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International Socialist Review Issue 32, November–December 2003

When Britannia waived the rules

A review of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, by Niall Ferguson (Basic Books, 2003), 392 pages $35

By Paul D’Amato

NIALL FERGUSON’S new book Empire (a companion to a British Channel Four television series), oozes, to quote Marx, the "evil intent of apologetics." From the introduction, where he argues that a "plausible case" can be made that the British Empire "enhanced global welfare," to the conclusion, where he expresses surprise at how "anyone could claim that driving out the British" from India "would improve life," Ferguson is in the ring for empire.

Ferguson joins a slew of historians, journalists and politicians–what Marx referred to as "hired prizefighters" for the system–who have emerged in recent years to extol the virtues of American imperialism and to exhort the United States to fulfill its global mission as the world’s greatest empire. Ferguson & Co. urge the U.S. to move from informal empire–IMF loans, gunboats and an occasional invasion–to the formal empire of colonies. Britain’s once great empire where "the sun never set" is the model. "America was being forced to police the world as Britain once did, and…the American Empire had something to learn from its British predecessor," says neocon Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a glowing review of Ferguson’s book.

Free markets at gunpoint

The British Empire was certainly impressive. At the height of its power, by the late 1890s, it covered about a quarter of the world’s land surface and over 400 million people lived under its sway. It had conquered India in the last half of the 18th century, systematically draining it of revenue using exorbitant land taxes, and as a staging ground to project its power in the region–especially into China–which it forcibly opened to "free trade" in the mid-1800s. In Africa, Britain conquered Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Nigeria, South West Africa and South Africa. It also controlled a string of islands in the Pacific. Like all empires before it, it conquered using brute force and by playing on the divisions of those it subdued, and the empire maintained its rule in the same way. Ideologically, it justified its rule by arguing that the majority of the world’s people were racially inferior, incapable of ruling themselves. Ferguson wants to dispense with these "politically incorrect" ideological justifications, but he wants to rehabilitate the substance that they justified–colonialism itself.

Ferguson’s thesis is best summarized by quoting the author himself:

[T]he British Empire acted as an agency for imposing free markets, the rule of law, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on roughly a quarter of the world. The empire also did a good deal to encourage those things in countries which were outside its formal imperial domain but under its economic influence through the "imperialism of free trade." Prima facie, therefore, there seems a plausible case that the empire enhanced global welfare–in other words, was a Good Thing.

Many charges can, of course, be leveled against the British Empire. I do not claim, as John Stuart Mill did, that British rule in India was "not only the purest in intention but one of the most beneficent in act ever known to mankind," nor, as Lord Curzon did, that "the British Empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen." The empire was never so altruistic. In the 18th century the British were indeed as zealous in the acquisition and exploitation of slaves as they were subsequently zealous in trying to stamp slavery out; and for much longer they practiced forms of racial discrimination and segregation that we today consider abhorrent. When imperial authority was challenged–in India in 1857, in Jamaica in 1831 or 1865, in South Africa in 1899–the British response was brutal. When famine struck–in Ireland in the 1840s, in India in the 1870s–the response was negligent, in some measure positively culpable.

Yet the fact remains 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. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.

In short, Britain traded and exploited slaves, practiced systematic racial discrimination, brutally repressed all opposition to its rule and was "positively culpable" in the famine deaths of tens of millions of people. But it did all these awful things to spread "free trade" and "Western norms," so on balance it was a "Good Thing." It could just as easily be turned around: Free trade and Western norms were imposed and enforced by means of famine, repression, racism and slavery. Why then, should we consider free trade and Western norms Good Things?

The silliest defenses of empire come in the introduction. "Thanks to the British Empire," he tells us, "I have relatives scattered all over the world." I suppose a Black descendant of slaves in the U.S. or the Caribbean could make the same case. Ferguson describes his childhood in Kenya a "magical time," which would not have been possible had Kenya not been colonized. "To the Scots," he informs us, "the Empire stood for bright sunlight."

