After finishing Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant, I was left with an urge to find out more about the British Empire. As a Brit, it's one of those topics that has always made me uneasy; I almost feel ashamed whenever it's bought up in conversation, so it's not something I have ever made a point to study. Niall Ferguson's Empire covers the whole history of the Empire, from its earliest foundations to its eventual demise. Although the history is largely told in chronological order, the text is organised thematically, with chapters on pirates (the founding of the Empire), colonisers, missionaries, mandarins, bankers and finally bankrupts (the end of the Empire). This organisation really appealed to me, so I was excited to delve into this book.
Unfortunately, I closed the final pages with mixed feelings. To start with the positive - the writing in Empire is engaging, and Ferguson has a talent for spotting the little details that make history more human, such as accounts of what it was really like to arrive in a new country. Ferguson makes good use of primary source material, quoting from journals, and this helped me get a feel of what the colonisers were like as people, rather than just appreciating the facts. I certainly learned a lot from this book, and I would say that I now have a good overview of the Empire and the reasons why it first prospered, and then fell apart.
At the beginning of Empire, I had high hopes that it would be a balanced history. In the introduction, Ferguson writes about how he grew up thinking the Empire was brilliant, as his family members had been involved in various capacities, but that he had eventually began to research and reassess his views. This was a promising start. Ferguson does include the darker episodes of the Empire, such as the response to the Indian mutiny, and the concentration camps during the Boer war, but he is very quick to make excuses. When discussing the systematic murder of all natives in Tasmania, he argues that it wasn't that bad, as it was restricted to a small area, whereas the independent colonists in the USA would have done much worse!
As the book wore on, these excuses started to grate on me, and it became clear that although Ferguson was willing to admit that the Empire wasn't perfect, he still felt that it was overall a good thing. His final argument is that everything wrong can be excused because the British Empire beat Germany in WW2. I can't even get my head around logic like that! In the conclusion, he writes that there are still 'backward regions' and that the US should probably colonise them. Had these views been apparent earlier in the book, I wouldn't have made it to the end.
Still, there can be enjoyment in reading a book you disagree with. Undoubtedly I learned a lot of history, and mentally arguing with Ferguson made me examine my own feelings about the Empire. Empire is well written and engaging, but only one to try if you can overcome the views of the author.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2003
Edition Read: Penguin Celebrations, 2007.