8.6.13

Niall Ferguson - Empire

Rating 6.8

Good but extremely partial book.

Niall Ferguson did his homework and reveals a good deal of interesting stuff on the rise and fall of the British Empire.

However, the author does indulge way too much in justifying British colonialism.

Take the episode he describes involving a British officer savagely killing in cold blood an unarmed boy in Calcutta.
According to Ferguson, the difference between the British forces and, say, Nazis is that whereas German soldiers would have never dared to criticize this behavior from one of their officers, the British troops in India cried 'shame, shame' to their superior.

And yet, they did nothing to stop the guy and Mr. Ferguson doesn't even bother to tell us whether the officer kept his high rank in the army (as he likely did) after his barbarian act. This is biased stuff.

Would a Turkish policeman or a Syrian soldier cry 'shame, shame' when one of his colleagues hits and kills an innocent civilian peacefully picketing on a public square? And would that cry make him more civilized?
I don't think so. Fighting to stop the killing or stepping back from his police or army ranks would.

The problem is that the scene portrayed by Niall Ferguson here sounds like edifying fiction to me. Something like 'we let the killing go, but actually we disapprove it and we're quite horrified by it'.

Honestly, could you visualize British troops standing on the ramparts of an Indian fortress in the late 19th century and giving cries of 'shame, shame' when their colonel is killing a boy down in the street?

But let's suppose for a moment that that really happened. Then what?
Did the soldiers welcome their colonel in the fortress by shaking their heads in disbelief?
Did they tell him 'What you did is wrong, sir'.
Oh. come on! Let me be skeptical about that.

What I fail to understand now that I have been living in the UK for some time is how some well-respected British historians (Max Hastings, to name another one) genuinely believe that this country has an anti-militarist tradition.

I mean, seriously? Did the British troops had picnics in the US, India, Myanmar, Afghanistan, South Africa and in a score of other former colonies of theirs?
Oh no, wait, they were actually bringing civilization. Hands up to this logic.

Something for Niall Ferguson to listen to. Pity that William Onebayor here doesn't mention Britain.

Not that Mr. Ferguson denies that the mighty British Empire actually began with privateers attacking Dutch and Spanish ships and trade ports with the blessing of the Kings and Queens of England.
No, the historian here makes that clear and that makes his book worth and quite informative.

But what follows later is not as convincing as the very first chapters of the book.
Niall Ferguson does take a side and that should have been avoided to make Empire better.

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