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

Niall Ferguson, Author, Neil Ferguson, Author . Basic $35 (392p) ISBN 978-0-465-02328-8

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 (Forecasts, Dec. 2, 2002) and Simon Schama's A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire (Forecasts, Dec. 23, 2002). 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. (Apr.)

Forecast:The young and attractive Ferguson is something of a celebrity in Great Britain, where he's been called "the Errol Flynn of British history"; so expect additional media attention. He currently teaches at New York University.

Reviewed on: 02/24/2003
Release date: 04/01/2003
Genre: Nonfiction
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