Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

Book Cover

Book Title

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Allen Lane, 2003


Ferguson, Niall


The change in attitude towards the history of the British empire can be attributed to the new wave of sentiments of freedom and sovereignty, particularly when Britain was no longer seen as a benevolent power, but an exploiting one. Ferguson brings up Cobden's argument to fore: that neither trade nor even the spread of British 'civilization' had needed to be enforced by imperial structures.

This book represents the argument that it was not possible for the benefits of an international exchange to be reaped without the British putting in place imperial structures. Globalization in an international system of multilateral cooperation most often than not does not arise spontaneously, but was a result of coercion, most effective if the dominant power in the world favors economic liberalism. Despite not making any claims as to the altruistic nature of the British empire, the author expresses the view that no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labor than the British empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this way, the history of globalization is seen to have been promoted by Great Britain and her establishment of a wider and more global economic trading system, by constructing a network of colonies.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The first chapter emphasizes that the British empire had begun as a primarily economic phenomenon, its growth powered by commerce and consumerism. The British were not the first imperial powers, but imperial imitators. Subsequently, the second chapter expounds on the role of migration in creating a network of polities that formed a larger number of connections with one another. Chapter Three explores the voluntary, non-governmental character of empire-building, focusing more on the role played by a variety of actors in the gradual deepening of imperial characteristics. Chapter Four asks how it was possible for such a tiny bureaucracy to govern so huge an empire, and explores the symbiotic but ultimately unsustainable collaboration between British rulers and indigenous elites, both traditional and new. Finally, Chapter Six saw the changed perception of the reality of empire when the European imperial powers saw empire in a different light with Hitler's blueprint for empire.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The author's objective was to show that the Empire was not just 'racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance' but the triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organization, along with the internationalization of the English language and the survival of parliamentary institutions. Ultimately, Ferguson broaches the main question: Was there a less bloody path to modernity?

His conclusion was a large "no". The rooting of liberal capitalism, which in turn was argued to have pioneered free trade, free capital movements, abolition of slavery and the construction of a global network of modern communications. A plausible hypothesis was that empire - and particularly the British empire, encouraged investors to put their money into developing economies.

Yet, the author makes a distinction between the impact of Western colonization depending on the internal context of the territories concerned. Where the British conquered already sophisticated, urbanized societies, the effects of colonization were more commonly negative, as colonizers were tempted to engage in plunder rather than focus on the transplanting of their own institutions and engage in institutional development of those territories.

Finally, the author attempts to draw a straight line from the era of the British empire to that of US' global power today, espousing that a different form of imperialism is in place, and that only those possessing substantial military power could do so.

Annotated by Michelle Djong