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Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power Reprint Edition

159 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465023295
ISBN-10: 0465023290
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Editorial Reviews Review

At its peak in the nineteenth century, the British Empire was the largest empire ever known, governing roughly a quarter of the world's population. In Empire, Niall Ferguson explains how "an archipelago of rainy islands... came to rule the world," and examines the costs and consequences, both good and bad, of British imperialism. Though the book's breadth is impressive, it is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the British Empire; rather, Ferguson seeks to glean lessons from this history for future, or present, empires--namely America. Pointing out that the U.S. is both a product of the British Empire as well as an heir to it, he asks whether America--an "empire in denial"--should "seek to shed or to shoulder the imperial load it has inherited." As he points out in this fascinating book, there is compelling evidence for both.

Observing that "the difficulty with the achievements of empire is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire," Ferguson stresses that the British did do much good for humanity in their quest for domination: promotion of the free movement of goods, capital, and labor and a common rule of law and governance chief among them. "The question is not whether British imperialism was without blemish. It was not. The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity," he writes. The challenge for the U.S., he argues, is for it to use its undisputed power as a force for positive change in the world and not to fall into some of the same traps as the British before them.

Covering a wide range of topics, including the rise of consumerism (initially fueled by a desire for coffee, tea, tobacco, and sugar), the biggest mass migration in history (20 million emigrants between the early 1600s and the 1950s), the impact of missionaries, the triumph of capitalism, the spread of the English language, and globalization, this is a brilliant synthesis of various topics and an extremely entertaining read. --Shawn Carkonen --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Acclaimed British historian Ferguson (The Pity of War) takes the revisionist (or perhaps re-revisionist) position that the British Empire was, on balance, a good thing, that it "impos[ed] free markets, the rule of law... and relatively incorrupt government" on a quarter of the globe. Ferguson's imperial boosterism differs from more critical recent scholarship on the empire, such as Linda Colley's Captives and Simon Schama's A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire. Ferguson's gracefully written narrative traces the history of the empire from its beginnings in the 16th century. As Ferguson tells it, by the 18th century British consumers had developed a strong taste for sugar, tobacco, coffee, tea and other imports. The empire's role was to supply these commodities and to offer cheap land to British settlers. Not until the late 18th century did Britain add a "civilizing mission" to its commercial motives. Liberals in Britain, often fired by religious feelings, abolished the slave trade and then set out to Christianize indigenous peoples. Ferguson gives a wonderful account of the fabled career of missionary and explorer David Livingstone. The author admits that the British sometimes responded to native opposition with brutality and racism. Yet he argues that other empires, especially those of Germany and Japan, were far more brutal (a not entirely satisfying defense). Indeed, Ferguson contends that Britain nobly sacrificed its empire in order to defeat these imperial rivals in WWII. His provocative and elegantly written account will surely trigger debate, if not downright vilification, among history readers and postcolonial scholars. 25 color illus., b&w illus., maps.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (April 14, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465023290
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465023295
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (159 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #72,671 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Niall Ferguson is one of our most renowned historians. He is the bestselling author of numerous books, including The War of the World, Colossus, and Empire.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

123 of 136 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 7, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Niall Ferguson has made a name for himself as the historian of counterfactuals, or imaginative looks at "history as it could have been." He was the editor of Virtual History, which provides alternate scenarios of past events, and the author of The Pity of War, a look at World War I which concluded that the world would be immensely better off today if the British had stayed out in August 1914 and let the Germans win. Now in Empire Ferguson has given us a history of the British Empire which any nineteenth century imperialist would pronounce to be pukka, or first rate.
Basically Ferguson argues that the British Empire was a positive contribution to the world in that it gave its colonial possessions traditions like self-government and personal liberties. Ferguson does not maintain that there were no abuses of power or that none of the indigeneous peoples ruled by British officials were ever mistreated, but he does believe that on balance, more good was done than bad. He makes this argument most strongly in covering the twentieth century, when he points out that the British were much better colonial rulers than the Germans or Japanese were. Most of Empire's readers will undoubtedly agree with this point, but many will also wonder why it was necessary for the British to colonize these peoples in the first place. Ferguson is straightforward, saying that the original reason for imperialism was greed for products like tea. More highflown objectives like ending the slave trade and converting "primitive" areas to civilization and Christianity came much later,and never diverted attention for very long from the basic quest for wealth.
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156 of 178 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Loveitt on April 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I almost didn't purchase this book, because some professional reviewers denigrated it as an "apology" for the British Empire. I'm glad I didn't listen to those reviewers and, after reading the book, I'm puzzled that anyone could come to that conclusion. Professor Ferguson spends a good portion of the book detailing many of the negative aspects of the Empire- the condescending and racist attitudes, frequently, that were displayed by the British towards subject peoples; the excessive use of force (literally, overkill) in places such as Omdurman (where the British, and their Egyptian and Sudanese auxilliaries, used Maxim machine guns to mow down their Islamic fundamentalist opponents, who were generally armed with rifles and swords. The fundamentalist forces had about 35,000 men killed, while the British lost about 400.) and Amritsar, India (where, in 1919, the British forces broke up a peaceful demonstration by firing on unarmed civilians and killing 379 and injuring 1,500 of them). Professor Ferguson also does not sweep British behavior during the Boer War under the historical carpet. He discusses the concentration camps the British set up to detain the wives and children of Boer soldiers. Conditions, especially in the beginning, were horrendous and many of the women and children died from hunger and disease. (When Sir Nevile Henderson complained to Goering about the Nazi concentration camps, Goering leapt at the chance to take out a German encyclopaedia which, under the entry for concentration camp, said this: "First used by the British in the South African War").Read more ›
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48 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Gary C. Marfin on September 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Let's start with the reviews. When you read them, try to keep in mind the simple fact that this book is both describing an historical era (the British Empire) and assessing it. Not all historians do the latter; and too many are content to do a boring job of the former. I think Ferguson does a superb job on both fronts, but it is nonetheless possible to disagree with his assessment of the empire while admiring his well-paced narrative and lavishly illustrated survey of it. How the Empire came into being; why it was British (as opposed to Spanish, Dutch or other); how it operated; how it was funded; who its beneficiaries were; what it did badly; the horrors of which it was guilty;piracy on high seas, the slave trade, its role in Africa, India, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere: Niall Ferguson captures it all. But not just that..He is interested in applying the lesson of Empire to the world today. It is the modern world, after all, that the Empire shaped for better or worse. And here we arrive at Ferguson's assessment. Readers might take issue with a balance sheet approach to the Empire, and they make take issue with the evaluation itself, but in providing us with such an assessment Ferguson brings the Empire to life in these pages. On net, the Empire was a positive good, if only because "in the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire's other sins?" Ferguson thinks so. I agree. Others may not. You don't need to agree with his conclusions, but you cannot walk away from the question, for now the United States is poised to be an Empire -- an Empire in denial in Ferguson's view -- and whether and to what extent the U.S.Read more ›
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