The British empire didn’t exactly disappear, writes superstar scholar Ferguson (Economics/NYU; The Cash Nexus, 2001, etc.), it just moved its capital westward to Washington and Manhattan.
“The Americans have taken over our old role without yet facing the fact that an empire comes with it. . . . Like it or not, and deny it who will, empire is as much a reality today as it was through the three hundred years when Britain ruled, and made, the modern world.” So asserts Ferguson at the close of this lucid, heavily illustrated survey of British imperial history, which serves at one level as a handbook for how to rule the world humanely and, in the main, intelligently—even cost-effectively, for those fans of downsizing. British control over India, for instance, was effected by a small number of men, perhaps no more than a thousand civil servants governing a multiethnic patchwork nation of hundreds of millions; one former administrator even quipped that India “was really governed by confidential correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy.” Britain’s empire was not won without bloodshed and suffering, from the devastation visited upon Ireland to the staggering casualties wrought by the Boer War, which Ferguson likens to the Vietnam conflict “in two respects: its huge cost in both lives and money . . . and the divisions it opened up back home.” Yet, he continues, the British empire also bore sweet fruit in the rise of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law around the world in places unlikely to have conceived such things without the force of British arms to back them up. These fruits were but a few products of the “remarkably non-venal administrations” that governed such a huge part of the world for so long—whose qualities and ideals, Ferguson suggests, latter-day empire builders would do well to study.
Lively and thoughtful: provocative both as history and forecast.