Niall Ferguson's Empire continues to baffle and dismay. It's almost as if he wrote his introduction before he set out to work on his book, and then never went back to revise it. Supposedly, his goal was to vindicate the British Empire against its harsher critics, to show that it was "on balance a good thing."
And yet the tale he has told has been one of almost unremitting greed, oppression, exploitation, deception, and murder. Perhaps "unremitting" is strong...after all, it obviously wasn't Genghis Khan's empire; it obviously exercised restraint and chivalry, but so do most bands of brigands, it turns out. As the story of British expansion in Africa dragged mournfully on, I found myself, at the outbreak of the Boer War, enthusiastically cheering on the Boers, and wishing them success against the evil empire. Of course, I knew it was vain, but I didn't know just how appalling the outcome was to be.
After a costly and difficult defeat of the vastly outnumberd Boer forces, the British occupied their capital of Bloemfontein, only to find that the Boers were not ready to surrender, but would continue fighting on in the countryside. The solution? Burn down all their homes and farms, and herd their wives and children into concentration camps, camps where nearly a third of them would die in the next two years. Meanwhile, the British officers dined and danced in Bloemfontein, waiting for the Boers to give up. Ferguson provides this nauseating vignette:
"Meanwhile, at the Bloemfontein residency, the band played on. Eventually, after several months of the Gay Gordons and Strip the Willow, the ballroom floor began to wear thin. To avoid any mishaps befalling officers' wives, the old floorboards obviously had to be replaced, and so they were. Happily for the accounts of the officers' mess, a use was found for the old ones. They were sold to Boer women to make coffins for their children, at the cost of 1 pound 6 shillings a plank."
By the end of this narrative, I found myself eagerly wishing the British to get their comeuppance in the First World War.
Apparently sensing that his reader may be feeling this way, Ferguson interrupts his narrative to defend the empire shortly before beginning his narration of World War I. The important thing, he insists, is that, for all its faults, the British Empire was considerably more benign than the other empires at this time--the French, Germans, and French were far more brutal in their treatment of their African colonies, and the Russians and Japanese had horrible track records in Asia. Indeed, it was by expending its strength in nobly and self-sacrificially resisting these much more evil empires, rather than by being rebelled against by angry subjects, that the British Empire collapsed. The first claim holds, I think, little water. I should scarcely justify my personal sins by pointing out that at least I am not quite as wicked as my neighbor next door. And I do not think that, as Christian, we can successfully argue (as Ferguson tries to do) that an evil and oppressive institution should be supported and and defended if it serves the important purpose of restraining even more evil and oppressive institutions. This seems to be the Neuhaus defense of the American Empire: Sure we may be wicked and exploitative, but if we weren't monopolizing the exploitation business, other, much more sinister people would be doing it instead. We can thank God in his providence for allowing the lesser rather than the greater evil to hold sway for a time, but we can scarcely join a marching band and start cheering on the lesser evil, or assist in a PR campaign trying to prove that it's not so bad, after all.
As far as the second claim--Britain's noble self-sacrifice in the struggle against the more evil empires--that may be so. Certainly, there was more self-interest than self-sacrifice in Britain's conduct of foreign policy from 1914-1950...the sacrifices were more necessary than voluntary. But perhaps it is so that Britain did, in some measure, atone for her previous imperial sins in these years by the staggering sacrifice she bore in the struggle against a considerably more amoral Germany (twice) and Japan. And for that, whatever our reservations about the justness of the wars, we may offer her some somber appreciation and respect.