Niall Ferguson, b. April 18, 1964, in Glasgow, Scotland, attended and sat as a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge University. He has also written for dozens of newspapers including the Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and the New York Times. Over the past ten years, he has written five controversial historical monographs and a wide range of papers on German pre-WWII economics, the House of Rothschild and the British Empire (subsequently filmed for television). He is currently Herzog Professor of Financial History at the Stern Business School, NYU.
      Borges once paraphrased Stevenson in saying enchantment was the one quality vital to any good writer. “Without enchantment, the rest is useless,” he concluded.1 In my estimation, we have in the writings of Mssr. Ferguson, the makings of a historical enchanter. For the BBC he has authored a series, and has written half a dozen hefty books on such matters as the development of the global banking system and a powerful rethinking of the Great War, and he is only just turning forty. However, his most provocative historical stance so far is his unapologetic support of Anglophone imperialism. More specifically, he argues the British Empire was a powerful force of order, justice and development for much of its existence and built much of the world we know today. A few billion people would likely take issue here, and certainly a great many post-colonial studies professors worldwide are shaking their head in dismay, but Ferguson is finding his thesis propagated everywhere. National newspapers and popular magazines are especially keen to adapt his interpretation to current American circumstances, and he has even written a lengthy piece for the New York Times Magazine ("The Empire Slinks Back", April 27, 2003) asserting the US actually doesn’t have what it takes to be a real empire, regardless of their elites efforts to establish one.

      In the last couple of years, with international politics suddenly the topic, several writers have made similar moves to resuscitating the ideals of imperialism, notably Michael Ignatieff, a popular political theorist at the Kennedy School who also makes the case for an American Empire. “America has inherited a world scarred not just by the failings of empires past but also by the failure of nationalism movements … empires only survive by understanding their limits.” 2 It should be pointed out immediately both Ignatieff and Ferguson are technically ‘provincials’, a Canadian and Scot respectively, and so their support of an new Empire comes from the margins. Historically, the great writers of imperia and pomp have been raised in the colonies, far from the political center. Frequently, it takes an outsider to point out what those living in the midst of power cannot see. Marcus Aurelius(VII, 3) once reflected a man is worth only as much as the things with which he busies himself. And so it is with nations, both Ignatieff and Ferguson would argue, and it is their conclusion that a certain global Power is going to have to become very worthy and very busy if it hopes to survive.

The Sun Sets on an Empire

      J.B. Bury, in his classic History of the Late Roman Empire, infamously concluded the collapse of Rome was ‘based on a series of contingent events. No general causes can be assigned that made it inevitable.” For five hundred years, historians had been positing general themes for imperial decline, but in the end they have all been found wanting. 3 By contrast, Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (NY, 2003) cuts very quickly and precisely to the chase, right in the introduction, “The year 1940 was the year the Empire was weighted in the historical balance, when it faced the choice between compromise with Hitler’s evil empire and fighting on for, at best, a Pyrrhic victory. In my view, the right choice was made.” (xxiv) Not much equivocation here; later it is made even more explicit: “in the end the British sacrificed their empire to stop the Germans, Italians and Japanese from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice expunge all the Empire’s other sins?” (355) That is the question the book sets out to answer.

      In his freshman year at Oxford in the early 1980s, a young Glaswegian brashly took the podium at the university’s debating society to argue the case supporting the efforts of the British Empire. By his own account, he botched it badly, the very notion of redeemable imperialism being wildly unpalatable and seen as politically backwards at the time. Two decades later, Ferguson felt he was in a unique position to give his boyhood failure another go. He even goes so far as to include a frank admission of his own family’s colonialist legacy, by way of explanation, “there was an antelope skin on the sofa, the Masai warrior’s portrait on the wall, the crudely carved but exquisitely decorated footstool that my sister and I liked to perch on…we did not know it, but we grew up in a little post-colonial museum.” (xix) This sort of disclosure is rare for a professional historian, even if it is largely rhetorical, but Ferguson is hardly your usual academic. His first real encounter with historical writing was Schiller’s colorful history of the Thirty Years’ War, a work as romantically poetical as it is flamboyantly patriotic. He uses counter-historical questions frequently in his works (a tactic scorned by most serious historians), and even penned an essay entitled “The Kaiser’s European Union” detailing the possible aftermath of a First World War where the British remained neutral.

