Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

by Niall Ferguson

London: Penguin, 2002; 2012

The British Empire stands proudly among the giants of the past. Once the world’s largest economy, Great Britain controlled a quarter of the globe and has left its mark everywhere it went. Its extraordinary story was made by warriors and adventurers, by dreamers and opportunists, by talented administrators, and by those simply trying to find their place under the never-setting sun. Like any good tale, it had its ups and downs. Unfortunately, its darker pages are highlighted nowadays, as the Empire’s sins are exaggerated by the left-wing media. However, this narrative does not remain unchallenged. 

Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World captures its readers’ imagination and takes them on a journey through 400 years of wars, discoveries, struggles, and triumphs. It shows how the nation of curious and ambitious islanders, previously pushed aside by mightier European states, became one of the most powerful to exist. The book is full of vivid locations, from Canada and the Caribbean to India and Singapore. Yet it is not just an exciting read, suited for those who want to fill the gaps in their knowledge of history, but also an interesting analysis. Ferguson offers his interpretation of events and patterns, explaining how the Empire came into being and why it fell apart.

The book is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect. The first, “Why Britain?,” explores the origin of the Empire, the impact of trade, and the surprisingly important role of British pirates. “White Plague” tells the story of settlers, who crossed the oceans to find a new life in America and Australia. “The Mission” touches upon Britain’s attempts to share her culture with her colonies in Africa and Asia, followed by “Heaven’s Breed,” describing the shift to the idea of competent British governance over societies that were no longer expected to change. “Maxim Force” pays due respect to the Empire’s military might, praising its achievements while acknowledging its miscalculations. Finally, “Empire for Sale” depicts its last decades, its valiant stand against the Axis alliance, and the price of its victory.

Ferguson begins with his perception of the Empire and proceeds to point out that it has long been out of fashion. “The central nationalist/Marxist assumption is, of course, that imperialism was economically exploitative,” he writes, explaining the opposing opinion. However, this assumption is, in his view, not necessarily correct since colonies’ welfare and security were actually rather expensive. “[T]he British Empire acted as an agency for imposing free markets, the rule of law, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on roughly a quarter of the world,” he continues. Indeed, one could argue that the Imperial rule was better than most local alternatives. The Indian Civil Service is, perhaps, the best example of this: it attracted the brightest British youth, who passed tough examinations to prove their excellence in law, Indian history, moral philosophy, languages and riding.

Britain’s power has always been based on the sea. Interestingly, the famous navy that would rule the waves emerged from private initiative: pirates and merchants looking for profit. Ferguson shows his readers how English buccaneers’ superior seafaring skills helped them against the richer and better-equipped foes, and how England’s taste for sugar and tea reshaped the world map along with the global economy.

While some sailed between the six continents, established new trading posts, and returned home with exotic cargo, others left for good, not always willingly. Indentured servitude was not uncommon in America, and Australia notoriously started as an open-air prison. Still, colonies that grew from English settlements became immensely successful, and the book explains how this happened.

Britain’s path to dominance was far from peaceful—230 wars were fought just during Queen Victoria’s reign. Many of those were rebellions, mostly suppressed with speed and efficiency. But law-abiding citizens enjoyed their freedoms. Even the infamous Irish famine was a result of the government’s commitment to the principles of the free market and respect for private property, rather than its malicious intent. The Royal Navy patrolled the oceans, secured shipping routes, and led the effort to end the slave trade.

The last chapter addresses the elephant in the room: why did the Empire fall? Was there some inherent flaw that made such an outcome inevitable? Ferguson’s answer is not the one we usually hear—at least, not entirely. In the 1930s, she faced, in his words, “the threat of diabolical temptation,” as Hitler proposed a peaceful co-existence, convinced that “the English have two possibilities: either to give up Europe and hold on to the East, or vice versa.” They chose Europe.

Here Ferguson points out that the Empire was wounded in 1945, but not yet dead. He agrees with most historians that the Second World War 2 bled Britain dry, ruining her economy, and making it dependent on foreign aid. The killing blow was not delivered by Germany, nor by revolting colonies, but by the U.S. It was the American idea that democracy at gunpoint was better than the competent governance of the metropolis, and it was American financial pressure that made Britain surrender one territory after another. We will never know what would have happened if Britain had chosen the East. 

The Empire’s legacy lives in common law, in government institutions, in the market economy, and the cultural heritage of all her former dominions. Ferguson’s book does it justice, proving that Great Britain should not be ashamed of her past. Once the dread and envy of the world, she must now fly her colours high and continue to lead by example.