In praise of Empire


HISTORY: The nature and legacy of empire have always been hotly debated, not least by the British themselves. Among the significant characteristics of the empire was that the most virulent criticism often came from within.

Slavery and the slave trade were abolished throughout the empire not because the oppressed complained, but after a campaign of popular dissent in England made the system politically untenable. Imperial atrocities, such as those at Amritsar or Croke Park, were met with revulsion not just in India and Ireland, but also in Britain.

Many Britons continue to feel shame and dishonour about the empire. The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, recently observed that most of the world's problems, including Iraq, Kashmir and Palestine, were a legacy of imperial bungling. Demos, an influential British think-tank, suggested last year that Queen Elizabeth II should spend her jubilee year on "a world tour to apologise for the past sins of empire".

Niall Ferguson's Empire is a dynamic counterblast to this analysis. Ferguson argues that the empire was a force for progress and modernization. There were failings and mistakes. During the Famine in Ireland, for example, the British response was "negligent, in some measure even positively culpable". Yet when judging the imperial experience as a whole, Ferguson writes, "the fact remains that no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British empire. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order, and governance around the world". Add to this the English language, Protestantism, and team sports (including football, rugby and cricket), and the result is that "for better for worse - fair or foul - the world we know today is in large measure the product of Britain's age of empire".

The role of Ireland and the Irish in the grand sweep of Ferguson' s imperial analysis is fundamental, particularly in the origins and collapse of the empire. Ireland was the first colony. Plantation during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I provided the model for migration and settlement that Britain exported around the world. Centuries later, Ireland provided the test case for decolonisation. Under pressure across the globe and exhausted by a bloody world war, Britain's will to fight in Ireland collapsed in 1921. "The British sent a signal to the empire at large," Ferguson writes: "A minor outbreak of dissent, a sharp military response, followed by a collapse of British self-confidence, hand-wringing, second thoughts, a messy concession, another concession." It was a pattern that would be repeated worldwide.

Ferguson also highlights the important role the Irish played in the life of the empire. Two-fifths of all British emigrants in the 18th century were Irish. By the end of the 19th century, the Irish constituted 21% of the British-born in Canada and New Zealand, and 27% in Australia. It was migration on this kind of disproportionate scale, along with similar numbers from Scotland, that gave the empire what Ferguson describes as its "enduringly Celtic tinge".

This book will attract both controversy and big sales, not least because it accompanies a high-profile Channel 4 series. Empire is popular history as it should be written: elegant, witty, and approachable. It is also polemical, clever, unconventional and provocative. As we follow this tale of pirates, planters, missionaries, mandarins and bankers, it is difficult not to see Ferguson's point that the British over the course of four centuries "made the modern world" in their own image. After all, Ferguson concludes, "would New Amsterdam be the New York we know today if the Dutch had not surrendered it to the British in 1664, or might it not resemble more closely Bloemfontein, an authentic survivor of Dutch colonisation"

Richard Aldous teaches history at UCD. His biography of Malcolm Sargent was published by Pimlico last autumn

Richard Aldous