History may not be exactly bunk, or even just sound and fury, but it is certainly a fearful mess, and no great historical progress has been more jumbled, muddled, ambiguous, equivocal, contradictory or confused than the rise and fall of the British Empire, from its piratical beginnings to its somewhat sidelong end. You can make art out of it; you can philosophise and theorise over it; but you can never really make of it a straightforward, chronological one-volume narrative.
Professor Niall Ferguson has had a damned good try in this work, and in my judgement has succeeded better than anyone else. This is partly because he has been obliged to. The book is an adjunct to a forthcoming major Channel Four series, and nothing sharpens the creative mind better than the prospect of writing six hour-long episodes with regular advertising intervals. It is also because, while he recognises the multitudinous motives and symptoms of imperialism, he pursues a constant causal thread. He is an academic economist, and he knows that money is chief among all the roots of empire – money almost in the abstract, so diffuse is its influence, flowing through such diverse channels. Financiers, stockholders, monopolists, Rothschilds and Rhodeses figure almost as largely in this account as the redcoats and far-flung warships of the old-school textbooks. It was, Ferguson reminds us, tax-exploiting smugglers, not tax-protesting patriots, who threw the tea into Boston harbour in 1773.
Not that he neglects the swagger and violence of the British expansion, or the roguery which, for someone of my tastes, adds so much spice to the tale of the great adventure. His book is extravagantly illustrated, in the familiar televisual mode – lots of colour plates, old political cartoons, Governor Davey’s Proclamation to the Aborigines – you know the kind of thing. But there is plenty of colour in the text too. The whole grand cast is here: Henry Morgan, Skinner of Skinner’s Horse, the awful pietists of the Punjab, gold-diggers and fur-trappers, General Gordon, Stanley and Livingstone, and presiding over it all, in death as in life, the Queen-Empress Victoria herself.
Yet the flamboyant drama of the story, so seductive to writers of more escapist tendencies, never weakens the Professor’s resolve. This is no mere coffee-table entertainment. Ferguson’s task is to elevate into simplicity one of the most complex of all historical progressions, but he never cheapens his approach. Sometimes he is a little simplistic, it seems to me, in the Schama manner – on both world wars, for instance, on the character of George Nathaniel Curzon, on the Suez crisis of 1956. Sometimes his statistics do not convince me, and I cannot find substantiation for his claim that Article 7 of the US Constitution ‘explicitly envisaged’ the annexation of Canada.
Nevertheless he has produced an eminently fair, scholarly and remarkably readable precis of the whole British imperial story – triumphs, deceits, decencies, kindnesses, cruelties and all. And I never knew before that the devoutly Christian composer of ‘Amazing Grace’ was also a successful slave trader.
If there is one true historical truism, it is the one about history repeating itself. The Pax Britannica was only one of mankind’s perennial attempts to bring order to the world, for better for worse, preferably for richer rather than for poorer, and generally in the reformer’s own image. Romans and Spaniards, Muslims and Mongols, Hiders and Wilberforces, Capitalists and Communists – all have had a go at it, and one of the best things about Ferguson’s book is his awareness of the eternal instincts that Gordon, Livingstone, Queen Victoria et al transiently embodied.
Of course the instincts survive. British people may well look askance at the inescapable interferences of American imperialism, the direct successor to their own, but time and again as I read this book I was reminded of almost exact analogies between the two world dominions. Of course their natures differ – the British were franker, the Americans are more insidious – but their intentions and effects have been much the same. Consider a few random examples:
United States expansionists aim to make the world capitalist, democratic, American. British expansionists wanted it capitalist, Christian and British, and both were supported by a powerful military-industrial complex.
In the nineteenth century the British ringed the globe with their naval coaling stations; the Americans circle it now with their air bases.
British men in India, it was said in the 1830s, came to appreciate the ‘playful anxiety to please’ of native women, compared with the whims and fancies of their own. American GIs at the end of the Second World War felt precisely the same about Japanese women.
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars Great Britain was the cynosure of liberal Europe, honoured by Beethoven himself, only to find itself, by the time of the Boer War, generally detested. The same has happened to the United States, universally loved and admired at the end of the Second World War, half a century later reviled across the world in the lurid glow of its hubris.
In 1882 the Mahdi waged war on the British in the name of Islam; in 2002 it was Osama Bin Laden versus the Americans.
America’s undeclared economic dominance in so many parts of the world is the precise equivalent of Britain’s ‘informal Empire’ in South America.
One could go on and on. Their B47s have replaced our gunboats. Punitive strikes for them were ‘butcher-and-bolt’ for us. Niall Ferguson doesn’t belabour the argument, but his final chapter (his final TV episode, I assume) brilliantly sums up these disturbing parallels. The most obvious differences between the two imperialisms are less of ideology than of style. Ferguson defines the Pax Americana as ‘an empire that dare not speak its name’, but his book makes vividly clear how loudly the Pax Britannica proclaimed its grandeur, with drums and trumpets and plumed proconsuls.
But the contrast is irrelevant anyway. Sooner or later, sure as night follows day, humiliation will abase the one as it abolished the other.