With all the cynical talk of imperialism being alive and well in Iraq, it's worthwhile to see what the real colonial period looked like. For a jaunty tour of the 400 years that mark the rise and demise of the British Empire -- once ruler of a quarter of the world's people -- Niall Ferguson's Empire, released in paperback this month, is a perfect choice.
Ferguson has been lumped into the realm of neoconservative thinkers, but it's a bum rap. Yes, his book asks you to reconsider the colonial period, which has long been assigned to the bin of mistakes the world should avoid repeating. But he resists bending history to his personal views. It's a ripe subject and a wild ride, filled with glorious, improbable conquests and shocking human wretchedness. It runs from England's days of sanctioning piracy on the high seas to its establishment of colonies all over the world to the end of the Empire, brought on by the sacrifices required by two world wars.
On balance, Ferguson believes colonialism has been a good thing, as former colonies are more likely to be functioning democracies today. It works like this: You don't even need to enroll in this "running-start for democracy" program -- they pick you! As for tuition, don't worry, they'll go ahead and extract enough of your natural resources to cover the expenses. When do you graduate? That's easy, when you finally rise up in bloody rebellion against your headmasters. Still, Ferguson almost makes you believe it was for the better, pointing out that the rule of law, higher standards of living and open markets are also hallmarks of former colonies.
But Ferguson does not shy away from colonialism's dark side, as when military advances allowed troops to kill obscene numbers of rebels. He neatly articulates the broad critique -- in terms that resonate as overseas adventures are again in the news -- as "a rip-off: paid for by British taxpayers, fought for by British soldiers, but benefiting only a tiny elite of fat-cat millionaires..."
Ferguson has a knack for pithy summations, as when he discusses the Empire's sugar plantations. "The rise of the British Empire, it might be said, had less to do with the Protestant work ethic or English individualism than with the British sweet tooth."
As a Brit, Ferguson sees United States history -- and current affairs -- through a refreshingly honest lens. The Pilgrims, he says, were communists, really. And aside from the preamble, he calls the Declaration of Independence a "tedious and overstated list of wrongs."
In the end, Ferguson prompts the U.S. -- "an empire in denial," he calls it -- to embrace its role in the world and perhaps dust off some of the more beneficial items from the colonial bag of tricks. (Ferguson addresses these ideas in his new book, Colossus, published this month.) To me, the parallels between then and now are stark -- even chilling -- but his analysis doesn't fit the facts of history as I read them here. To his credit, however, Ferguson reserves his opinions for the concluding chapter, making Empire useful to anyone trying to understand the world we live in.