‘Empire’ by Niall Ferguson. Publ. by Penguin Books 2004

A book that doesn’t spare the British Empire as regards cruelty, atrocity and humbug. ” The native Americans were tolerated when they were able to fit in to the emerging British economic order … but where [they] claimed ownership of agriculturally valuable land, coexistence was simply ruled out. If the Indians resisted expropriation, then they could and should (in Locke’s words) ‘be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger, one of those wild Savage Beasts, with whom men can have no Society or Security’ ” (p. 65). Locke? Not the great philosopher? Yes, the very same and at the time (c.1630) acting as ‘Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of North Carolina’  (ie., as ‘Secretary to the Imperial Gang of Murderers and Land Grabbers’).

Even when one is well acquainted with the rape and pillage associated with empire-building, the histories retailed by this book (‘Empire’, by Niall Ferguson) will be disturbing. Details of what was done to the ‘other’ Indians when they revolted in 1857 are sickening to read. A Lieutenant Kendal Coghill is quoted as saying ‘We burnt every village and hanged all the villagers who had treated our fugitives badly until every tree was covered with scoundrels hanging from every branch’ (p.152). Fergusan adds: ‘At the height of the reprisals, one huge banyan tree — which still stands in Cawnpore — was festooned with 150 corpses’.

Of course all this murdering was hard work. Thankfully the invention of the Maxim gun made things easier later on in the century, not to mention the much later blessing of  ‘government from the air’, whereby you warned people if they didn’t do as they were told they could expect to be bombed out of existence next day.

And is there nothing at all to be said FOR the British Empire? As an Englishman, Niall Ferguson tries his best. Look at what the Japanese did to the poor people of Nanking in 1937, he says. Appalling cruelty (and he is so right). Now, if one had to live under and empire, he asks, wasn’t it better to live under a British Empire, rather than under that horrible Japanese Empire? Or, he says, look at the imperial legacy: British Law. The English Language. Membership of the Commonwealth…

Oh dear.  But a great book. Thoroughly recommended.

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