August Books 13) Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

13) Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson

I saw Ferguson lecture at a conference I was speaking at in Yale last year; he really wound up the academic lefties present (ie almost the entire audience) by talking about imperialism as if it was not a completely evil thing. The striking thing for me was the political difference between the Yale Law School and the institutions of government in Washington and New York where I had spent the rest of that week. I suppose that when I was an idealistic student politician I would have been more comfortable in the academic environment as well.

But even so, I would have felt then, as I feel now, that Ferguson’s critics were not being fair. He is brutally honest about the downside of the British Empire – the nineteenth-century famines of Bengal and Ireland; the Amritsar massacre; the cynical parceling up of ancient African states; the South African concentration camps; the massive death rate among African slaves in the Caribbean. But he also argues that the Empire brought to the British a sense of engagement with the world which (he believes, and I think he’s right) contemporary American lacks. More controversially, he argues that the countries ruled by the British on the whole ended up better off than they would have been if ruled by other empires or if left to their own devices. He doesn’t really produce enough quantitative data on this point to satisfy me (and this of course was the point that most aggravated the Yalies), though it’s fairly clear that he has a case.

Some very interesting snippets: that in fact the Boston Tea Party was a reaction by smugglers to the reduction of the tea tax, which made their business much less profitable, and that the American colonists of the time were probably better off on average than the residents of Britain. His statistics on the large numbers of Scots and Irish, in comparison with the numbers of English, who participated in the activities of Empire. His somewhat cynical line on nineteenth-century moral panics over slavery, suttee, and the powers of native judges. All in all a very stimulating read.

One thought on “August Books 13) Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

  1. Same here. In the title bar, I can tell teh difference, but not – now that I looked it carefully, in the poll itself.

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