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Imperial Ambitions: How Britain Won and Lost the World

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
March 24, 2003
Weekly Standard


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."

This inaugurated a new era in which the British would export not only "goods, capital, and people" but also civilization. Victorian missionaries set out to provide "both spiritual and material assistance" to the less developed world. Ferguson offers a vivid profile of the best-known Victorian missionary, David Livingstone, a poor boy from a Scottish mill town who set out in the 1840s for Africa on behalf of the London Missionary Society. Livingstone suffered many setbacks, but English attempts to win "Africa for Christ" turned out to be pretty successful; today, as Ferguson wryly notes, "Africa is in fact a more Christian continent than Europe."

It was a different story in India. In the early years, the East India Company made no attempt to spread English values and barred its chaplains even from preaching to the Indians. By the Victorian era, however, a succession of high-minded administrators influenced by the twin currents of evangelical piety and liberal enthusiasm set out to reform India. The English tried with a fair degree of success to stamp out practices that offended them, such as female infanticide and widow burning. But attempts to Anglicize the subcontinent backfired spectacularly.

British rule was maintained through the Indian Army, 80 percent of whose men were Indians. In 1857 many of the sepoys mutinied. The proximate cause of this bloody uprising was a rumor that bullets were being greased with pork and beef fat, a suspicion calculated to offend Hindus and Muslims alike. The real reason, Ferguson writes, "was their essentially conservative reaction against a succession of British interferences with Indian culture, which seemed to— and in many ways actually did— add up to a plot to Christianize India." The mutineers acted with great savagery, killing many British civilians, including women and children. British troops responded in kind; a favorite punishment for captured mutineers was to be tied to a cannon and blown to pieces.

THE GREAT MUTINY hastened the demise of "John Company." It also signaled the end of attempts to transform the subcontinent. Henceforward the British would "govern with, rather than against, the grain of indigenous tradition." This governance would be spectacularly successful, almost unbelievably so, considering how few administrators were sent out: There were never more than a thousand British members of the Indian Civil Service, backed up by 70,000 British troops in the Indian Army (and 125,000 sepoys), to administer more than 250 million natives. Similarly tiny numbers ran other colonies— there were just 1,200 British civil servants for a dozen African territories with a combined population of 43 million.

How did so few manage to lord it over so many? The essential answer is that most of their subjects did not find British rule terribly oppressive, especially compared with preceding empires, such as the Mughals in India. British rule conferred many benefits: It made trade easier, life safer, and it built lots of valuable infrastructure, remnants of which can be glimpsed today from Capetown to New Delhi.

The British made sure to win over local leaders, many of whom wound up being sent to English schools. These educated elites would make trouble for the British later on, when they came to demand the same rights accorded to any other graduate of Oxford or Cambridge. But for much of the empire's history, the "babus" (as they were derisively called by snobbish Britons) were vital to London's rule.

BRITISH HEGEMONY was also made possible by technology. Telegraphs, undersea cables, steamships, railways— all these developments made possible the "annihilation of distance," as well as (in Ferguson's clever phrase) "long-distance annihilation." Armed with rifles, mobile artillery, and Maxim guns, Queen Victoria's soldiers fought a never-ending series of small wars to subdue everyone from the Ashantis to the Zulus. Accounts of these skirmishes should be familiar to us today; in their one-sidedness, they are remarkably reminiscent of recent American expeditions from Panama to Afghanistan.

The most impressive display of European military might occurred in Africa. In the mid-nineteenth century, colonial control of this vast continent was limited to a few outposts mainly scattered around the coasts. "By 1914, apart from Abyssinia and Liberia (the latter an American quasi-colony)," Ferguson writes, "the entire continent was under some form of European rule. Roughly a third of it was British."

In 1897, the year of her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria presided over the biggest empire in history, encompassing a quarter of the world's land surface and about 444 million people. This actually understates the extent of London's influence, since British capital gave it a large say in the affairs of nominally independent Latin American nations.

There is a longstanding debate over whether, and to what extent, the British Empire paid for itself. Ferguson argues that on the whole it didn't. True, the defense of the realm did not cost much (British defense spending was just 2.5 percent of GNP in 1900, versus 3.4 percent for America today), and the empire did make a few men like Cecil Rhodes fabulously rich. It also provided benefits to the millions of Britons who moved to the dominions; "in most cases, emigration substantially increased their incomes and reduced their tax burdens." It did not, however, offer much tangible return to ordinary British taxpayers, "whose savings (if they had any) were generally invested in British government bonds through savings banks and other financial intermediaries."

