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Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

4.2 15
by Niall Ferguson

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The British Empire was the largest in all history: the nearest thing to world domination ever achieved. By the eve of World War II, around a quarter of the world's land surface was under some form of British rule. Yet for today's generation, the British Empire seems a Victorian irrelevance. The time is ripe for a reappraisal, and in Empire, Niall Ferguson


The British Empire was the largest in all history: the nearest thing to world domination ever achieved. By the eve of World War II, around a quarter of the world's land surface was under some form of British rule. Yet for today's generation, the British Empire seems a Victorian irrelevance. The time is ripe for a reappraisal, and in Empire, Niall Ferguson boldly recasts the British Empire as one of the world's greatest modernizing forces.An important new work of synthesis and revision, Empire argues that the world we know today is in large measure the product of Britain's Age of Empire. The spread of capitalism, the communications revolution, the notion of humanitarianism, and the institutions of parliamentary democracy-all these can be traced back to the extraordinary expansion of Britain's economy, population, and culture from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth. On a vast and vividly colored canvas, Empire shows how the British Empire acted as midwife to modernity.Displaying the originality and rigor that have made him the brightest light among British historians, Ferguson shows that the story of the Empire is pregnant with lessons for today-in particular for the United States as it stands on the brink of a new era of imperial power, based once again on economic and military supremacy. A dazzling tour de force, Empire is a remarkable reappraisal of the prizes and pitfalls of global empire.

