Scarred subjects testify to failure of imperial bearers of the white man's burden


January 23, 2003

In one important sense, the collapse of the Soviet Union restored the political world of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries: once again, a handful of European and American nations dominate global decision-making and the rest of the world has no option but to obey.

Put bluntly, white people give orders and black and brown people (not excepting the Ghanaian UN secretary-general) scuttle to give frightened assent. Russia, China and India are too big and powerful for the West to push around, but all other countries must obey western dictates on matters of importance to the West or suffer economic and/or military coercion.

No wonder a reputable British historian has chosen this time to publish a historical survey (tied to a television series) fiercely justifying the largest of modern empires. Niall Ferguson's book is a case of scholarship following the flag. He is no run-of-the-mill political pamphleteer, however, but an accomplished economic historian with a sharp eye for the telling statistic. His book teems with useful figures on gross domestic products, capital transfers, population sizes and movements and fiscal policies. Pithily written and with many interesting illustrations, the book is of value to the historian and the general reader. Justice demands that this be stated at the outset, because I have rarely come across a work of scholarly utility that is so misleading in its arguments.

Most unexpectedly, given the book's enthusiastic defence of British imperialism, Ferguson revels in the details of the horrific crimes involved in the founding of the empire: the Atlantic slave trade; the genocide of vulnerable native populations in America and Australia; the frenzied British looting of richBengal accompanied by the death from famine of a third of the Indian province's population. The author leaves one in no doubt that, in large part, his beloved empire was created by supremely ruthless, efficient gangsters and mass murderers.

Once established, though, according to Ferguson, the empire changes character drastically: it promotes law, free trade, social reform and, above all, economic modernisation, giving vast areas of Asia and Africa more progressive and orderly rule than they ever had or were to have after the British withdrawal. The book's strident subtitle summarises his case neatly.

But consider what happened to India, which Ferguson calls the empire's greatest strategic asset. He is very clear as to why the British went there. In the 17th century, India was a treasure trove, with an advanced textile industry; a quarter of the world's output of goods was Indian, and the country had about ten times the British GDP. If Britain really was a vigorous modernising agent in India, one would expect that when the British withdrew after more than 150 years of rule, India would have been in a strong economic position relative to the rest of the world, even if not with its old pre-eminence. In fact, despite the British having founded many industries and built an extensive railway system, the country was by 1947 one of the world's poorest. The last British governor of Bengal dismissed most of that province on the eve of independence as "a rural slum".

Ferguson himself admits that "the average Indian had not got much richer under British rule. Between 1757 and 1947 British per capita GDP increased in real terms by 347 per cent, Indian by a mere 14 per cent. A large share of the profits that accrued as the Indian economy industrialised went to British management agencies, bankers and shareholders - this despite the fact that there was no shortage of capable Indian investors and entrepreneurs."

Not much for a growing lad, then, and ironic in view of the book's ubiquitous triumphalism about British modernising prowess. When you add the devastating famines that took as many as 25 million lives, the picture looks dire indeed. Ferguson resorts to an escape mechanism favoured by former British rulers harried by Indian nationalist criticism: would Indians, he asks, have been better off under their own rulers or Britain's European rivals for Indian empire such as the Dutch and the Russians? Besides, he adds, China in the same period did not flourish under indigenous rule. One could respond that China had problems such as overpopulation and the deliberately isolationist Manchu regime, which India before British rule did not. The advanced economic conditions of pre-British India suggest a possibility that the country could have industrialised in collaboration with western traders. In any case, the best that Ferguson can say for British imperialism in India is that it was singularly unimpressive as a promoter of popular welfare, but that it may have prevented even worse from happening.

Does Africa, then, vindicate Britain as the necessary moderniser? The author believes so. He gives a striking example: at independence, copper-rich Zambia's per capita income was one-seventh that of Britain: today it is one-twenty-eighth. There is little doubt, he says, that had British rule and political stability in Africa continued, inward investment would have been much greater and the economic disparity between Africa and the West much less than today. This alluring argument betrays massive historical naivety. Pre-independence Zambia, as noted by the US journalist John Gunther, had some of the most shaming institutions of racial discrimination anywhere in the world in the mid-1950s. In a territory of nearly 2 million people, there was just one secondary school. Ferguson does not grasp that the idea of racial equality as a widely accepted norm is a post-imperial phenomenon. If imperial rule had continued, the racist mentality on which it depended would have continued, too. It is incompatible with the demands of a successful modern economy.

The author is on firmest ground when he insists that the empire, despite waging many small wars, kept huge areas of the world peaceful for well over a century. It might be added that Britain did unite India under a single government, and it consolidated many small African tribal polities into more viable territories. Ferguson rightly blames the empire's fall not on nationalist agitation but on the weakening effects of its wars with rival empires. But he does not notice that British imperialism itself helped to create the foes that destroyed it. By spreading the idea that national success required dominance over vast overseas lands, Britain created much of the ferocious competition between strong countries aspiring to empire that led to the two world wars.

Ferguson ends with a call to the Americans to carry on the British empire's good work, by spreading peace, free trade, law and economic modernisation through the takeover of targeted countries without compunction. Kipling's poem The White Man's Burden , exhorting Americans to do the same at the end of the 19th century, is quoted proudly. The author's call is otiose. The Americans are already on the job, creating their own oil-rich empire in the Middle East, today's equivalent of the 18th-century Indian treasure trove.

It is naive to expect the US to recall that the last time a country tried to seize wealth and impose world peace through territorial imperialism it led to war on an unprecedented scale.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

Author - Niall Ferguson
ISBN - 0 7139 9615 3
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 392

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