The Magazine

Imperial Ambitions

How Britain won and lost the world.

Mar 24, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 27 • By MAX BOOT
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The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

by Niall Ferguson

Basic, 396 pp., $35

AT A DISCUSSION on a college campus not long ago, I suggested America was being forced to police the world as Britain once did, and that the American empire had something to learn from its British predecessor. This prompted an incredulous reaction from an earnest young woman with an English accent. The British regarded their lost empire as an embarrassment, she remarked, accurately enough, so why was I referring to it with approbation?

The long answer to that question may be found in Niall Ferguson's "Empire." Appropriately enough, Ferguson is a Scot, for it was the Scots, as much as the English, who built the British empire. In "Empire," he delivers a splendid history of Britain's imperial adventures. This is no whitewash; Ferguson offers a warts-and-all view. But unlike much of what gets written on imperialism, "Empire" isn't warts only; it also shows the more attractive aspects of British rule.

Those attractive aspects would not have been obvious to anyone during the empire's early days. As Ferguson reminds us, the British Empire began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries "in a maelstrom of seaborne violence and theft," with successful pirates like Francis Drake and Henry Morgan looting Spain's New World empire.

But it did not take the English long to establish themselves in more peaceful pursuits: exporting sugar from Jamaica, tobacco from the American colonies, and tea from China. "The empire, it might be said, was built on a huge sugar, caffeine, and nicotine rush," Ferguson writes, with typical insouciance.

To exploit commercial possibilities, the British set up a series of joint stock companies: the East India Company (for India), the Hudson's Bay Company (Canada), and others. Competing companies from other nations were vanquished in a series of trade wars, culminating in the Seven Years War (1756-1763), which ensured British dominance over India.

In its early phases, the empire in India was a private undertaking, run by the East India Company and its swashbuckling governors. The most famous, George Clive and Warren Hastings, returned home with fortunes to rival any maharaja's. For his troubles, Hastings became the defendant in a 1788 impeachment trial, with Edmund Burke making a virtuoso case for the prosecution: "I impeach him in the name of the English nation. . . . I impeach him in the name of the people of India. . . . Lastly, in the name of human nature itself." Whether or not Hastings was guilty of "gross injustice, cruelty and treachery" (he was acquitted), his achievements and those of his fellow "nabobs" cannot be gainsaid. They took over a country that had twenty times the population of the United Kingdom and eight times its output--and they did it with their own private army, made up almost entirely of Indian sepoys.

BRITISH EXPANSION was driven not just by trade but also by the biggest mass migration in history. "Between the early 1600s and the 1950s," Ferguson writes, "more than 20 million people left the British Isles to begin lives across the sea." Spain tended to export mainly men, who intermarried with the local population. Britain, by contrast, sent forth both men and women, and their descendants turned whole continents into facsimiles of home. "New England really was a new England, far more than New Spain would ever be a new Spain."

As a result, the British generally found themselves helpless before uprisings of their own offspring. In the nineteenth century, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand won autonomy as self-governing dominions. This solution had been proposed for the thirteen American colonies by such thinkers as Adam Smith, but it did not find acceptance in Westminster. Instead George III's ministers tried to retain the colonies by force, an effort that was doomed to fail because, Ferguson writes, "London lacked the stomach to impose British rule on white colonists who were determined to resist it."

The British Empire had not started out with a particularly high moral purpose, but one evolved by the turn of the nineteenth century. Rising evangelical fervor in Britain convinced Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1808. Economic determinists argue that abolition came about because the traffic was no longer profitable, but Ferguson shows that the law was passed "in the face of determined opposition from some powerful vested interests" simply because of a "collective change of heart."