There are few things as reviled in the modern world as imperialism and colonialism. We as a society have been taught that it was an unambiguous evil that led to nothing good and lots of suffering. That is a view that Niall Ferguson discredits in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.
He also mentions it in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest. Unsurprisingly, Ferguson, a conservative Scot, rejects the idea that the British and French idea of colonialism and imperialism was totally evil and led to nothing good.
While he accepts that there were some negative externalities of it, such as bouts of violence between whites and natives, he also lays out in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power the many benefits for the world of British imperialism. From defeating piracy to ending slavery to creating a world financial system, the British were good for the world.
That is the point of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. It is not really about what America should learn about British imperialism now that we are in a somewhat similar position. Nor is it only a history of the British Empire. Rather, it is a lesson about the good provided for the world when the best among us step up and take control.
As Americans, we might not to hear that. We certainly rejected the British Empire, as I have written about in my many book reviews on the American Revolution, such as The Coming of the Revolution, Washington’s Crossing, and A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution. But it is still worth reading about, for reasons I will explain in my summary and review of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. Read the rest of this article to see why the British Empire and the imperialism behind it were net positives for the world!
Summary of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
In Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Niall Ferguson gives a more or less complete history of the British Empire and discusses why it was a good thing for the world. Ostensibly, it is a book about what post-Cold War America, a hegemon with immense global power and influence, can learn from the British Empire at its apex.
However, I do not think that is what the book is really about. To some extent, it is, of course, Niall Ferguson is not a fraud or liar. But, at its base, I think that Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is a defense of British Imperialism and a collection of examples of ways that the British made the world a better place.
To begin Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Ferguson begins with the beginning of the British Empire. That start might surprise you; when British captains first left the British Isles and sailed to America, their goal was not to colonize; it was to engage in piracy.
You see, the British at that time (the 16th Century), were engaged in a long-running struggle with Spain. Spain’s wealth came mainly from its mines and holdings in South America, and much of that wealth was transported back to Spain via galleons. So British privateers went to attack those ships and drain Spain’s wealth. But they needed a place in the Caribbean to stay, so they began to colonize Jamaica, which eventually became one of the most prosperous of the British colonies.
From that start, Ferguson shows in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power how the British Empire continued to rely on seapower and trade to spread. From India to the West Indies, the British Navy, Merchant Marine, or the British East India Company’s Navy, began to establish relations with non-European countries and develop trading posts or settlements in them.
Calcutta, for example, was built by the East India Company to enable trade with India. English ships and sailors brought slaves and settlers to grow sugarcane in Barbados. And, of course, there were the 13 original American colonies, which were kept alive and prosperous only because of vibrant trade networks that were protected by the British Navy.
From there, the Empire continued to grow and with it so did the world. Global finance came into existence because of the British adoption of the Dutch financial system. Slavery was stamped out in the Empire because of shifting English morals. Once-poverty stricken areas were developed and the rule of law was brought to them by the redcoats. Overall, the world became better because of the British and the massive migration of British settlers to foreign lands, which Ferguson jokingly terms the “white plague” in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.
Those settlers, as Ferguson describes in the chapters “The Mission” and “Heaven’s Breed,” were not purely focused on profit. They also wanted to bring civilization and Christianity to the natives. So, while there might have been some atrocities committed by them, life in the British Empire was almost certainly better for indigenous peoples than life was before the British arrived. Tribal customs were replaced with English law. Barter economies were replaced with modern finance. And slavery was replaced with Adam Smith’s capitalism.
Of course, some of the wars caused by British expansionism were brutal and bloody, as Ferguson describes in the “Maxim Force” section of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. However, they were relatively small and led to civilizing once untamed lands, so even those bloody wars of expansion were not entirely bad.
And if you do not think that any of that history shows that the British Empire was a good thing for the world, Ferguson makes two more points that show that it was.