It was all darkness, I’m afraid, for the Kenyans–a story Ferguson conveniently skirts around in his chapter on carving up Africa. Kenya became a British protectorate in the mid-1890s and settlement by whites began several years later, when they proceeded to force the Africans from their ancestral lands and onto special "native reserves." Several thousand white settlers, about 1 percent of the population, ended up with the best land, while 5.25 million Africans were left to scratch out a living on tiny parcels of Kenya’s worst land, much of which was unsuitable for agriculture. Left destitute, Blacks were forced to work as low-wage workers on the vast estates of the privileged whites. When Kenyans rose up in the "Mau-Mau" rebellion in the 1950s against this injustice, they were hunted down and slaughtered, "thanks to the British Empire." But if all this means Niall got to spend some magical childhood moments in Kenya, I guess it was all worth it.

In addition to the "triumph of capitalism," Ferguson lists among the great achievements of the British Empire the "Anglicization of North America and Australia," the "internationalization of the English language," the spread of parliamentary institutions and "the enduring influence" of Protestantism. Ferguson seems completely oblivious to the fact that the majority of the world’s people are neither white, nor English-speaking Anglo-Saxon Protestants–and therefore might not see all these as "achievements." Moreover, wasn’t the slaughter and removal of native peoples–which Ferguson is careful enough to deplore–the condition of making both Australia and the U.S. "Anglicized"? This is a barely disguised version of theories of Anglo-Saxon superiority that permeated the thinking of many 19th century imperialists.

Empire’s gift of liberty

Ferguson claims that the idea of "liberty" was one of the key benefits that the British Empire bestowed on the world. "Indeed," he writes, "so powerful and consistent was this tendency to judge Britain’s imperial conduct by the yardstick of liberty that it gave the British Empire something of a self-liquidating character." This seems a particularly absurd defense of empire–it was good because it eventually ended. But then, it must not have been that good to start with.

The idea of liberty that arose from the 17th and 18th century revolutions in Britain, the U.S. and France became, in the age of imperialism, a cover for conquest. The nationalist movements that rose up to challenge imperialism were influenced by these ideas of liberty–and there is no doubt that colonialism created the conditions (communications, transport, some minimum of education among the elite, the creation of a modern working class) that made national revolts both possible and necessary. But, as Ferguson admits, these movements were answered with brutal repression, not approval and applause.

The idea of a "self-liquidating" empire only has meaning if we assume that Ferguson is making the same racist assumptions made by his colonial predecessors–that the majority of the world’s people are "unfit" for self-government and need to be "tutored" by an enlightened colonial power until that great day comes when they are fit to rule themselves. Only "political correctness" prevents Ferguson from having the courage of his implicitly racist convictions. Modern colonialist ideology must be dressed up differently.

Ferguson is at his worst when he waxes lyrically about the "ubiquitous creativity" of the British Empire. He asks us to "try and imagine the world without the British Empire." And he then lists its achievements–which turns out to be a list of cities that were erected by the British colonialists: Williamsburg, Philadelphia, Port Royal (Jamaica), Bombay, Madras and so on. "Indians may rename them as many times as they like," he assures us, "but these vast metropoles remain cities founded and built by the British." On the other hand, it was undeniably Indian labor rather than British that did all the building, just as it was slave labor stolen from Africa that built Port Royal. Moreover, for every city built by the British, there were cities that declined or were simply destroyed as a result of British rule.

Lord Elgin is famous for stealing the precious artistic treasures of Greece and destroying the Emperor’s Summer Palace in China. According to one historian, the same thing went on in India. "Relics of the glorious age of the Mughals," writes historian R. Nath, "were either destroyed or converted beyond recognition." Palaces were stripped and their artifacts and marble sold at auction in London. Even the Taj Mahal was slated to be stripped and destroyed–until Governor-General William Bentick called it off when he discovered that the first London auction of marble facades from other monuments was not successful.

"Blemishes" of empire

Ferguson isn’t afraid to include some of the nastier aspects of colonialism. "No one would claim," he tells us in the conclusion, "that the record of the British Empire was unblemished"–from which we are forced to conclude that Ferguson considers slavery and genocide "blemishes." But even Ferguson’s highly selective history piles on so many blemishes that the reader, in spite of Ferguson’s intentions, is struck by just how ugly colonialism really was. He tells us that the British Empire began with piracy and theft, moved from there to "ethnic cleansing" in northern Ireland, slaughter of Indians in New England, slavery in the West Indies along with outright plunder in the East Indies by "freebooting nabobs"–not to mention forcibly opening China to British opium and other imports–and finishing up with a bloody conquest of Africa. As he puts it, "Across Africa the story repeated itself: Chiefs hoodwink, tribes dispossessed inheritances signed away with the thumb print or shaky cross and any resistance mown down by the Maxim gun." Sound like a Good Thing yet?

