Steve's Reviews > Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

Empire by Niall Ferguson
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's review
Feb 24, 2010

really liked it

High 4. Ferguson attempts to publish a balance sheet as to the benefits or evils of the British empire which once spanned a quarter of the globe. The central issue which brought it into disrepute was its involvement in the Atlantic slave trade with 3 million of the 10 million transported slaves before 1850 shipped aboard British vessels. Ferguson reveals that the initial impetus for venturing abroad was borne of naval actions in pursuit of plunder, as evidenced by the exploits of the buccaneers, which were surreptitiously encouraged by the English government in return for a share of the profits to be made. The author contrasts the traditional representation of the acquisition of Empire as completed in 'a fit of absence of mind' with the version acknowledged today that it was done so as a conscious act of imitation. A religious element was introduced after the Reformation, when it became a matter of principle to establish colonies in the name of Protestantism. Finally, the possibility of entrepreneurs to carve out a private 'El Dorado'free from royal intervention through the establishment of independent companies of merchants was a powerful driving force. Yet, Ferguson declares that these factors were of less significance than the British sweet tooth. Indeed, sugar remained the largest import between 1750 and 1820 when it was surpassed by raw cotton. The first advertisement for what was to become the national drink appeared in 1658 but it was at the start of the eighteenth century that it was imported in sufficient quantities and at a price low enough to create a mass market. Similar trends were observed for coffee and tobacco, making this century one fuelled by the addictice concoction of glucose, caffeine, and nicotine. Aside from the domestic market, London became the emporium for these substances for the European market with 85% of imported tobacco and 94% of coffee re-exported in the 1770s. The bullion thus accrued paid for the burgeoning domestic demand for Indian fabrics. Rivalry with the Dutch in the seventeenth century had led to three wars between the countries between 1652 and 1674, purely commercial in origin, and the Dutch victories spelled what appeared to be the end of English colonial pretensions. This would only be offset by the political union of the two countries. The oligarchic coup which characterised the Glorious Revolution against James II had aspects which would normally revolve around a business merger with Dutch insights into modern finance being transferred across the English Channel. As such, the Bank of England was founded in 1694 and the Dutch model of public debt was inherited allowing the government to borrow at reduced rates of interest. The Anglo-Dutch merger finally divided the Eastern spoils between the two major players, with the former gaining control of the Indian textiles trade, while the Dutch kept their monopoly of the spice trade - a mistake on the part of the Dutch as demand for textiles rapidly outpaced that for spices. Yet, as trade increased so did the selfish interests of company employees, who set up their own independent concerns. This can no better be exemplified than by the figure of Thomas Pitt who had entered the service of the East India Company in 1673 but who rapidly broke away from his paymasters, setting up his own Indian trade, and ignoring denunciations and demands for his return to England, he amassed a fortune. His eventual fine of £400 was inconsequential, and his actions, as did those of the other interlopers, helped expand trade in the Indian subcontinent significantly. As the authority of the Moghul emperor waned in the 1740s, the East India Company gained greater leeway so that it appeared to rule a separate kingdom with its own private army. The growing vacuum of power on the subcontinent also set the scene for the Anglo-French rivalry in controlling the textile trade which would erupt in the Seven Years War. The defence of the Company's interests could no better be served than by having Pitt's grandson holding the seat of government, whose mission became strengthening the fleet to defend imperial interests. Ferguson reveals the irony in that while serving as Governor of Madras, William Pitt had acquired a diamond which he sold to the French monarchy, and which was then incorporated into the French crown, and Pitt's accrued wealth enabled him to purchase the electoral seat of Old Sarum,thereby creating the political base from which his grandson would rise to a position to defeat the global aspirations of France. The Seven Years War would serve as the theatre for the rise of Robert Clive, whose victory at Plassey in 1757 enabled him to attain the position of Governor General of Bengal. Clive epitomised the rise from obscurity and amassing of fortune which characterised the 'nabob'. However, the