Piracy, Villainy and Running the World

      The opening chapter of the book begins in 1663. The Spanish, Portuguese and Ottoman Empires dominate the world stage, while Britannia seems a marginal but vibrant culture. All that would change with Elizabeth, whose political counselors saw gold as the pivotal resource which England lacked. “It should never be forgotten that this was how the British Empire began: in a maelstrom of seaborne violence and theft. It was not conceived by self-conscious imperialists, aiming to establish English rule over foreign lands, or colonists hoping to build a new life overseas.” (4) The Empire, quite simply, began with piracy- basically government-sanctioned, privatized naval warfare, or privateering: Captain Morgan (from Wales) was just one such agent, who commanded one of roughly two hundred of the ships sent off by England each year in the 1600s to pillage the gold of Spanish galleons returning from the New World. Morgan went on of course to become the viceroy for the sugar plantations of Jamaica (hence the rum), and that model was soon repeated across the acquired territories of the Britons to reap vast quantities of tea and tobacco, all of which could be sold for gold. Ferguson points out England’s expansion “had less to do with the Protestant work ethic or English individualism what with the British sweet tooth…sugar remained Britain’s largest single import from the 1750s, when it overtook foreign linen, until the 1820s…the Empire, it might be said, was built on a huge sugar, caffeine and nicotine rush.” (16)

      Economic matters are in the foreground in this first chapter (Ferguson is, after all, currently the Chair of Financial History at NYU), and his rollicking outline of the early mercantile outfits like the “Honorable Company of Adventurers of England Trading Into Hudson’s Bay” and East India Company makes current corporate practices look positively pristine. 4 Dutch companies send a flotilla up the Thames to burn their competitors' boats and docks, only to have the British ‘borrow’ their economic model, banking system and stock exchange. Finally, by the 1700s, a very powerful Royal Navy has been established, and begins to scatter and disrupt their principal antagonist, the French. By 1815, the Empire comprised 43 colonies on five continents.

      The next chapter begins with this expansion, adroitly entitled “White Plague” and here Ferguson begins to sketch the real ascent of the British imperium, stating “between the early 1600s and the 1950s, more than 20 million people left the British Isles to begin new lives across the sea. Only a minority ever returned. No other country in the world came close to exporting so many of its inhabitants…the indispensable foundation of the Empire was mass migration: the biggest in human history.” (60) This was notably the era of Malthus, whose alarming (even alarmist) study of population growth in the British Isles painted a dark picture of England’s future if food shortages like the famines in Ireland continued in parallel with domestic birthrates. And so the American colonies, the dominion of Canada, Australia, India and Africa all began to absorb millions of British colonials, notably along with their slaves. To his credit, Ferguson documents this grim reality with full disclosure, “we tend to think of the British Empire as a phenomenon of white migration, yet between 1662 and 1807 nearly three and a half million Africans came to the New World as slaves transported in British ships.” (80) There follows eight dense pages on the bloody economics of the British slave trade, indicating even a neo-imperialist can eschew apologetics: statistical charts are interwoven with water colors done by a slave trader of his human cargoes’ conditions, as well as a listing of the major companies involved, diary excerpts from the seamen and accounts from the slaves themselves. It is a gruesome read, matter of fact and all the more convincing for its lack of easy sanctimony. Any critic who charges Ferguson with moral laxity in his depiction of imperialism probably skipped these pages.

America Is Revolting

      The discussion of slavery neatly folds into Ferguson’s wonderful scrutiny of the American Revolution. It is the morning of April 19, 1775, as a squad of British troops march through misty woods towards Lexington, Massachusetts, on a mission to destroy a stockpile of weapons assembled by local landholders. The British are ambushed en route, exchanging fire with a local militia, but with little trouble the snipers are dispatched by their better guns. The Minutemen never had a chance at Lexington, but like so many easy battles for a powerful nation, the losers actually become martyrs. News of their deaths spreads up and down the Colonies, and cements a nascent resistance, so that within a month the British Redcoats are being subjected to withering fire wherever they go. All this despite the glaring fact New Englanders were, at the time, among the wealthiest people on the planet: with lower tax loads, bigger farms, better houses and far superior education than the inhabitants of England itself. In 1763, the average Briton paid 26 shillings in tax per year, while in Massachusetts, it was about one shilling. Subsequently, any argument that the American Revolution arose out of British pilferage is not only simplification, it is just simply wrong. England reaped a great deal of financial reward from many of her colonies, but the American colonies were break-even endeavors at best. And when time came to really fight for New England, the British establishment took one glance at their treasury and opted to let the colonists secede, especially given that many in the British Isles actually sided with the Americans. 5 With all the nation's might, even England could not face the French navy and the rebellious Americans working in concert. Those colonists (one in five, roughly) who wished to remain British subjects, the Loyalists, fled to Canada.

      The loss of the American colonies posed somewhat of a problem for two other British dominions, notably Australia and Canada. Suddenly, the undesirables of England (and there were many) had nowhere to be shipped, and so New South Wales, “the eighteenth century equivalent of Mars,” (103) was substituted. Luddites, food rioters, radical weavers, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists, Quebecois patriots, along with petty thieves, shoplifters, perjurers, forgers and sheep wranglers, from all across the Empire, who until 1777 were sent to America, were now routed down under. England, as it approached Victoria’s reign, was entering into a vast enterprise of self-improvement, one that she would soon turn upon the rest of the world.

