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If you happen to come across a world map produced by an Englishman at around the turn of the 20th century, you’ll see a planet bathed in red. This was the red of the British Empire, and it was considered a glorious color. Britain reigned over a quarter of the world’s territory and its people, making it, as a postage stamp of the day boasted, “a vaster empire than has ever been.”
The red on the map touched every continent. Australia and Canada were red. The Indian subcontinent — which also included present-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar — was red. In Africa, the empire held a contiguous stretch from Cape Town to Cairo and, by the end of the First World War, it had taken control of much of the Middle East as well. The empire’s navy ruled the seas, its money swayed economies around the world, and its culture took root far and wide.
The British don’t create such maps anymore — not just because the empire is dead but also because it’s understood to be shameful. 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.
Niall Ferguson wishes to disagree. Ferguson is an economist and historian at New York University and Oxford, and his latest book is “Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power,” a comprehensive history of how the British came to rule the world. But it’s more than that, Ferguson insists. In his introduction, the author makes it clear that he intends to do justice to the empire — to set the record straight on a world power he says was, for all its faults (there were many, and he doesn’t shy from them), the chief promoter of progressive thought around the globe for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. So salutary was the British Empire’s effect on history that Ferguson suggests the world would do well to get itself another essentially “good” empire to maintain order. The good empire he’s talking about is the United States.
That the British Empire was, on balance, “a good thing” is a provocative idea, the sort that has made Ferguson a celebrity in the U.K. Ferguson has written six books during the past eight years, and he has often thrilled in presenting novel twists to what others in the academy consider settled historical fact. That he wears the label “revisionist” proudly was shown most boldly in his book “The Pity of War,” in which he argued that Britain should not have entered World War I. According to Ferguson, Germany didn’t pose much of a threat, and victory didn’t offer enough benefit to justify the cost of war, in either money or lives. The book was judged harshly by critics, but it became a bestseller.
The buzz on “Empire” was that it aspired to similar chart-topping iconoclasm; thankfully, though, it falls short. The author is nowhere near as heretical as he has been in the past. Much of “Empire” is solid historical writing, extensively researched and analytical. Ferguson loves numbers, and he often proves a point in a haze of percentages, so let’s do that with this book: Of “Empire’s” 389 pages, only about 30 of them — the introduction and the conclusion — deal directly with the question that Ferguson says he wrote the book to answer: “Was the British Empire a good or bad thing?”
Ferguson investigates the issue as an economist might — by calculating the costs and benefits of empire and seeing which way the scales tip. It’s meant to be a clean exercise, one most concerned with the economic, rather than the moral and emotional, impacts of imperialism. In the end, Ferguson arrives without much apparent anguish at an answer that pleases him. Was the empire a good thing? Yep.
But it’s difficult to agree with him, mostly because the rest of “Empire” — 92 percent of the book’s content — muddies the issue entirely, and one finds Ferguson’s inquiry maddeningly more complex than he makes it out to be. 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.
Ferguson did not intend to write a general history of the empire; instead, his book offers a broad, globalist view of empire formation. In his telling, the story of how the British came to power is composed of a series of common ideas implemented across many lands. These innovations were in technology, the military, economics, politics and morality. Many of these changes, Ferguson says, are still with us today. We can thank the British for much of what makes Western life so nice.
One of the first of these ideas was the modern financial notion of easily available credit — i.e., borrowing money cheaply. Strictly speaking, this wasn’t a British idea; it was introduced to England by the Dutch. In 1688, the Dutch king William of Orange invaded England at the invitation of a handful of English aristocrats, and he brought with him finance-whiz businessmen who persuaded London to install a public-debt system in the nascent empire. One might not think the creation of a public debt would be particularly significant to the buildup of an empire, but one of Ferguson’s talents is to show how small things can change the map of the world. As it does today, public debt allowed the government to pay for very expensive endeavors, such as wars. These wars — particularly the Seven Years’ War, in which the British drove the French from India — gained the empire territory and power that, were it paying cash, it could never have afforded.
The British pursued many new approaches to imperialism that enabled them to quickly surpass other empires. Why were the British colonists in the Americas more successful at building stable colonies than the Spanish? Because, says Ferguson, they tended to send men and women (rather than just men, as the Spanish did) to the New World, allowing for communities in the colonies that resembled the ones in Europe. 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. 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.
