The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power


By Niall Ferguson

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A bestselling historian shows how the British Empire created the modern world, in a book lauded as “a rattling good tale” (Wall Street Journal) and “popular history at its best” (Washington Post)

The British Empire was the largest in all history: the nearest thing to global domination ever achieved. The world we know today is in large measure the product of Britain’s Age of Empire. The global spread of capitalism, telecommunications, the English language, and institutions of representative government — all these can be traced back to the extraordinary expansion of Britain’s economy, population and culture from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth. On a vast and vividly colored canvas, Empire shows how the British Empire acted as midwife to modernity.

Displaying the originality and rigor that have made Niall Ferguson one of the world’s foremost historians, Empire is a dazzling tour de force — a remarkable reappraisal of the prizes and pitfalls of global empire.


For Ken and Vivienne

The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of
day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its
banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to
the uttermost ends of the earth ... The tidal current runs to and
fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and
ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea.
It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is
proud ... It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels
flashing in the night of time ... It had known the ships and the
men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from
Erith – the adventurers and the settlers; kings' ships and the ships
of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the dark 'interlopers' of
the Eastern trade, and the commissioned 'generals' of East India
fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out
on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messen-
gers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sa-
cred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river
into the mystery of an unknown earth! ... The dreams of men,
the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires ...
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Britain controls today the destinies of some 350,000,000 alien people, unable as yet to govern themselves, and easy victims to rapine and injustice, unless a strong arm guards them. She is giving them a rule that has its faults, no doubt, but such, I would make bold to affirm, as no conquering state ever before gave to a dependent people.
Professor George M. Wrong, 1909
... Colonialism has led to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and ... Africans and people of African descent, and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of colonialism and continue to be victims of its consequences ...
Durban Declaration of the World Conference against Racism,
Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, 2001
Once there was an Empire that governed roughly a quarter of the world's population, covered about the same proportion of the earth's land surface and dominated nearly all its oceans. The British Empire was the biggest Empire ever, bar none. How an archipelago of rainy islands off the north-west coast of Europe came to rule the world is one of the fundamental questions not just of British but of world history. It is the main question this book seeks to answer.
Why should Americans care about the history of the British Empire? There are two reasons. The first is that the United States was a product of that empire – and not just in the negative sense that it was founded in the first successful revolt against British imperial rule. America today still bears the indelible stamp of the colonial era, when, for the better part of two centuries, the majority of white settlers on the eastern seaboard were from the British Isles. Second, and perhaps more important, the British Empire is the most commonly cited precedent for the global power currently wielded by the United States. America is the heir to the Empire in both senses: offspring in the colonial era, successor today. Perhaps the most burning contemporary question of American politics is: Should the United States seek to shed or to shoulder the imperial load it has inherited? I do not believe that question can be answered without an understanding of how the British Empire rose and fell; and of what it did, not just for Britain but for the world as a whole.