      The third section of the book, “The Mission,” begins with a bomb: “in the 18th century, the British Empire had been, at best, amoral. The Georgians had grabbed power in Asia, land in America and slaves in Africa. Native peoples were either taxed, robbed or wiped out…the Victorians had more elevated aspirations…it was no longer enough for them to exploit other races; now the aim became to improve them.” (116) This is pretty harsh for self-avowed neo-Victorian, one of the reasons his argument works in fact, for by proceeding from a position of rhetorical negativity, to objective examination, and finally cautious consideration, Ferguson is writing more like his empirical predecessors (Voltaire or Hume) than a post-modern. Again, as with slavery and the aboriginals’ exterminations, he confronts the ugliness of Victorianism head on, and includes as testament a portion of a prominent preacher’s speech given before Queen Victoria and 25,000 subjects after the Indian Mutiny in 1857:
The Indian Government never ought to have tolerated the religion of the Hindus at all. If my religion consisted of bestiality, infanticide and murder, I should have no right to it unless I was prepared to be hanged. The religion of the Hindus is no more than a mass of the rankest filth that imagination even conceived…the sword must be taken out of its sheath, to cut off our fellow subject by their thousands!
      The Opium Wars and the brutal repression of India and later Africa serve as examples how, in trying to civilize the world, the Victorians actually ended up ‘barbarizing the British’ (152). The firepower of the Royal Navy and the communications speed of the Empire’s telegraph system made this domineering all the more efficient and exhaustive. The problem, however, for any global Power is that everywhere it commands power becomes a site it must often fight to defend, and so wars under Victoria’s reign multiplied. Not too long before, a perceptive British subject wrote in his English Works (vii, 73), “men, from their very birth, and naturally, scramble for everything they covet, and would have all the world, if they could, to fear and obey them.” Hobbes neatly prefigures position of Britain here, for by 1870, this was precisely her spot, “the British Empire attained a geographical extent unrivalled in history. Even its nearest competitors, France and Russia, were dwarfed by the Britannic Titan – the first true superpower.” Here was a time the British Crown ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s land surface, governed some 444 million souls, when men like Cecil Rhodes uttered in all seriousness, “we are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race.” Rhodes went on to found the De Beers Company, and with the help of the Maxim gun began to establish British interests throughout southern Africa. Ever enterprising, he even has his private army begin preliminary planning for the ‘ultimate recovery of the United States’. I think my favorite sampling of Ferguson’s Victorian-era imperial mania is the text of a Pear’s Soap advertisement from the late 1800s:
The First Steps towards Lightening
the White Man’s Burden
is through the Virtue of Cleanliness.
Pear’s Soap is a potent Force in brightening the dark corners of the Earth
as Civilization advances amongst the Cultures of all Nations
it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.
      As implausible, even insane, as this sounds, it was a moral tone taken with complete conviction at the time – and certainly was no laughing matter given the whole grim science of imperialism which the British erected alongside their politics: namely eugenics, biometrics, phrenology and social Darwinism. As Ferguson summarizes with a wince, “life was a struggle, and war more than just a game – it was a form of natural selection … with an ever-expanding empire, there was not shortage of jolly little wars to be waged against racially inferior opponents. It was gratifying to think that in massacring them with their Maxim guns, the British were contributing to the progress of mankind.” (261) In other words, there is a stark admission here that violently racist militarism was hardly a unique Germanic outburst in the middle of the twentieth century, but rather an unconscionable yet pervasive aspect of Anglo-European thought at the time. Not surprisingly, this hubris led to catastrophe.

      “It is madness to invade such, whom in conquering you cannot keep,” wrote Hobbes. 6 What Ferguson details next, in fact, is an example of the historical truth that no conqueror, not matter how powerful, ever ‘keeps’. His description of the context, personalities and consequences of the Battle of Omdurman is a masterstroke. On the second of September, 1898, a British army in the Sudan led by General Kitchener marched into battle, as reported in the London Morning Post by a 23 year old Winston Churchill. Over 50,000 Wahabbist dervishes rode out against the British, chanting to Allah, and within roughly an hour about ten thousand of them were dead, with roughly another 35, 000 wounded on their field. Such was the terrible ferocity of British firepower. However, the key spectator to this display was not Briton or colonial, but rather one Major von Tiedmann, a German military attaché, and his report on the British use of the Maxim gun in confronting the Sudanese reached the highest offices of Berlin. Ferguson implies it was within this supposed victory that the seeds of British woe with Germany were planted, “by 1908 the Maxim was standard issue for every German infantry regiment,” and so very suddenly the technical advantage of British force vanished, the Boer War being just the first catastrophic example.