From here we see things degenerate even further. The "notion that British imperialism tended to impoverish colonized countries seems inherently problematic," argues Ferguson, because British control offered a good business climate for investors wherever they took over. This was arguably a Good Thing for bankers and other investors, but it is a stretch to say that Africans, dispossessed of their land and forced into hard, low-paid labor for the profit of a handful of European capitalists, benefited from all this. I can think of many South Africans who might disagree with Ferguson. No doubt the tens of thousands mowed down by Maxim guns are smiling from heaven on the wonders of empire, too.

The historical record is so damning it’s hard to see how Ferguson thought that it could convince his readers of the benefits of imperialism. He admits that empire benefited only a tiny minority of rich capitalists and financiers, saying that "most of the huge flows of money from Britain’s vast stock of overseas investments flowed to a tiny elite of, at most, a few hundred thousand people." And he notes the "closeness of the relationship of the Rothschilds [Britain’s leading financiers at the time] with the leading politicians of the day." In a passage which can only remind us of the relationship between Dick Cheney and Halliburton, Ferguson tells us that Prime Minister William Gladstone, who had extensive investments in Egypt’s ballooning debt (which Ferguson honestly refers to as "Egyptian Tribute"), made "a capital gain of more than 130 percent" on his £65,000 investment in the nine years after Britain invaded and seized control of Egypt in 1882. For whom imperialism was a Good Thing begins to come into focus.

This is not a history. It is a large coffee-table essay of encouragement to the American ruling class that they too must "take up the white man’s burden" as Britain once did. It has no footnotes–just a bibliography in the back–which allows Ferguson to make outrageous assertions and claims without having to back them up. A few examples will suffice to give a flavor of his method. For example, he tells us that British defense spending amounted to only about 3 percent of net national product between 1870 and 1913–empire on the cheap he calls it. He conveniently leaves out the fact that fully one-quarter of the revenue extracted from India went to the British/Indian Army, which was used to fight imperial wars all over the world.

The "jewel in the crown"

It is the coverage of Britain’s empire in India that comes off as Ferguson’s biggest whitewash. Ferguson claims that the drain of India’s wealth amounted to only about 1 percent of India’s annual GNP under the British Raj. This is an outrageously low figure. Historian Irfan Habib has calculated, based on available data, the average annual drain at about 9 percent of India’s GNP, and that Indian tribute amounted to about 2 percent of Britain’s national income.

He quotes positively a statement by Britain’s imperial poet laureate Rudyard Kipling (who spent part of his life in India), bemoaning the fact that the British civil servants who ran India "die, or kill themselves by overwork, or are worried to death or broken in health and hope in order that the land may be protected from death and sickness, famine and war and may eventually become capable of standing alone." This ridiculous pablum is directly contradicted several pages later by a district tax collector quoted by Ferguson, who works from 11a.m. to 5 p.m. (collecting taxes from poor peasants and landlords), and can find time during work hours inspecting villages for "a quiet shoot," i.e. hunting, now and then.

The most difficult "burden" for civil servants, Ferguson assures us, was "the responsibility of governing literally millions of people, particularly during crises like the plague that swept Bombay in 1896 or the famine of 1900." No doubt it is a terrible burden to be well-fed and pampered while the people over whom you rule are starving and diseased, in large part as a result of your own policies of systematic plunder. This is truly the "white man’s burden"! So burdensome, in fact, that the story of British famine "relief" in India is a story of something far worse than neglect.

Warren Hastings, first governor-general of India, wrote to the court of directors of the East India Company on November 3, 1772: "It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was due to its been violently kept up to its former Standard." And company tabulations for that period show that indeed, in the midst of a devastating famine, Hastings managed, through the use of military force, to extract as much wealth in taxes as he had before the famine! "Culpability" with a vengeance.