appointment of Warren Hastings, an individual respectful of Indian culture, as first Governor General of Bengal in 1773, coincided with a slump in share prices for the Company and an increasing burden of taxation on the Indian populace to pay for the upkeep of the Company army, which exacerbated the impact of a series of famines in the 1780s. Faced with ruin, the Company directors had to approach the government to bail them out, to the disgust of Adam Smith. With the resignation of Hastings in 1784, his influential critics decided to impeach him, placing the whole rule of India by the Company on trial. Thus, in Feb 1788 the most important trial in Empire history was launched and was to last seven years, before Hastings was finally acquitted by an exhausted House of Lords. However, in the interim a new India Act, drawn up by Pitt's great-grandson, left the appointment of the Governor General under the auspices of the Crown. Ferguson also reveals that the Empire was built on mass migration with 20 million British subjects colonising imperial possessions between the 1600s and the 1950s. Plantation in Ireland under Elizabeth I was regarded as militarily pragmatic in extending English influence outside the Pale around Dublin tothereby preclude it being used as the fertile ground for Catholic rebellion by continental enemies. With regards to the colonisation of America, the discovery that tobacco could be planted in Virginia in 1612 ensured the survival of the colony, and though religious freedom was the motive for a third of the Mayflower's passengers to land in New England in 1620, others were escaping the economic recession which had decimated the East Anglian textile industry to develop the fishing industry across the Atlantic. The settlers were able to justify their appropriation of native lands by means of the convenience supplied by the theory of 'terra nullius' or nobody's land. As the settlers spread westwards their numbers had a devastating impact on the native population - in 1500 there were roughly 560,000 but by 1700 this had been cut to less than half. Royal grants set up most colonies, and so in order to settle an outstanding debt, Charles II granted son William Penn, who had served him as loyal supporter and admiral of fleet, the terrirtory which became Pennsylvania. This made the young Penn the largest landowner in history, and being a member of Quakers since 1667, he determined to establish a colony welcoming to all religious sects. Such religious tolerance combined with offer of cheap land soon established the original American dream. Yet, between one-half and two-thirds all European emigrants to America between 1650-1780 were indentured labour. The author reveals that strangely, the rebellion against British rule would initiate in New England, which contained the wealthiest colonists within the Epire - indeed, by the 1770s there is evidence that per capita income was same as in England but more evenly distributed, while in 1763 the average Briton paid 26 shillings a year in taxes compared to a Massachusetts taxpayer who paid one. Moreover, the 'BostonTea Party' of Dec 1773 was not a protest against unacceptable tax duties, as the price of tea was exceptionally low at this time, but rather, was organised by Boston's wealthy, disgruntled, smugglers. What was the real bone of contention was the continuation of the power to levy taxes on the colonists by the British parliament. A mere twenty years earlier, these settlers had shown complete loyalty with mass volunteering to fight against the French in the Seven Years War - the first shot fired in this theatre of the war had been fired by a young colonist named George Washington. Yet, from the beginning of the century, the colonies' legislatures had been enjoying a greater degree of autonomy, and a new wave of centralisation from the 1760's onwards led to increasing tension. Even with the repeal of the deeply unpopular Stamp Act of 1765, a mere twelve months later, the statute was so overwhelmingly couched in declarations of the rights of Parliament to impose laws on the colonies that dispute was inevitable. Thus, at the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1774, rebellious elements from the colonial legislatures determined to withhold taxes, and by force if necessary. Their goal was simply to enjoy real localised representation,a type of imperial devolution, not to break away from Britain. The war divided communities and even families, as Ferguson illustrates with the example of Benjamin Franklin, who vainly argued the colonists' case in London for nearly a decade before returning to join the Continental Congress, and his son, William, governor of New Jersey, whose alleigance to the Crown did not waver - they would never speak to each other again. However, British opinion was even more divided, with great sympathy expressed for the colonists' wishes. Charles James Fox, leader of the Whigs, even appeared sporting the colours of Washington's Patriot army, and sympathy even stretched