What it lacked in lucre the Empire more than made up for in excitement. "As a source of entertainment— of sheer psychological gratification— the Empire's importance can never be exaggerated," Ferguson writes. Imperial themes ran through the popular novels of G.A. Henty and John Buchan, the poems of Tennyson and Kipling, music hall songs, popular newspapers, cricket and rugby competitions, and even advertisements. Popular interest in the empire reached its peak in 1900, when the British had to put down a revolt by the only white tribe in Africa— the Boers. The public thrilled to the heroic defense of Mafeking and the relief of Ladysmith. But the British paid a high price not only in lost lives but also in lost honor.

The horrors of the Boer War began to turn progressive opinion against the empire. The public went from revering "Chinese" Gordon and Kitchener of Khartoum to mocking them. Cartoonist David Low drew the new face of the empire: Colonel Blimp, "the stereotype of a superannuated colonial colonel— fat, bald, irascible and irrelevant."

The decline and fall of the British Empire remains widely misunderstood. In the popular perception, the empire was brought down by nationalist uprisings. Such movements, notably the Congress party in India, certainly existed. But they were never strong enough to destroy the imperial edifice.

THE DOWNFALL of the empire began, Ferguson believes, with a pre-1914 miscalculation. London allied itself with Paris, thereby committing itself to a continental war should one break out, but it did not raise an army large enough to make war unlikely. The Germans gambled that they could defeat France before the tiny British Expeditionary Force made a difference, and they were nearly right. Britain and her allies did eventually prevail. As a result of World War I, the British Empire gained another 1.8 million square miles of territory, mainly in the Middle East and Africa. But this was a Pyrrhic victory that drained Britain economically and spiritually. In the interwar years, it did not rearm, and did nothing to deter aggression by Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy.

As late as 1940, Hitler offered Britain a deal he thought the Anglo-Saxons couldn't refuse: "The British would be allowed to retain their overseas Empire if they would give Hitler a free hand to carve out a German Empire in Central and Eastern Europe." Some in the British cabinet, notably Lord Halifax, were willing to conclude such an ignoble bargain. But to Britain's everlasting credit, Winston Churchill spurned this deal with the devil and vowed to fight to the end.

IN THE WAR THAT FOLLOWED, the Japanese seized important parts of Britain's Far Eastern empire, notably Burma, Hong Kong, and Singapore. It was more than a loss of territory; it was a loss of face. The Japanese took fiendish delight in working British and Australian POWs to death, showing that the "yellow man" could lord it over the "white man." Japanese attempts to foment an anti-British rebellion in India came to nothing, however, and the empire wound up making a substantial contribution to British victory.

But, again, the cost of victory was high; after 1945, Britain ceased to be a great power. It might have held its empire with the support of America. But under Franklin Roosevelt and his successors, American policy was implacably, and foolishly, opposed to the continuation of the British Empire. The extent of American hostility was revealed at Suez in 1956, when Eisenhower sided with Gamal Abdel Nasser, a pro-Soviet dictator, against Britain, France, and Israel.

An empire acquired over three centuries was dissolved in just three decades. With unseemly haste, the British scuttled out of India in 1947. At least 200,000 people died in the resulting intercommunal violence. Similar evacuations produced similarly dismal results in Palestine, Cyprus, and other trouble spots. By 2003, the sun had finally set on the empire. Only a few scattered flyspeck islands remain under British sovereignty; even Gibraltar soon will be lost.

Ferguson makes a convincing case for the positive role played by the British Empire in world history. It exported liberal capitalism, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, and the English language all over the world. As an economic historian, he focuses mainly on the economic benefits, which were considerable. The British Empire made possible the first great wave of globalization and free trade. Britain benefited, but so did less developed countries. Investors seek security for their money, and in many chaotic places this was provided by British rule, which was remarkably efficient and nonvenal. As a result, a larger percentage of capital was invested in poor countries than is the case today. In 1913, 63 percent of foreign direct investment went to developing countries, as opposed to only 28 percent in 1996.

Can America repeat the example of the British Empire? Ferguson, who has recently decamped from Oxford to New York University, clearly wants us to; he believes that a Pax Americana is both achievable and beneficial. Indeed, as he notes, America today is more powerful, both economically and militarily, than Britain was at the height of its power. But he points to some problems.

Modern America, unlike nineteenth-century Britain, is a net importer of people and capital, not a net exporter. It also has a long anti-imperial tradition dating back to the original revolt against the British Empire. To this may be added the fact that formal empires have become passé since the worldwide triumph of Wilsonian ideals of "national self-determination."

But if Americans want to be convinced of the benefits of empire, as well as apprised of its costs, they need merely pick up Ferguson's dazzling book. It's all here, in compulsively readable prose that sparkles with bon mots, accompanied by handsome maps and illustrations. As American forces prepare to occupy Iraq, this is an apt time to ponder imperial burdens in historical perspective, and there is no better way to do so than to read "Empire."

Contributing editor Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.