The British were not only skilled conquerors; they were also unrivaled at administering the lands they took over. One of the main questions raised by imperialism is a moral one: How can one people in good conscience rule over another? Ferguson makes the case in an oblique way; he suggests that one reason the British can be excused for colonization is that they were efficient governors. In India, for instance, fewer than 1,000 British civil servants and 70,000 British soldiers, a force about twice the size of the New York Police Department, governed hundreds of millions of people. After early attempts to impose British culture on the colonies — which ended with the Indian Mutiny of 1857 — British colonial governors abandoned such efforts. This reluctance to enter into local affairs elides the moral problems of colonialism, Ferguson suggests; the British were so good at invisibly running their colonies, the natives might not have felt the psychological weight of being ruled from afar.
“How did the Victorians do it?” Ferguson asks, and he goes into great detail about the masterly plan the British devised to govern the colonies. First, the empire would send only its best men to deal with the natives, men who were “impartial, incorruptible, omniscient.” Young college boys wanting to join the Indian Civil Service needed to pass a rigorous exam (sample question from the Mental Philosophy section of the test: “What Experimental Methods are applicable to the determination of the true antecedent in phenomena where there may be a plurality of causes?”) and spent months learning native languages. But the British were also determined to turn over much of the governing power to indigenous leaders. A force of thousands of Indians saw to the day-to-day operation of the country. This pro-British Indian elite benefited greatly from British-style education. One of the most important legacies of British rule in India is the widespread dissemination of the English language there; it’s this high English literacy rate that today makes India a hot location for American software firms.
British colonialism came with inevitable misfortunes and tragedies, one of which, of course, was racism. But Ferguson argues that white racism against the people of colonized lands was something that the empire tried valiantly to stop, if only because the empire knew that it could not rule over people who hated their rulers. Often, though, the progressive tendencies of the central government in London were frustrated by the businessmen who inhabited the colonized regions. Ferguson tells the story of the 1883 Ilbert bill, an effort by the London-appointed viceroy to allow Indian judges to try white defendants. The bill sparked an ugly outcry from whites in India. White men suggested that Indian magistrates would seek to punish white women for no reason other than the sexual thrill of it.
Ferguson does not excuse racism, and he points out that the feelings of whites toward the natives did lead, in some way, to the downfall of the empire. The white outcry over the Ilbert bill was the flashpoint for the Indian nationalist movement that would eventually force the British from India.
Aside from “the internationalization of the English language,” among the gifts Ferguson says we ought to thank the British for are “the triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organization” in the world; “the Anglicization of North America and Australia”; the “enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity”; and the worldwide adoption and ultimate “survival of parliamentary institutions, which far worse empires were poised to extinguish in the 1940s”; related to that, we should also credit Britain with promoting “the idea of liberty” — an ironic benefit of imperialism.
Now, in order to be grateful for these things, one must decide whether it’s good that we have them. 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.
You cannot be a cultural relativist and agree with Niall Ferguson. If, like Roy, you yearn for lost native languages, for the rituals the empire snuffed out because Englishmen believed them to be overly quaint or “savage,” you’ll have problems seeing the virtues of the British Empire. Ferguson clearly thinks that some things — capitalism, for instance — are inarguably beneficial to us all. But what he is really arguing is that the British were better for the world than other empires might have been. The Anglicization of North America and Australia, for example, wiped out much of their indigenous populations, and Ferguson recognizes that as a terrible cost of the empire. But he argues that many such costs would have had to be paid anyway: If the British hadn’t taken North America, the Spanish might have, and they would have been far less successful with it. (Of course, one could argue that Spanish colonial rule was better for the natives; in Mexico and Central America Native American peoples and cultures are integrated into contemporary life.)
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.”
Ferguson makes a similar Britain-was-better argument when he grapples with slavery, certainly the worst legacy of the imperial age. In the empire’s early years, the British, like the world’s other powers, were deeply entrenched in international slavery. The export economies that the empire had built in the West Indies and the American colonies were dependent on slaves. But in the late 1700s, moral clarity, in Ferguson’s view, suddenly struck Britain. 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,” Ferguson writes. “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.
That is perhaps too cynical a reading of Ferguson’s analysis, but one is at times reduced to such cynicism. 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. This is certainly something Ferguson wants to get across: Racism, plunder, massacres, all those inevitable woes of imperialism, were redeemed, in Britain, by a fundamentally enlightened populace.
Which brings us back to Ferguson’s nagging question: Were the Brits good for the world, or bad?