to the British Commander-in-Chief, William Howe, which may explain his prevarication when failing to take advantage of an opportunity to destroy Washington and his forces on Long Island. The eventual British defeat was largely due to it having no European ally to offset the French threat, with Louis XVI so keen for revenge for the loss of the Seven Years War. Thus, overstretched, and with no means to commit sufficient troops to the conflict, French military support greatly influenced Cornwallis' defeat at Yorktown in Oct 1781. The loss of the American colonies had one less publicised effect on Britain - since the early 1600s they had served as the destination for transported convicts, though this had only become a formalised penal policy in 1717. Therefore, the discovery of New South Wales by Cook in 1770, led to a push to colonise, but principally as an alternative dumping ground for convicts. The individual who enabled the community to refashion itself outside the parameters of a mere penal colony was Lachlan Macquarie, who served as governor general between 1809-21. Though an experienced military officer from India, Macquarie was not confined in his thinking to military codes of discipline, but belived that benign rule could remodel prisoners as citizens. Upon completion of sentence prisoners were granted ownership of tracts of land, and thus, 'Macquarie towns' began to spring up in the interior, while Sydney was transformed into a model colonial city. His pastoral attitude extended to the Aborigines, but the latter's disinterest in abandoning the Bush sealed their fate, with, perhaps, the worst case of genocide to take place within the territories of the Empire being the extermination of the native population of Van Diemen's Land. Ferguson reveals that when the Victorians took possession of imperial power they sought to redeem it by substituting improving subject nations for merely exploiting them. The individual who embodied this missionary zeal was David Livingstone, who, after seven fruitless years spent attempting to convert the natives, became convinced that only by opening up the 'Dark Continent' through exploration could the seeds be sown for later civilisation and the spread of Christianity. His epic traversing of the continent of Africa in the period 1848-1856 brought him everlasting fame, but also growing respect for the natives and repugnance for the continuing slave trade from Zanzibar. By contrast, Stanley, born John Rowland and illegitmate son of a Welsh housemaid, was unscrupulous in his ambition with a past mired by being a turncoat and deserter in the American Civil War. Hired by the New`York Herald to locate Livingstone, who had been missing for months, he eventually spent ten months searching before their famous encounter at Lake Tanganyika in Nov 1871. Self-anointed as successor to the great missionary, Stanley would beemployed by King Leopold II to create a`private colony in the Congo. Yet, his brutality to the natives would forge a murderous system of slave labour. Ferguson also reveals that the seeds of the loss of empire were sown by the conflict which characterised Victorian rule, with the liberal desire emanating from the centre clashing with the sense of racial superiority which imbued those working on the periphery. Within the Indian subcontinent, the liberal pursuit to create Indians in their own image produced an anglicised elite whose expectations would be dashed by the exercise of white supremacy, and whose alienation would fuel the founding of nationalist movements. Imperial hubris could no better be personified by Cecil Rhodes whose commercial interests led him to deceive the native ruler of Matabeleland into signing away concessions to mineral rights, and then to colonise by force, using the deadliness of the newly invented Maxim gun to mercilessly sweep aside opposition in 1893. Similarly, Joseph Chamberlain epitomised the jingoism surrounding Empire, believing it a God-given right for the British to rule. His support for the Boer War would not be shared by the majority of the electorate once the full horror of modern warfare and British atrocities, such as the concentration camps took their toll. Indeed, the Boer War had a dramatic domestic consequence in shifting the electorate to the left, which in turn would have dire repercussions for the dreams of imperial glory. Ferguson opines that what really undermined the Empire would be the threat posed by the imperial ambitions of the other European powers. The cost of the First World War tarnished the imperial dream, while domestic politics became focused on delivering promises made to the electorate of building homes 'fit for heroes, improving health and education, as opposed to maintaining imperial defence. After the Second World War, Britain could no longer afford the costs of Empire and the latter effectively went into liquidation. This is an excellent treatment of its subject, and impressive in its detail.

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