achieves this ably.

If I could make one criticism, it is that when Ferguson reaches the end of World War Two, the next sixty years do not, to my mind, have the same quality of analysis as the preceding 300 or so. This is a disappointment, as the break-up of the British Empire in the years after 1945 had a massive impact on the shaping of the modern world, creating newly-independent countries, strategic problems and residual animosities that one can still identify in world politics today (partition in Palestine and India, for example). Rather than addressing these issues in all their complexity, Ferguson instead presents the United States as the heir to Britain's throne as arbiter of world affairs. This is a worthwhile pursuit, but not the whole story. However, there are numerous other books that one could consult if one wished to study the break-up of Empire in more detail. Ferguson's Empire is a valuable work that I would recommend to anyone as the first port of call for studies into the topic.