The Last Years

      By the first decade of the 1900s, the German state was clearly emerging as the main mover on the Continent, with a population , GDP and standing army far outstripping all Great Britain. A wave of anti-German novels (in which Austrian spies scheme and Teutonic saboteurs run amok in English affairs) were written throughout the first decade of the 20th century. And then, sure enough, war erupted. The German press was first to label it a world war, ‘weltkrieg’, in the hopes of conveying a moral import to the events. The national debt of England multiplied ten times in those four dark years, and an entire generation was crippled physically and emotionally by the battle. Yet even that pain did not dispel the imperial and colonial exuberance of the German people, and just a decade later, in the shadow of defeat Hitler made an active decision to make England pay dearly for his nation’s humbling. And so the endgame of the Empire begins. As quoted at the beginning, Ferguson ultimately sees WWII as a conscious choice by England to stop Axis fascism regardless of cost, and in the end his argument is fairly convincing. I will leave it to you, the reader, to assess what lesson or warning from this he wishes to extend to his new American peers, and will only say his work is more than deserving and supporting of such questions. While his “lessons” for modern circumstances may not always ring true, his analysis of the past (the real test for a historian) is as consitently imaginative as it is intriguing, well worth the challenge of tackling.

See also Ferguson's The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 (London: 2001), The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker, 1849-1998 (NY: 1999) and The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (NY: 1999); as well as quite recently his article in Foreign Policy (Jan/Feb 2003) entitled "Power", pp. 18-24 in which he argues good old moral authority, not guns or movies, are actually what give the United States its international clout.


1 Jorge Luis Borges, “The Divine Comedy” from Seven Nights (NY, 1984)
2 Michael Ignatieff, “The Burden” in The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 5, 2003, p. 54.
3 To enumerate all these would occupy a whole lifetime for some bold meta-historian, but here are the main themes. Giovanni Villani (d. 1348) kicked it off by laying the blame squarely on Germanic barbarians and their destructive expansionism. Petrach (d. 1374) fired back, claiming the rise of Christianity was to blame and notably coined the phrase “Dark Ages” to characterize the collapse into superstitious religion. Next, Leonardo Bruni (d. 1444) borrowed from Thucydides and Tacitus the idea that imperialism had corrupted the State’s contract with its own citizens. Then Flavio Biondo’s History from the Decline of the Roman Empire (1453) and Niccolo Machiavelli’s Florentine History (1525) judged the Visigoth king, Alaric guilty for the Empire’s ultimate dissolution. By the Enlightenment, however, Voltaire quipped that the Empire fell “because it existed, for it is after all a fact that everything must fall,” and this vaguely cyclical theory of rise and fall was embraced by Condorcet. But then came Gibbon and Montesquieu, who exploded the field with their vast cataloguing of Roman political corruption, cultural decadence and economic mismanagement. This was followed by a drippy 19th c. Romanticism (laced with latent nationalist racism), notably from H.S. Chamberlain and Count Joseph de Gobineau, who loved to talk about the ‘the blood of the people’ and Aryan/Teutonic virtue. Oswald Spengler (d. 1936) capped this morphology off in his now-infamous The Decline of the West. Early twentieth century scholarship took these concepts and sadly ran with them: Nilsson’s Imperial Rome argued barbarian settlement and birth rates diluted the bloodlines of the Roman nobility, while Otto Seech and Tenney Frank blamed massive slave immigration and Christian mysticism for subverting Latin power. Ferdinand Lot also blamed religion, but felt the ‘mystery cults’ the real detriment. Then the economic theorists weigh in: A.E.R. Boak and K.J. Beloch made interesting forays into the study of population decline and manpower shortages due to plague and disease, which crippled the Roman economy, particularly in times of war. Taxation rates rose as a result, to the point where farmers and trades people could no longer afford their own citizenship. Liebig and V.G. Simkhovitch offered soil exhaustion due to improper drainage and crop rotation as the hidden culprit. Such a specialized tact seem to turn the reasons for decline into a parlour game: Guglielmo Ferro blamed Marcus Aurelius’ move to put an incompetent Commodus on the throne, W.E. Heitland’s The Roman Fate underlined the failure to fully embrace representative democracy, Komemann offers Augustus’ gutting of the legions, A.M.H. Jones’ The Later Roman Empire cites an inefficient, corrupt imperial civil service, for Samuel Dill the villain was intellectual torpor and illiteracy and Rostovtzeff blames the neglect of the towns and countryside which dissipated the middle class.
4 See also John Keay’s An Honourable Company (London, 1991) for an amazing account on this period.
5 A notable exception, Samuel Johnson, as reported by Boswell, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American…they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”
6 Actually, this was his Elizabethan gloss on Thucydides account in the Peloponnesian Wars (VI, 6) of Nicias’ testimony before the Athenian assembly arguing against an attack in Sicily.