Editorial Reviews

On the eve of World War II, the British Empire covered more than 13 million square miles, one-fifth of the earth's surface. More than half a billion people lived directly or indirectly under British rule. It is perhaps not surprising that British historian Niall Ferguson sees this unprecedented empire as the world's first experiment in globalization and as a classroom that holds lessons for the ever-expanding American Empire. Both a synthesis and a revisionist study, Empire is a major historical work by the man whom The Independent called "unarguably Britain's brightest younger historian."
David M. Shribman
A masterpiece for the moment, and perhaps longer.—David M. Shribman
The New York Times
Empire, it quickly becomes clear, is history with an agenda and a point of view — a book that, in its gung-ho defense of empire, is as devoid of measured objectivity as many recent, politically correct histories have been on the other side of the political spectrum. Mr. Ferguson — a professor of financial history at New York University, a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and the author of earlier books including The Pity of War and Paper and Iron — is a wonderfully fluent writer, weaving telling details and vivid anecdotes seamlessly into his narrative. And yet he puts all this fine writing at the service of a decidedly dogmatic thesis, consistently trying to rationalize the injustices committed in the building of Britain's empire while accentuating what he sees as its positive contributions. — Michiku Kakutani
The Los Angeles Times
Gently in the book, and not so gently in some recent essays, Ferguson contends that the United States today would be advised to learn from the British Empire. Given the overwhelming power of the U.S., it is an imperial power whether it likes it or not, and Ferguson chides Americans for not embracing the burdens and responsibilities that come with such power. — Zachary Karabell
The Washington Post
Niall Ferguson, an eminent professor of political and financial history at Oxford and New York universities, brilliantly challenges the simplistic focus on racism, violence and exploitation. He asserts that on balance the British Empire was a good thing. Indeed, it played an essential role in making the modern world. — Daniel I. Davidson
The Boston Globe
A masterpiece for the moment, and perhaps longer.—David M. Shribman
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Ferguson writes with his usual verve and takes a few swipes at sacred cows along the way. The American War of Independence was made by those who had benefited most from British rule. The United States, the heir to the British Empire in more than one sense, was fortunate, he argues, that the groundwork for its institutions was laid by Britain. And so are those parts of the world where the British implanted their culture. — Margaret MacMillan
Publishers Weekly
Acclaimed British historian Ferguson (The Pity of War) takes the revisionist (or perhaps re-revisionist) position that the British Empire was, on balance, a good thing, that it "impos[ed] free markets, the rule of law... and relatively incorrupt government" on a quarter of the globe. Ferguson's imperial boosterism differs from more critical recent scholarship on the empire, such as Linda Colley's Captives (Forecasts, Dec. 2, 2002) and Simon Schama's A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire (Forecasts, Dec. 23, 2002). Ferguson's gracefully written narrative traces the history of the empire from its beginnings in the 16th century. As Ferguson tells it, by the 18th century British consumers had developed a strong taste for sugar, tobacco, coffee, tea and other imports. The empire's role was to supply these commodities and to offer cheap land to British settlers. Not until the late 18th century did Britain add a "civilizing mission" to its commercial motives. Liberals in Britain, often fired by religious feelings, abolished the slave trade and then set out to Christianize indigenous peoples. Ferguson gives a wonderful account of the fabled career of missionary and explorer David Livingstone. The author admits that the British sometimes responded to native opposition with brutality and racism. Yet he argues that other empires, especially those of Germany and Japan, were far more brutal (a not entirely satisfying defense). Indeed, Ferguson contends that Britain nobly sacrificed its empire in order to defeat these imperial rivals in WWII. His provocative and elegantly written account will surely trigger debate, if not downright vilification, among history readers and postcolonial scholars. 25 color illus., b&w illus., maps. (Apr.) Forecast: The young and attractive Ferguson is something of a celebrity in Great Britain, where he's been called "the Errol Flynn of British history"; so expect additional media attention. He currently teaches at New York University. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
This big volume on "the rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power" is really two books in one. The first (superbly illustrated) is a history of the British Empire and of the way in which it fostered what is now called globalization. This is a sweeping, partly analytic, partly anecdotal account that frequently shows the brutalities of empire and the inseparability of realpolitik, exploitation, greed, a sense of superiority, and a rhetoric of mission from the imperial enterprise. Much here is familiar, but the author's clear writing, his gift for narrative, and his way with words (such as the "Toryentalism" of Lord Curzon) make reading this ambitious synthesis a pleasure. The second book is more troubling. It is a defense of the British Empire for its contributions to world order — largely from the viewpoint of the imperialists — and as a lesson for the United Kingdom's mighty successor: the United States. Ferguson may be right in stressing how much British rule facilitated the spread of liberal capitalism around the world, how much worse other empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries turned out to be, how much the United Kingdom did for free trade, and so on. But the reasons why anticolonialism developed abroad and also at home are singularly absent from the picture. As for the British imperial example, Ferguson himself, in one paragraph, recognizes that "on close inspection, America's strengths may not be the strengths of a natural imperial hegemon": the United States "will always be a reluctant ruler of other peoples." Moreover, the miserable condition of millions in decolonized countries does not mean that they would prefer to liveagain under foreign rule. There are really two Fergusons here, just as there are two books. One is a brilliant economic historian. The other is a political writer who provokes his readers with very dubious theses — that the United Kingdom should have stayed out of World War I and that the British Empire should serve as a model for the new imperial America.
Library Journal
First published in England last year (with the shorter subtitle How Britain Made the Modern World), this is intended as a cautionary tale for the United States. In this sweeping narrative, British historian Ferguson (economic history, NYU; The Pity of War) eloquently addresses the origin, scope, and nature of the British Empire. He confronts the negative aspects of the empire-suppression of native populations, involvement in the slave trade-but also examines the idealistic mission of the British and offers valuable insight into the expansion of the empire in India and Africa. Ferguson effectively weaves economic analysis into his history, presents fresh observations on the American War of Independence, and charts the empire's decline. He gives the British high marks for spreading the concept of "liberal capitalism" and democracy throughout the world while acknowledging its failure "to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty." Dozens of illustrations, maps, and tables, as well as a solid bibliography, supplement the text. This is the sort of popular history that will also appeal to specialists and is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The British empire didn’t exactly disappear, writes superstar scholar Ferguson (Economics/NYU; The Cash Nexus, 2001, etc.), it just moved its capital westward to Washington and Manhattan. "The Americans have taken over our old role without yet facing the fact that an empire comes with it. . . . Like it or not, and deny it who will, empire is as much a reality today as it was through the three hundred years when Britain ruled, and made, the modern world." So asserts Ferguson at the close of this lucid, heavily illustrated survey of British imperial history, which serves at one level as a handbook for how to rule the world humanely and, in the main, intelligently--even cost-effectively, for those fans of downsizing. British control over India, for instance, was effected by a small number of men, perhaps no more than a thousand civil servants governing a multiethnic patchwork nation of hundreds of millions; one former administrator even quipped that India "was really governed by confidential correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy." Britain’s empire was not won without bloodshed and suffering, from the devastation visited upon Ireland to the staggering casualties wrought by the Boer War, which Ferguson likens to the Vietnam conflict "in two respects: its huge cost in both lives and money . . . and the divisions it opened up back home." Yet, he continues, the British empire also bore sweet fruit in the rise of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law around the world in places unlikely to have conceived such things without the force of British arms to back them up. These fruits were but a few products of the "remarkably non-venal administrations" that governed such ahuge part of the world for so long--whose qualities and ideals, Ferguson suggests, latter-day empire builders would do well to study. Lively and thoughtful: provocative both as history and forecast. Agents: Clare Alexander, Sally Riley/Gillon Aitken

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Meet the Author

Niall Ferguson is Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford. He is the author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschilds, and The Pity of War ). He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement, and lives in Oxford.