Was the British Empire a good or bad thing? It is nowadays quite conventional to think that, on balance, it was a bad thing. One obvious reason for the Empire's fall into disrepute was its involvement in the Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself. This is no longer a question for historical judgement alone; it has become a political, and potentially a legal, issue. In August 1999 the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission, meeting in Accra, issued a demand for reparations from 'all those nations of Western Europe and the Americas and institutions, who participated and benefited from the slave trade and colonialism'. The sum suggested as adequate compensation – based on estimates of 'the number of human lives lost to Africa during the slave-trade, as well as an assessment of the worth of the gold, diamonds and other minerals taken from the continent during colonial rule' – was $777 trillion. Given that more than three million of the ten million or so Africans who crossed the Atlantic as slaves before 1850 were shipped in British vessels, the putative British reparations burden could be in the region of £150 trillion.
Such a claim may seem fantastic. But the idea was given some encouragement at the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban in the summer of 2001. The conference's final report 'acknowledged' that slavery and the slave trade were 'a crime against humanity' of which 'people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian and indigenous peoples' were 'victims'. In another of the conference's 'declarations', 'colonialism' was casually lumped together with 'slavery, the slave trade ... apartheid ... and genocide' in a blanket call to UN member states 'to honour the memory of the victims of past tragedies'. Noting that 'some States have taken the initiative to apologize and have paid reparation, where appropriate, for grave and massive violations committed', the conference 'called on all those who have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to do so'.
This call has not gone unheeded in Britain itself. In May 2002 the director of the London-based 'think tank' Demos, which may be regarded as the avant-garde of New Labour, suggested that the Queen should embark on 'a world tour to apologize for the past sins of Empire as a first step to making the Commonwealth more effective and relevant'. The news agency that reported this remarkable suggestion added the following helpful gloss: 'Critics of the British Empire, which at its peak in 1918 covered a quarter of the world's population and area, say its huge wealth was built on oppression and exploitation'.
At the time this book was written, one BBC website (apparently aimed at schoolchildren) offered the following equally incisive overview of imperial history:
The Empire came to greatness by killing lots of people less sharply armed than themselves and stealing their countries, although their methods later changed: killing lots of people with machine guns came to prominence as the army's tactic of choice ... [It] ... fell to pieces because of various people like Mahatma Gandhi, heroic revolutionary protester, sensitive to the needs of his people.
The questions recently posed by an eminent historian on BBC television may be said to encapsulate the current conventional wisdom. 'How', he asked, 'did a people who thought themselves free end up subjugating so much of the world ... How did an empire of the free become an empire of slaves?' How, despite their 'good intentions', did the British sacrifice 'common humanity' to 'the fetish of the market'?
Despite a certain patronizing fondness for post-colonial England, most Americans need little persuading that the British Empire was a bad thing. The Declaration of Independence itemizes 'a long train of abuses and usurpations' by the British imperial government, 'pursuing invariably the same Object', namely 'a design to reduce [the American colonists] under absolute Despotism' and to establish 'an absolute Tyranny over these States'. The sentiments of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' are essentially defensive, portraying 'the land of the free and the home of the brave' under attack by 'the foe's haughty host' – the Royal Navy squadron that inspired Francis Scott Key's verses by bombarding Baltimore for twenty-five hours. A few clearsighted Americans – notably Alexander Hamilton – saw from an early stage that the United States would necessarily become an empire in its own right; the challenge, in his eyes, was to ensure that it was a 'republican empire', one that did not sacrifice liberty at home for the sake of power abroad. Even Hamilton's critics were covert imperialists: Jefferson's expanding frontier implied colonization at the expense of native Americans. Yet the anti-imperialist strain in American political rhetoric proved – and continues to prove – very resistant to treatment.
It is a striking feature of the current debate on American global power that the opponents of an 'imperial' American foreign policy can be found on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. In his later years, the novelist Gore Vidal has become an outspoken critic of the American 'imperial system', which, he claims, 'has wrecked our society – $5 trillion of debt, no proper public education, no health care – and done the rest of the world incomparable harm'. In a similar vein, Chalmers Johnson argues that America is 'trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making' and warns that 'the innocent of the twenty-first century are going to harvest unexpected blowback disasters from the imperialist escapades of recent decades' – implying that terrorist attacks like those of 11 September 2001 are an understandable reaction to American aggression, a view that has been echoed by the New Zealand born political economist Robert Hunter Wade.
