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Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British…

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for… (2003)

by Niall Ferguson

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Audiobook review: Difficult read. Good book, very interesting, but don't recommend it for a long car trip. ( )
1 vote marshapetry | Mar 11, 2012 |
The British Empire is the world's largest empire and ushered in the modern age. Surely there must be lessons for others to follow and to avoid in an empire. The central question of the book is to consider the role of the United States as the inheritor of the British Empire. Indeed, it is the first major rebel against British hegemony.

Most of the Founders of America assumed the United States would become an empire in its own right although in contemporary American political debates both the Left and the Right have criticized an American Empire. Thomas Donnelly and Max Boot remain two of the very few commentators who seek a responsible role for an American Empire. Post-Napoleonic and asymmetrical warfare abounded for a Britain tied to global hegemony. The question then is this the proper role of America in the tradition of the British Empire? Two distinctions remain: the American Navy is stupendously more powerful and possesses a range far exceeding anything the British could accomplish, and two, American power is diplomatic and economic in nature as opposed to direct colonial domination. There are important distinctions to be sure but a comparison of historical precedents are instructive according to Ferguson.

Cases against Empire include many varieties of political persuasion from classical liberal, free trade, and Marxism, a whole gamut of opposition. The gist of all such arguments though comes down to this: "can you have globalization without gunboats?" (p. xix). Ferguson continues: "There is a growing recognition of the importance of legal, financial and administrative institutions such as the rule of law, credible monetary regimes, transparent fiscal systems and incorrupt bureaucracies in encouraging cross-border capital flows" (pp. xix-xx). Empire enhances global welfare (p. xx). "The principal barriers to the optimal allocation of labour, capital and goods in the world are, on the one hand, civil wars and lawless, corrupt governments (p. xx). . . . yet the fact remains that no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" (p. xxi).

There are distinctive features of the British Empire and a long list could be developed. Central for Ferguson though is the notion of liberty. This is not to suggest that liberty flowed automatically to the colonized and oppressed but it did entail the idea that a self-critique and correction to empire always existed in the minds of the British themselves. It was only a matter of time and inevitable that self-criticism and classically liberal freedoms would emerge for themselves and their colonies.

In Civilization, Ferguson summarizes his work: he showed how the Americans lacked manpower for their overseas military efforts, the Americans suffered from an attention deficit and would not pull for their country over the long haul, and perhaps most importantly, the Americans were plagued with a financial deficit.
1 vote gmicksmith | Feb 26, 2011 |
A masterly and balanced synthesis of the greatest historical story of the past 400 years. ( )
  dazzyj | Dec 16, 2010 |
A book that doesn’t spare the British Empire as regards cruelty, atrocity and humbug. ” The native Americans were tolerated when they were able to fit in to the emerging British economic order … but where [they] claimed ownership of agriculturally valuable land, coexistence was simply ruled out. If the Indians resisted expropriation, then they could and should (in Locke’s words) ‘be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger, one of those wild Savage Beasts, with whom men can have no Society or Security’ ” (p. 65). Locke? Not the great philosopher? Yes, the very same and at the time (c.1630) acting as ‘Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of North Carolina’ (ie., as ‘Secretary to the Imperial Gang of Murderers and Land Grabbers’).

Even when one is well acquainted with the rape and pillage associated with empire-building, the histories retailed by this book (‘Empire’, by Niall Ferguson) will be disturbing. Details of what was done to the ‘other’ Indians when they revolted in 1857 are sickening to read. A Lieutenant Kendal Coghill is quoted as saying ‘We burnt every village and hanged all the villagers who had treated our fugitives badly until every tree was covered with scoundrels hanging from every branch’ (p.152). Fergusan adds: ‘At the height of the reprisals, one huge banyan tree — which still stands in Cawnpore — was festooned with 150 corpses’.

Of course all this murdering was hard work. Thankfully the invention of the Maxim gun made things easier later on in the century, not to mention the much later blessing of ’government from the air’, whereby you warned people if they didn’t do as they were told they could expect to be bombed out of existence next day.

And is there nothing at all to be said FOR the British Empire? As an Englishman, Niall Ferguson tries his best. Look at what the Japanese did to the poor people of Nanking in 1937, he says. Appalling cruelty (and he is so right). Now, if one had to live under and empire, he asks, wasn’t it better to live under a British Empire, rather than under that horrible Japanese Empire? Or, he says, look at the imperial legacy: British Law. The English Language. Membership of the Commonwealth…

Oh dear. But a great book. Thoroughly recommended. ( )
1 vote Eamonn12 | Dec 10, 2010 |
It's an incredibly impressive achievement to write a history about something as complex as imperialism so concisely, accessibly and punchily. Starting with the personal (the impact of the empire on Ferguson's family), it challenges contemporary myths, provides a coherent and believable account of the motive forces and behaviours of the British as imperialists and ends with a thought provoking and challenging section on the new American 'imperialism'. British people (or at least British liberals) have, over the last twenty or thirty years, simply felt a mix of guilt, embarrassment and incomprehension of our imperial past - this book provides a bracingly different perspective - not an apologist's one, but one that is more nuanced.
  otterley | Nov 22, 2009 |
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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.
added by mikeg2 | editSalon, Farhard Manjoo (Apr 17, 2003)
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The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth… The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud … It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time … It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith -- the adventures and the settlers; kings' ships and the ships of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the dark 'interlopers' of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned 'generals' of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or perusers of fame, they had all gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires …

-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
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Once there was an Empire that governed roughly a quarter of the world's population, covered about the same proportion of the earth's land surface and dominated nearly all its oceans.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0141007540, Paperback)

At its peak in the nineteenth century, the British Empire was the largest empire ever known, governing roughly a quarter of the world's population. In Empire, Niall Ferguson explains how "an archipelago of rainy islands... came to rule the world," and examines the costs and consequences, both good and bad, of British imperialism. Though the book's breadth is impressive, it is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the British Empire; rather, Ferguson seeks to glean lessons from this history for future, or present, empires--namely America. Pointing out that the U.S. is both a product of the British Empire as well as an heir to it, he asks whether America--an "empire in denial"--should "seek to shed or to shoulder the imperial load it has inherited." As he points out in this fascinating book, there is compelling evidence for both.

Observing that "the difficulty with the achievements of empire is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire," Ferguson stresses that the British did do much good for humanity in their quest for domination: promotion of the free movement of goods, capital, and labor and a common rule of law and governance chief among them. "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," he writes. The challenge for the U.S., he argues, is for it to use its undisputed power as a force for positive change in the world and not to fall into some of the same traps as the British before them.

Covering a wide range of topics, including the rise of consumerism (initially fueled by a desire for coffee, tea, tobacco, and sugar), the biggest mass migration in history (20 million emigrants between the early 1600s and the 1950s), the impact of missionaries, the triumph of capitalism, the spread of the English language, and globalization, this is a brilliant synthesis of various topics and an extremely entertaining read. --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:43 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

In this book Niall Ferguson argues that the British Empire should be regarded not merely as vanished Victoriana but as the very cradle of modernity. Nearly all the key features of the twenty-first-century world can be traced back to the extraordinary expansion of Britain's economy, population, and culture from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth--economic globalization, the communications revolution, the racial make-up of North America, the notion of humanitarianism, the nature of democracy. Ferguson shows that far from being a subject for nostalgia, the story of the Empire contains. Ferguson shows that far from being a subject for nostalgia, the story of the Empire contains lessons for the world today--in particular for the United States as it stands on the brink of a new kind of imperial power based once again on economic and military supremacy.… (more)

» see all 4 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

Two editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141007540, 0141037318

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