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Empire 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
First-rate historian and author Niall Ferguson offers a politically incorrect interpretation of the four-century history of the British Empire. Sure, he acknowledges that the imperialists stole, murdered and enslaved on their way to world domination. Yet, Ferguson argues, the Brits spread several traditions, including liberty, democracy and free trade, which improved the state of the world. To Ferguson¿s credit, he makes no attempt to gloss over the Empire¿s atrocities. In fact, with stellar prose, he takes the risk of undermining his central theme by describing the Empire¿s bad behavior in great detail. His conclusions are as complex as history itself, which might prove frustrating to readers seeking simple answers. We strongly recommend this memoir to readers who love history, and particularly to those seeking a historical perspective on the pitfalls of imperialism.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Niall Ferguson has written a well-balanced portrait of the rise and fall of the British Empire. Ferguson does not downplay at all the sins of the British administration in its colonies: e.g., eager pursuit of slavery in the 18th century, brutal crushing of failed rebellions against British rule in the 19th and 20th centuries and mismanagement of famines in the 19th century. However, the British Empire played a key role in the spread of the ideas that have conquered the world: free markets, democracy, Anglo-Saxon culture ... and Pax Britannica (now Pax Americana). As Michael Mandelbaum reminds us in his masterpiece about the ideas that conquered the world, free markets tend to promote democracy and enrich most of their economic agents over time. And democracies are inclined to conduct peaceful foreign policies. Before WWI, Britain was the most fervent advocate of free trade. Furthermore, British imperial power relied on the massive export of capital and people. The U.S., heir and adopter of many best practices of the British Empire, however, became a convert to free trade only after WWI. Furthermore, unlike the British Empire, the U.S., currently at the apex of its power and influence, is a massive importer of capital and people. Ferguson rightly points out that the British Empire had a self-liquidating character. The British Empire learned from the American Independence that granting self-government to the most advanced colonies (read White Dominions) was key to its survival. Nonetheless, the British Empire was clearly ambivalent about self-government beyond its White Dominions. The British Empire understood that this ambivalence was not even sustainable: e.g., India was granted Dominion status in the 1930s. The crippling price that the British Empire paid in defeating the partisans of Illiberalism in both world wars accelerated its inevitable decline due to a lack of resources to meet the growing challenges and opportunities of globalization. Ferguson also reminds his audience that the failed de-colonization in many Third World countries clearly shows that the achievements of the British Empire cannot be taken for granted. Although guns, germs and steel have played an important role in the fates of these human societies as Jared Diamond rightly points out in his best seller, civil wars and lawless, corrupt governments are today the ultimate culprits for their failure. Without free markets, a country is condemned to remain at the doorstep of the world and sink in both oblivion and irrelevance unless it is a dangerous failed state. Without the exercise or at least the threat of (soft) power, there cannot be globalization that ultimately benefits most human beings. The network of bases and informal spheres of influence are some of the tools that the U.S. has at its disposal to further the advancement of the current liberal hegemony that cannot be taken for granted. Sometimes, the temporary occupation of the most dangerous failed states is key to facilitate the ultimate advent of democracy that Winston Churchill nicely describes as the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Niall Ferguson's Empire breaks the modern trend of condemning the British Empire. Whilst not a complete and unabashed appraisal, claiming that the Empire was only good, for once there seems to be a historian prepared to state that there was another side to the Empire, one that would prove the cradle to the modern world. Easily accessible, with witty anecdotes, extensive documentation and many illustrations, this book, whilst scholarly in its quality and prose, remains a joy to read. It's as if you were talking to the local bore at the pub and then hit upon a topic he enjoyed and knew something about. Whilst at first the thought of another history of the British Empire seems to induce dread, it turns out to be immensely enjoyable. I recommend it to all and sundry, especially those who take great joy in criticising the Empire upon which the sun never set.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has a lot of good information about the history of the British empire. It mentions things such as export of capitalism, free press, and the idea of constitutional government to the colonies. However, he gives very little significance to the institution of slavery, the theft of the wealth of the poor colonies. He also gives little thought to the idea of racism, through which the British empire was justified. Good Book but one that only shows the goods of the empire.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very accessible, yet quintessentially scholarly. Financial Historian (what a great subset) Niall Ferguson sets depth charges . . . then explodes historical theorems that have held sway for decades. Fascinating topic, rigorously pinned to irrefutable fact. Kudos, Professor Ferguson.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Empire is awesome
