By John Newsinger
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Historian flies flag for bloody British Empire

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IT IS no coincidence that at a time when British troops are getting ready to invade and occupy Iraq, Channel 4 should televise an expensive celebratory history of the British Empire. The series is presented by one of the country's leading Thatcherite historians, the appalling Oxford professor Niall Ferguson.
Issue 1834

IT IS no coincidence that at a time when British troops are getting ready to invade and occupy Iraq, Channel 4 should televise an expensive celebratory history of the British Empire. The series is presented by one of the country’s leading Thatcherite historians, the appalling Oxford professor Niall Ferguson.

It is accompanied by a lavishly produced, popularly written book, Empire, which is confidently expected to become a bestseller. British imperialism was, on balance, he insists, a good thing. So is the fact that British imperialism has been replaced by US imperialism.

Ferguson’s argument is essentially that the British Empire was the vehicle for globalisation, and that despite various atrocities-the slave trade, the Irish Famine, etc-this was a good thing. It established capitalism as ‘the optimum system of economic organisation’ throughout the world and safeguarded representative institutions and civil liberties.

Moreover, Ferguson argues that whatever criticisms might be made of the British Empire it was finally vindicated by the heroic way in which it sacrificed itself in the Second World War. Its sacrifice prevented the triumph of the far more brutal and murderous empires of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Subsequently the empire went into voluntary liquidation.

These are the bones of his argument but equally important is the mixture of admiration, nostalgia, celebration and indeed positive enthusiasm for empire with which he writes. Ferguson carries out a very convenient sleight of hand.

He portrays the British Empire as the vehicle of globalisation rather than recognising British capitalism as one player within a wider imperialist system. The defining characteristic of the British Empire was competition, both military and economic, with rival imperial powers.

His failure to recognise this means that his book contributes nothing at all to the understanding of imperialism, either in the past or today. How does Ferguson view that part of the imperialist system controlled by Britain-the part appropriately coloured red on the map?

There is so much wrong with his account that one is really spoiled for choice. Far from the British state helping along a benevolent economic process, it was in fact responsible for aggression after aggression, using its growing technological superiority to massacre its poorly armed opponents in country after country.

An attack on Iraq today, for example, will not be the first British invasion of that country or even the second, but the fourth in the last 80-odd years. Iraq was first conquered by Britain and a popular revolt suppressed in 1920. It was forcibly reoccupied in 1941 and serious consideration was given to invading in 1958.

The last Gulf War saw Britain play its role as a satellite of US imperialism. Iraq, of course, has yet to make any attack on Britain. Ferguson deals with the Opium Wars with China in less than half a page.

One would never know from his account that Victorian Britain was the greatest drug pusher the world has ever seen. Britain invaded China three times, in 1839-42, 1856-58 and 1860, in order to safeguard this extremely profitable trade. Britain seized Hong Kong in the process. By the time the Chinese were finally brought to accept that they had been incorporated into Britain’s informal empire, Beijing had been occupied and the emperor’s Summer Palace destroyed.

Ferguson looks at such episodes from the British imperialist point of view. It is useful in this respect to reverse the history and imagine Britain the victim of Chinese imperialism.

Imagine the impact on Britain if China had forced the opium trade on Britain by invasion and massacre, seizing Bristol as a colony, bringing the British government to heel by occupying London and destroying Buckingham Palace. Ferguson and his like would probably have some difficulty in regarding Chinese imperialism as a force for good.

They find it acceptable to do things to foreigners that would be regarded as outrageous if done to them. The argument that the British Empire was vindicated by its part in destroying Nazism is particularly dishonest.

In fact the men running the British Empire had no objection whatsoever to fascism as the domestic policy of either the Italian or German governments in the 1930s. Indeed, they found much to admire. It was only when Germany re-emerged as a rival imperialism that the likes of Churchill found Nazism abhorrent.

Far from the empire being sacrificed to defeat Nazism, Nazism was only fought to save the empire. The subsequent loss of the British Empire was the consequence of weakness rather than goodwill.

Idyllic childhood spent in a land of brutal repression

ON A personal note, Ferguson reminisces about an idyllic childhood spent in the newly independent country of Kenya in the 1960s. He writes that there was still a recognisably colonial Africa. What is truly astonishing is that these reminiscences are unaccompanied by any mention in the book of the repression dealt out by Britain.

Ferguson does not discuss the Mau Mau rebellion and the methods Britain used to suppress it. This is despite the fact that the rebellion took place less than ten years before the happy childhood Ferguson describes. Britain used torture as a matter of routine.

This meant that hundreds of prisoners were shot and beaten to death, and thousands were interned without trial. By the time the rebellion was eventually crushed over 1,000 Kenyans had been hanged for being asssociated with the Mau Mau. In Kenya the British authorities hanged people for the crime of administering illegal oaths.

And all this happened not in the 1850s but in the 1950s. Ferguson does not see fit to mention any of this. Instead, he concentrates on describing what a happy time he had in the aftermath of this brutally repressed rebellion. For Ferguson the British Empire was a fond memory, one on which the sun will never set.

Ferguson sees these as ‘the good old days’ when Britain really did rule the waves. For socialists and many other people the British Empire was an atrocity on which the blood never dried.

Egypt, 1882 – City destroyed so it could be saved

TONY BLAIR’S liberal imperialism is nothing new. In the 1870s the Liberal leader William Gladstone had bitterly opposed the Conservative government’s involvement in Egyptian affairs. Once in power, Gladstone found British interests in Egypt threatened by the nationalist movement led by an army officer, Arabi Pasha.

There was fear that Egypt might default on its international debt, in which Gladstone himself had a personal investment, and that the security of the Suez Canal would be at risk. In 1882 the British fleet bombarded Alexandria, destroying much of the historic city. Then the country was invaded and occupied.

Gladstone insisted that this was for the good of the Egyptian people and was carried through to liberate them from tyranny. He made it clear that personally he wanted Arabi hanged, but this would have been going too far for other members of the Liberal government. Britain was not thrown out of Egypt until 70 years later.

Tibet, 1904 – Expedition that led to horrific massacre

NIALL FERGUSON mentions ‘the expedition to the Dalai Lama’s court in 1904’, which sounds harmless enough. If fact, this description of the events is positively misleading. Britain launched a military invasion of Tibet in 1904. British troops massacred the Dalai Lama’s army and brought his government to heel.

Presumably, only military intervention prevented the mighty Tibetan prayer-wheels of mass destruction from threatening world peace.

Palestine, 1938 – Britain blazed the trail of repression

THE METHODS used by the Israeli army against Palestinians in the West Bank have shocked the world. In fact, they are modelled on those pioneered by Britain when it suppressed the Palestinian revolt of 1936-9.

In August 1938 British troops destroyed much of the town of Jenin, blowing up houses and rounding up the male population in reprisal for the shooting of a British official. Jenin was reduced to rubble by the Israeli army in a vicious act of collective punishment last year.


JOHN NEWSINGER is the author of numerous books and articles relating to the history of the British Empire.

These include Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture, Orwell’s Politics, United Irishman, British Counterinsurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland and British Intervention and the Greek Revolution. Most of these books are available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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