British policy didn’t just set the stage for famine by increasing the level of day-to-day poverty of the peasant masses. They encouraged a policy of production of raw materials and food for export, reducing the ability of peasants to grow their own food. Statistics show that even in the midst of famines, such as the one in 1877, Indian food exports actually increased. The railway system, which had been touted for its ability to eliminate famine, brought food to ports for export, not food to starving Indians.

British officials, moreover, opposed anything but the most meager famine relief. Lord Edward Bulwer Lytton, in charge of the "relief" effort, explained his unwillingness to help the starving millions: "The doctrine that in time of famine the poor are entitled to demand relief…would probably lead to the doctrine that they are entitled to such relief at all times."

Relief efforts in 1877 thus consisted of forcing starving Indians to work at hard labor in special camps where in some cases the daily food ration was below that of a camp prisoner in Buchenwald. There were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule up to 1900 compared to 17 in the 2,000 years before British rule. Romesh Dutt calculated that at least 15 million people died in the famines of 1877, 1878, 1889, 1892, 1897 and 1900–and probably more.

Good then, that there were incentives that could take a distressed civil servant’s mind off these burdens–like a little place hunting. As Furgeson informs us, the civil servant could potentially advance up a ladder of seventy separate ranks. "Throughout the Empire, officials thirsted after membership of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George, whether as CMG (‘Call Me God’), KCMG (‘Kindly Call Me God’) and, reserved for the very top tier of governors, GCMG (‘God Calls Me God’)." And there were other distractions. When Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877, Lytton organized a weeklong spectacle, called a Durbar, which included a feast that provided food for 68,000 officials, satraps and maharajas. According to Historian Mike Davis in his excellent book Late Victorian Holocausts, an English journal estimated that during Lytton’s weeklong Durbar, 100,000 Indians starved to death in Madras and Mysore. That really sums up the crime of British rule.

A good measure of the impact of British rule is provided by the following two statistics: life expectancy declined from 24.6 years in 1872—81 to 20.17 years in 1911—21, and was up to barely over 30 years by the end of British rule in 1947. Literacy rates increased from (and these are figures provided by Ferguson) about .7 percent in 1867—72 to a little over 3.5 percent by 1941. And all these "gains" at such a moderate cost–just a few tens of millions starved to death, even as food exports in India continued to rise throughout the period of India’s worst famines described above. Ferguson, amid his disgusting apologia for colonialism, is forced to admit that "Indian indentured laborers supplied much of the cheap labor on which the later British imperial economy depended." Is this what he means by spreading free trade–the conversion of India into a massive plantation, worked by forced labor, to produce raw materials for British industry? He even admits that "the predilection for laissez-faire economics actually made" the famines of the late Victorian period "worse"–though he adds in a footnote that it isn’t fair to compare Lord Lytton to Hitler because Lytton’s "intentions were not murderous." What is a policy of deliberate refusal to feed the starving when the food is available to do so if not intentionally murderous?

As if worried perhaps that his 0.07 percent estimate of annual growth in British-ruled India hasn’t convinced the reader that it was a Good Thing, Ferguson delivers the clincher to his argument: "It is hard to believe that there were not some advantages in being governed by as incorruptible a bureaucracy as the Indian Civil Service." Then again, who needs corruption when you’ve got guaranteed wealth? As Ferguson informs us, the viceroy’s palace in New Delhi was so large that it "had to be staffed by 6,000 servants and 400 gardeners, 50 of whom were solely employed to chase birds away." And it was all paid for "by none other than the Indian taxpayer." It does not occur to Ferguson that the whole system of British plunder in India was a massive exercise in state corruption that weighed like a nightmare on the subcontinent.

"History does not record a single instance," remarked the Indian nationalist Romesh Dutt, "of one people ruling another in the interests of the subject nation."

Nowhere in the world, perhaps, is this more true than in India. Until the mid 1700s, prior to the era of European conquest, China and India were together the most prosperous regions on earth. Clive, the East India Company employee who in 1757 opened up the conquest of India, described Murshidabad in Bengal as a city "rich as the City of London." India’s share of world manufacturing output in 1750–a staggering 24.5 percent–was higher than all of Europe. Yet by 1900, Europe accounted for 63 percent of the world’s manufacturing output, whereas India only accounted for 1.7 percent. Such a staggering setback was in large part a result of Britain’s "bleeding" of the country, a process that Ferguson admits benefited only a handful of capitalists.