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SVDuke13 More than 1 year ago
A truly fascinating account of the British Empire from it's infancy to it's undoing. I can say that I honestly enjoyed this read from cover to cover. Rather than a dull historical account, the author writes in a manner that puts the reader in a front row seat of the Empire's evolution; there were times when I was literally on the edge of my seat. As an American, it was especially intriguing to read of our "fight for independence" from the British perspective. Ferguson closes with a thought provoking analysis of contemporary America and her responsibilities as an emerging modern-empire. The book has drastically changed how I view the British Empire - for the better I might add.
Skitch41 More than 1 year ago
This was an absolutely wonderful read! Niall Ferguson, author of this book's sequel, "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire," gives his readers a crash-course in British imperial history starting with the English privateering raids on the Spanish empire and ending with the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. Ferguson's main point is that, all things considered, the British Empire was a good thing for the world. And, it must be said, he makes a very strong case for this using economic, political and historical analysis to bolster his case along with some thumping good tales. But this is not a jingoistic or details-oriented book. Quite the opposite in fact! This book was written with the general reader in mind and is the most accessible book on British history I have ever read. Also, rather than avoid the empire's darker incidents, he uses them as evidence that when the British did bad things, bad things happened not just to the native people (tragic enough as that is), but to the empire as a whole. A reasonable point to make when one considers how poor policies in Iraq nearly screwed the U.S. over internationally as well as domestically (read Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco" for details). There were a few nit-picky issues I have with him, but I feel that this is great book that makes a far better case for, weird as it may sound, a Liberal American empire than his sequel to this book does.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book rushed through the empire's 300 year history too quickly. Granted, from the start the task is ambitous, but Ferguson's strategy left me unsatisfied with his nation hyper-concentration. His descriptions of the overall interplay and operation of the empire was sparce. If you're looking for a book that attempts to give a lush description of the empire's nuts and bolts, you will be disappointed. Nonetheless, Ferguson's thesis (remember economics professor) is one that will unabashedly embrace a capitalist's perspective on the economy of England, as well as its reasoning for its demise. Remember, you can find facts for anything, its all perspective. His position is however, well researched. I agree with some of the other reviewers points about the almost ignored stories of the british andd colonial lower classes and workers. I would've liked a more detailed explanation into the motivations and reasons for their economic plight. Overall, an O.K. overview of the British empire, but be prepared to comprehensivley read it and evaluate Ferguson's interspersed capitalist interpretations.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this book of the TV series, Ferguson attempts to survey the British Empire¿s history and impact on the world. In the earlier chapters, he makes a reasonable job of telling the story truthfully, but when he reaches the 20th century, his imbecile political opinions wreck the narrative. He depicts the Empire¿s bloody origins in piracy and theft. He shows how the British people bore the Empire¿s costs, how the Indian people paid for the Indian Army, while the Empire¿s gains accrued only to a tiny minority of bondholders, and how the export of India¿s riches led to the vast famines of the 18th and 19th centuries. He accurately describes the imperial slogan `Commerce and Christianity¿ as theft and fundamentalism. He praises the Empire¿s `capital export to the less developed world¿, as if investment was about giving not taking. The investment should have been in British industry. He blames trade unions for the Great Depression - ¿Rising real wages led to unemployment¿ - unpardonable economic illiteracy from a Professor of Economics. He blames World War Two on a `descent into protectionism¿ rather than on the continuing rivalry between empires. He writes that the USA was the key to victory ¿ so not the ally that destroyed 90% of Nazi forces? He writes that Britain ¿sacrificed her Empire to stop the German, Japanese and Italians keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire¿s other sins?¿ (A strangely Catholic doctrine!) But Churchill thought he had saved the Empire, only to find that the USA nipped in and stole it! And the answer to Ferguson¿s question is still no. He sneers that anti-imperialism is linked to anti-semitism, sneers about `conspiracy theories¿ about oil, sneers about `freedom fighters¿ (his inverted commas), sneers about the Soviet and Chinese achievements. As usual with reactionaries, he poses as bravely saying unpopular truths, while actually just retreading the hoariest, most discredited, clichés. He ends by calling ludicrously for the USA to set up a formal empire, a universal `political globalisation¿! Book, TV series and author are as showy and shallow as was the Empire itself.