What is surprising to European eyes is that the fulminations of the anti-imperialist left should be matched – with almost perfect symmetry – on the isolationist right. In his book A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America , Pat Buchanan issued the solemn warning: 'Our country is today travelling the same path that was trod by the British Empire – to the same fate ... If America is not to end the coming century the way the British ... ended this one, we must learn the lessons history has taught us'. For Buchanan, as for Vidal, overseas adventures subvert the ethos of the original, pure-of-heart republic in order to further the interests of sinister special interests. The remedy is to cease 'running around on these moral crusades' and bring American troops back home.
By comparison, only a minority of commentators in the United States view the British imperial example as one worthy of emulation. Thomas Donnelly of the Project for the New American Century explicitly models his proposed twenty-first century pax americana on the pax britannica of Queen Victoria's reign. Max Boot of the Wall Street Journal has argued that America should be providing anarchic countries like Afghanistan with 'the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets'. In Boot's words: 'The chaotic post – Cold War environment resembles that of the post-Napoleonic world, with the United States thrust willy-nilly into Britain's old role as globocop'. Similar parallels have been drawn by Robert Kaplan, who sees the British campaign in the Sudan in 1898 as the precursor of recent American exercises in 'asymmetrical warfare'. Even Joseph Nye – no proponent of the unilateral flexing of American muscle – believes 'the US can learn a ... useful lesson from the period when Britain held primacy among the global powers'.
The question that remains unresolved in this debate is whether the United States today is more powerful than the British Empire of the mid-nineteenth century. On the one hand, as Paul Kennedy has pointed out, Britain was never as militarily dominant then as the United States is today: 'Even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies – right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy'. On the other, American power today remains in large measure informal or 'soft' – exercised through economic and cultural agencies rather than colonial structures. Anarcho-Marxists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri insist that such informal empire is just as powerful as the formal imperialism of occupying armies and administrators. In their view – and it is a view widely shared by the multifarious critics of 'globalization' – multinational (but mainly American) corporations, aided and abetted by apparently supranational (but mainly American) public institutions like the International Monetary Fund – exercise just as much power as the soldiers and civil servants who enforced the pax britannica. Yet there clearly is a difference between influencing a nominally sovereign state, whether through economic pressure or cultural penetration, and actually ruling a colony. The United States in 2003 formally controls a far smaller area of the world than the United Kingdom did in 1903. Its weapons have a longer range, but not its writ.
Moreover, there are challenges to American power today that Britain did not have to contend with a hundred years ago. In Joseph Nye's image of a three-dimensional chessboard, American power is greatest on the top 'board' of traditional military power; more circumscribed on the middle board of economic power; and relatively weak on the bottom board of 'transnational relations that cross borders outside government control', where the players range from 'bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national budgets at one extreme [to] terrorists transferring weapons or hackers disrupting Internet operations at the other'. As we shall see, the British Empire also had to contend with over-mighty bankers and terrorists, but the technological possibilities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries favoured the imperialists over the individual troublemaker. Only in his wildest dreams could the Mahdi, the leader of the Sudanese dervishes, have devastated the City of London the way Osama bin Laden devastated Lower Manhattan.
The parallels between today's empire and yesterday's can never be exact, of course. But it is clear that today's debate about American global power can only be enriched by a proper understanding of how the last great Anglophone empire functioned.