Ferguson is an adherent of what he calls “counterfactual” historical inquiry, the practice of asking theoretical what-if questions about past events, such as “What if there had been no American Revolution?” and “What if John F. Kennedy had lived?” (He edited a book called “Virtual History” that is filled with such explorations.) Ferguson’s only real defense of the empire hangs on a counterfactual line of thought: If there had been no British Empire, other regimes would have come to rule the world, and those empires weren’t steered by the virtuous British people.
The evil empires he focuses on are the Germans and Japanese in World War II. (The crimes of the Germans are well known; to judge Japanese imperialists, read up on the Rape of Nanking.) In 1939, Hitler floated the idea of a nonaggression pact with Britain in which he would leave the empire intact if it allowed him to have his way in Europe. “But if England will not have it any other way, then she must be beaten to her knees,” Hitler is reported to have said. The plan was appealing to some in the British War Cabinet, but Winston Churchill, “to his eternal credit, saw through Hitler’s blandishments,” Ferguson writes. Despite terrible odds, Churchill decided to fight Hitler, in order that the world be saved from Nazism. And, Ferguson asks, “Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s sins?”
The problem in pursuing this line of inquiry, however, is the same problem that exists in all counterfactual investigations. Can we thank the British Empire for saving us from the Nazis? Sure. But that doesn’t mean we should forgive the British their faults, or be thankful that the world ever lived under British rule. There’s strong evidence, in fact, that German militarization was pursued directly in response to the threat the Germans saw in the British Empire. And, as Ferguson himself has argued before, it’s possible to fault Britain for entering the First World War, whose messy resolution led to the Second. 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?
Nobody knows the answers to those questions, of course, which is what makes it so difficult to agree with Ferguson that the British Empire was “good.” We can’t ever say for sure what sort of world we’d have had without the Brits. But the even bigger problem with asking whether the British Empire was “worth it” is that most of us who enjoy its benefits didn’t have to pay the costs. Even if you agree with Ferguson that without Britain we’d have had Nazism, is that any consolation to the thousands of people who died for British expansion? In the Sudan in 1898, for example, in an event Ferguson says was the “acme of imperial overkill,” the British gunned down 10,000 desert tribesmen who’d been seen as linked to the assassination of a British general. The British did not do this because they wanted to make the world safe for democracy 40 years later. It happened, as imperial massacres do, in a fit of absolute power, in the certainty all colonialists have that they have the right to decide the course of history for subject peoples.
Ultimately, it’s this arrogant certainty of colonization, the presumption of an obligation to guide the destiny of the world, that is the central stain of imperialism. But the problem goes unremarked by Ferguson, who seems to consider imperialism a kind of natural yearning of man. Not once does he ask whether it was right for anyone other than an Indian to rule India; as he told the BBC, that was never an option. If the British didn’t take over the world, others surely would have. And, these days, if the Americans don’t do the same, others very well might.
Ferguson believes it’s naive to think that the people of one land should not have a say in the lives of people in others. And, after all, in a globalist age, what happens Over There clearly affects us all Over Here, a point proved starkly by Sept. 11 — an event spawned, in a small way, by the Soviet (“Evil Empire”) colonization of Afghanistan and the U.S. proxy-war response to it. Because of this, Ferguson says, the United States, which he believes is the only country capable of righting the ills of the world, should now try to control more directly what happens Over There.
Ferguson spends only about four pages (or 1 percent) of the book discussing this idea, so it’s not clear what exactly he’d like the role of the United States to be. Does Ferguson want the U.S. to colonize the lands that are a threat to us? Not really. Instead, he’d like a beefed-up American presence in the world, a greater willingness on the part of the lone superpower to leverage its strengths — its money and its guns — in the service of its interests. The sort of campaign the United States is pursuing in Iraq would thrill Ferguson greatly (though he doesn’t say it in “Empire,” because the war began after the book was published). This war is not exactly colonization, as President Bush says, but it’s very close to it. We’re not trying to make Iraq safe for American settlers but, instead, to make the region safe for American interests and the country safe for Western-style democracy — a chief stated aim of past empires.
Ferguson does concede that Americans have always been reluctant imperialists, people inclined to “fire some shells, march in, hold elections and then get the hell out — until the next crisis.” But that, he points out, is also how the British started out.
“Like the United States today, Britain did not set out to rule a quarter of the world’s land surface.” In time, it just happened. Good or bad, such a rise to power may be happening again.
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.