It could have been worse

Where Ferguson fails to make a positive case for empire, he replaces it with an argument about how, without it, things might have been worse. His method is to introduce some disquieting aspect of British colonialism and then immediately follow up with mitigating factors that nullify the negative impact of the history on the reader. For example, after explaining how the British shot, starved and placed the white Afrikaner settlers in concentration camps to defeat them in South Africa, he follows this with an assessment that, as a result of the incompleteness of Britain’s victory, the Boers were able to impose the Native Land restricting Black South Africans to the "least fertile 10th of the country." "In effect," he concludes, "the Boers now ruled not only their original states but the British territories in Natal and the Cape as well, and had taken the first steps toward imposing apartheid throughout South Africa."

Perhaps if British colonialism had been stronger in South Africa it might have prevented apartheid? But Mr. Ferguson, the pass system was developed by the very British capitalist Cecil Rhodes in order to compel Blacks to work as cheap laborers in his gold and diamond mines (which were located on land he had taken by force from the same Africans). Rhodes explained in 1887: "Either you have to receive them on an equal footing as citizens or you call them a subject race. I have made up my mind that there must be class legislation, that there must be pass laws."

Ferguson’s final fallback position is lesser-evilism–the argument that the British Empire was better than being ruled by some other empire (German or French). In Ferguson’s world of empire the conquerors are the only active element. They are the pirates and freebooters, the slave traders and slave owners, the far-sighted civil servants, the warlords and the explorers. They are also, conversely, the eliminators of the slave trade, the bringers of "democratic ideals" that will one day prepare the helpless natives for their own liberation. In short, the empire is always the active element–its "subjects" mere objects–right to the very end. "Traditional accounts of ‘decolonization’ [why this is in quotes is not clear] tend to give the credit (or the blame) to the nationalist movements within the colonies, from Sinn Fein in Ireland to Congress in India."

"This is misleading," Ferguson protests. "Throughout the 20th century, the principle threats–and the most plausible alternatives–to British rule were not national independence movements, but other empires."

This is an absurd argument. The victors in the First World War did not destroy colonialism, but absorbed the colonial possessions of the losers. Britain retained its former empire and even extended it. On the other hand, Britain gave up India, not to another power, but to the Indian nationalist movement. Decolonization, by definition, was not about great powers trading colonies, but giving them up.

According to his logic, if you were a victim of colonialism, you were better off being victimized by the British, not because there was anything really positive about being ruled by them, but because the alternatives were worse. But why is the working to death of 10 million Africans by Belgium’s King Leopold in the Congo for rubber profits worse than starving even greater numbers of Indians for equivalent plunder? Why having your land stolen and given to a tiny minority of rich white settlers in Kenya–and being slaughtered when you rebel against it–is somehow better than having the equivalent happen to you at the hands of French or German imperialists, is beyond logic.

In the final pages, Ferguson quotes Rudyard Kipling’s racist 1899 appeal to the U.S. to "take up the White Man’s Burden" and colonize the Philippines. Kipling asks the U.S. to civilize "your new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child."

Ferguson quickly adds, "no one would dare use such politically incorrect language today." But his message is unmistakable. He notes that the U.S. has "taken up some kind of global burden, just as Kipling urged." But Ferguson is unhappy, because the U.S. is, he claims, an "empire in denial." He clearly sees his book as a wake-up call to the U.S. that it must also take up the white man’s burden and make explicit what in practice is implicit.

Ferguson rejects the "central nationalist/Marxist assumption" that "every facet of colonial rule...was at root designed to maximize the surplus value that could be extracted from the subject peoples." Yet this is not a bad characterization of the aims of imperialist conquest. Nor does any of the evidence provided by Ferguson counter this view. Colonialism, designed to maximize profit, was founded on horrific atrocities that the word "blemish" can hardly encompass. That is the real legacy of colonialism and imperialism.

In the meantime, while Ferguson sells himself to the American Empire as a junior adviser on the finer points of British rule, our side can take pleasure in knowing that–as the situation in Iraq is already making abundantly clear–wherever the specter of colonialism raises its ugly head there is also a different specter, that if resistance to colonialism, that rises up stronger and eventually wins.

Paul D'Amato is an associate editor of the ISR.

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