Let me now declare an interest. Thanks to the British Empire, I have relatives scattered all over the world – in Alberta, Ontario, Philadelphia and Perth, Australia. Because of the Empire, my paternal grandfather John spent his early twenties selling hardware and hooch (White Horse whisky) in Ecuador – not a colony, of course, but part of Britain's 'informal' economic imperium in Latin America. I grew up marvelling at the two large oil paintings he brought back of the Andean landscape, which hung luminously on my grandmother's living room wall; and the two Indian dolls, grim-faced and weighed down with firewood, incongruous beside the china figurines in her display cabinet. Thanks to the Empire, my other grandfather Tom Hamilton spent nearly three years as an RAF officer fighting the Japanese in India and Burma. His letters home, lovingly preserved by my grandmother, are a wonderfully observant and eloquent account of the Raj in wartime, shot through with that sceptical liberalism which was the core of his philosophy. I can still recall the joy of leafing through the photographs he took while stationed in India, and the thrill of hearing his stories about swooping kites and sweltering heat. Thanks to the Empire, my Uncle Ian Ferguson's first job after he qualified as an architect was with the Calcutta firm of McIntosh Burn, a subsidiary of the Gillanders managing agency. Ian had started his working life in the Royal Navy; he spent the rest of his life abroad, first in Africa, then in the Gulf states. To me he seemed the very essence of the expatriate adventurer: sun-darkened, hard-drinking and fiercely cynical – the only adult who always, from my earliest childhood, addressed me as a fellow-adult, profanities, black humour and all.
His brother – my father – also had his moment of wanderlust. In 1966, having completed his medical studies in Glasgow, he defied the advice of friends and relatives by taking his wife and two infant children to Kenya, where he worked for nearly two years teaching and practising medicine in Nairobi. Thus, thanks to the British Empire, my earliest childhood memories are of colonial Africa; for although Kenya had been independent for three years, and the radio constantly played Jomo Kenyatta's signature tune 'Harambe, Harambe' ('Let's all pull together'), scarcely anything had changed since the days of White Mischief. We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili – and our sense of unshakeable security. It was a magical time, which indelibly impressed on my consciousness the sight of the hunting cheetah, the sound of Kikuyu women singing, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mango. I suspect my mother was never happier. And although we finally came home – back to the grey skies and the winter slush of Glasgow – our house was always filled with Kenyan memorabilia. There was the 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. Each of us had a zebra-skin drum, a gaudy basket from Mombasa, a wildebeest-hair flywhisk, a Kikuyu doll. We did not know it, but we grew up in a little post-colonial museum. I still have the carved wooden hippopotamus, warthog, elephant and lion which were once my most treasured possessions.
Still, we had come home – and we never went back. One who did not return to Scotland was my great-aunt Agnes Ferguson ('Aggie' to all who knew her). Born in 1888, the daughter of my great-grandfather James Ferguson, a garden labourer, and his first wife Mary, Aggie personified the transforming power of the imperial dream. In 1911, enticed by alluring pictures of the Canadian prairies, she and her new husband Ernest Brown decided to follow his brother's example: to leave their home, their family and friends in Fife and head west. The lure was the offer of 160 acres of virgin real estate in Saskatchewan, free of charge. The only stipulation was that they had to build a dwelling there and cultivate the land. According to family legend, Aggie and Ernest were supposed to sail on the Titanic; by chance, only their luggage was on board when the ship went down. That was luck of a sort, but it meant that they had to start their new life from scratch. And if Aggie and Ernest thought they were getting away from the nasty Scottish winter, they were swiftly disillusioned. Glenrock was a windswept wilderness where temperatures could plunge far lower than in drizzly Fife. It was, as Ernest wrote to his sister-in-law Nellie, 'sure terriabl [sic] cold'. The first shelter they were able to build for themselves was so primitive they called it a chicken shack. The nearest town – Moose Jaw – was ninety-five miles away. To begin with, their nearest neighbours were natives; friendly ones, luckily.
Yet the black-and-white photographs they sent back to their relatives every Christmas of themselves and 'our prairie home' tell a story of success and fulfillment: of hard-won happiness. As the mother of three healthy children, Aggie lost the pinched look she had worn as an emigrant bride. Ernest grew tanned and broad-shouldered working the prairie soil; shaved off his mustache; became handsome where once he had been hangdog. The chicken shack was supplanted by a clapboard farmhouse. Gradually, their sense of isolation diminished as more Scots settled in the area. It was reassuring to be able to celebrate Hogmanay with fellow countrymen so far from home, since 'they don't hold New Year out here very much just the Scotch folk'. Today their ten grandchildren live all over Canada, a country whose annual income per capita is not merely 10 per cent higher than Britain's but second only to that of the United States. All thanks to the British Empire.
So to say that I grew up in the Empire's shadow would be to conjure up too tenebrous an image. To the Scots, the Empire stood for bright sunlight. Little may have been left of it on the map by the 1970s, but my family was so completely imbued with the imperial ethos that its importance went unquestioned. Indeed, the legacy of the Empire was so ubiquitous and omnipresent that we regarded it as part of the normal human condition. Holidays in Canada did nothing to alter this impression. Nor did that systematic defamation of Catholic Ireland which in those days was such an integral part of life on the south side of the Clyde. I grew up still thinking complacently of Glasgow as the 'Second City' (of the Empire); reading quite uncritically the novels of H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan; relishing all the quintessentially imperial sporting clashes – best of all the rugby tours by the 'British Lions' to Australia, New Zealand and (until they were regrettably interrupted) South Africa.1 At home we ate 'Empire biscuits'. At school we did 'Empire shooting'.