The first is that, other than America, no colony wanted to leave the Empire. The British learned what went wrong and began to give their colonies more independence and self-governance, while also keeping them tied to the Empire. As a result, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Rhodesia, and even India (along with other colonies), were more than happy to stay in the Empire.
According to Ferguson in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, settlers and natives in those lands were granted rights as Englishmen, brought into the incredibly helpful British financial system, and given favorable trade terms. Why would they want to leave? Life was better as part of such a magnificent and well-run empire than it was without said empire.
The second additional reason Ferguson gives in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power of why the British Empire was a good thing for the world is what it did during World War I and World War II.
In both of those wars, the British Empire stood for what it thought was right. The wars were bloody, horribly expensive, and tore apart the Empire. And British leaders knew that they would, especially World War II, when “The Last Lion,” Winston Churchill, spent every last resource of the empire to destroy the Third Reich. Yet British leaders did what they knew was right. They called upon all the resources of the Empire and fought back the German aggressors twice and prevented a German Empire or Japanese Empire from taking over the world.
Doing so was too expensive and ended the Empire. But the British did what was right and stood up for their values, defeating the Germans and Japanese. The world should thank them for that, at least in Ferguson’s view in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.
Finally, Ferguson brings up the point that there is no Empire in history that has been as beneficial for its subjects. The Germans and Japanese slaughtered civilians in captured areas and focused on extracting resources rather than building settlements, the Chinese oppressed and demanded tribute, the Spanish and Portuguese focused on resource extraction, and the Romans were constantly afflicted by civil wars and evil emperors.
The British Empire, however, was stable, brought rule of law with it, and focused on building settlements and communities rather than extracting resources. In Ferguson’s view, that is the lesson America should take away from the history of the British Empire; being the world’s financial hub and protector of individual rights is an often thankless task. However, it is beneficial for everyone involved and is what spread Western Civilization.
My Take on Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson
I found Niall Ferguson’s arguments in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power to be quite convincing.
The left hates Western Civilization. That is an undeniable fact. Every aspect of it, from its emphasis on individual rights to capitalism, is anathema to their belief system. As a result, generation after generation of Americans and children in other nations have been taught that there is nothing good about imperialism and the spread of Western civilization that it brought with it.
Because of that, many young people do not know the truth. They think that everything the British did was evil; all they’ve heard about are atrocities, so they know nothing of all the good the British did.
In Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Ferguson changes that.
The book is incredibly readable, so most young adults, and certainly all actual adults, can read it and learn the truth about the British Empire. Similarly, much of it is composed of stories, most of which are about military history or high-stakes global politics, so it is also an entertaining read that should appeal to everyone.
I think that is crucial because, while Ferguson frames Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power as a book about lessons for America, that is not what it is really is. In reality, it is a book defending the British Empire and Western Civilization.
But most older Americans already know that the British Empire was not evil. Their teachers and professors were not radical leftists that hated Western civilization. Young Americans, however, do not know that fact. So, in crafting a book that they will want to read that also teaches them the truth about the British Empire and the West, Ferguson has given us a way to fight back against the lies of the left and teach the youth the truth.
Finally, I think that Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is an important book to read because of the point about what was better for the world. Is Zimbabwe better than Rhodesia was? No. Is modern India, as described in The Billionaire Raj, any better than colonial India? Not really. Would slavery have been eradicated without British naval force and philanthropy? Again, no.
And there are countless other examples. Life was better for everyone (other than Americans) under the British Empire. Colonialism, while it had its attendant evils, was not necessarily evil. We conservatives need to start teaching that so that we can properly defend Western civilization.
Read this book. You will be glad you did so. Far too much of what we hear is negative and anti-America or anti-Western. Niall Ferguson, however, goes against that trend.
He openly acknowledges the evils of imperialism, namely violence and taking advantage of natives. But he also openly states the good aspects of it in a way that few others do. That is why I thought it was so great.
By: Gen Z Conservative