Cases Against

Admittedly, by the time I reached my teens, the idea of a world ruled by chaps with red coats, stiff upper lips and pith helmets had become something of a joke, the raw material for Carry On Up the Khyber, It Ain't 'Alf 'Ot Mum and Monty Python's Flying Circus. Perhaps the archetypal line in the genre is in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life, when a bloodspattered 'Tommy', fatally wounded in a battle with the Zulus, exclaims ecstatically: 'I mean, I killed fifteen of those buggers, sir. Now, at home, they'd hang me! Here, they'll give me a fucking medal, sir!'
When I got to Oxford in 1982 the Empire was no longer even funny. In those days the Oxford Union still debated solemn motions like 'This House Regrets Colonization'. Young and foolish, I rashly opposed this motion and in doing so prematurely ended my career as a student politician. I suppose that was the moment the penny dropped: clearly not everyone shared my confidently rosy view of Britain's imperial past. Indeed, some of my contemporaries appeared quite scandalized that I should be prepared to defend it. As I began to study the subject in earnest, I came to realize that I and my family had been woefully misinformed: the costs of the British Empire had, in fact, substantially outweighed its benefits. The Empire had, after all, been one of history's Bad Things.
There is no need here to recapitulate in any detail the arguments against imperialism. They can be summarized, I think, under two headings: those that stress the negative consequences for the colonized; and those that stress the negative consequences for the colonizers. In the former category belong both the nationalists and the Marxists, from the Mughal historian Gholam Hossein Khan, author of the Seir Mutaqherin (1789), to the Palestinian academic Edward Said, author of Orientalism (1978), by way of Lenin and a thousand others in between. In the latter camp belong the liberals, from Adam Smith onwards, who have maintained for almost as many years that the British Empire was, even from Britain's point of view, 'a waste of money'.
The central nationalist/Marxist assumption is, of course, that imperialism was economically exploitative: every facet of colonial rule, including even the apparently sincere efforts of Europeans to study and understand indigenous cultures, was at root designed to maximize the surplus value that could be extracted from the subject peoples. The central liberal assumption is more paradoxical. It is that precisely because imperialism distorted market forces – using everything from military force to preferential tariffs to rig business in the favour of the metropolis – it was not in the long-term interests of the metropolitan economy either. In this view, it was free economic integration with the rest of the world economy that mattered, not the coercive integration of imperialism. Thus, investment in domestic industry would have been better for Britain than investment in far-flung colonies, while the cost of defending the Empire was a burden on taxpayers, who might otherwise have spent their money on the products of a modern consumer goods sector. One historian, writing in the new Oxford History of the British Empire, has gone so far as to speculate that if Britain had got rid of the Empire in the mid-1840s, she could have reaped a 'decolonization dividend' in the form of a 25 per cent tax cut. The money taxpayers would have saved as a result of this could have been spent on electricity, cars and consumer durables, thus encouraging industrial modernization at home.
Nearly a century ago, the likes of J. A. Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse were arguing along very similar lines; they in turn were in some measure the heirs of Richard Cobden and John Bright in the 1840s and 1850s. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith had expressed his doubts about the wisdom of 'raising up a nation of customers who should be obliged to buy from the shops of our different producers, all the goods with which these could supply them'. But it was Cobden who had originally insisted that the expansion of British trade should go hand in hand with a foreign policy of complete non-intervention. Commerce alone, he maintained, was 'the grand panacea',
which, like a beneficent medical discovery, will serve to inoculate with the healthy and saving taste for civilization all the nations of the world. Not a bale of merchandise leaves our shores, but it bears the seeds of intelligence and fruitful thought to the members of some less enlightened community; not a merchant visits our seats of manufacturing industry, but he returns to his own country the missionary of freedom, peace, and good government – whilst our steamboats, that now visit every port of Europe, and our miraculous railroads, that are the talk of all nations, are the advertisements and vouchers for the value of our enlightened institutions.
The critical point for Cobden was that neither trade nor even the spread of British 'civilization' needed to be enforced by imperial structures. Indeed, the use of force could achieve nothing if it sought to run counter to the beneficent laws of the global free market:
So far as our commerce is concerned, it can neither be sustained nor greatly injured abroad by force or violence. The foreign customers who visit our markets are not brought hither through fear of the power or the influence of British diplomatists: they are not captured by our fleets and armies ... It is solely from the promptings of self interest that the merchants


  • A New York Times Notable Book
  • "Scrupulous scholarship [and] a rattling good tale."—Wall Street Journal
  • "A concise and lucid exposition...Popular history at its best."—Washington Post
  • "Ferguson...is a wonderfully fluent writer, weaving telling details and vivid anecdotes seamlessly into his narrative."—New York Times
  • "An entertaining, engaging romp through four centuries of British imperialism."—Los Angeles Times
  • "Fluently written, engaging...Empire is a model of how to do popular history."—The Economist

On Sale
Mar 17, 2008
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Niall Ferguson

About the Author

Niall Ferguson is one of the world’s most renowned historians and author of numerous books, including The Square and the Tower, The Ascent of Money, and Civilization. He is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

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