Niall Ferguson: Empire (How Britain Made the Modern World) – The Mission

From the Channel 4 television series by Niall Ferguson (one of this seminar’s “new imperialists”), which accompanies his book by the same title. This part deals with the history of British Christian missions, particularly in Africa.

The main theme of this part of the overall series is the surprising repetition of a theory that has been debunked for decades, that being that Britain abolished slavery purely as the result of the zealous religiosity and activism of a small religious minority that found slavery at odds with Christian ideals. In this vein, Ferguson claims that a religious revival, and the work of missionaries, impelled Britain to adopt an “ethical foreign policy,” and to “destroy a pillar of the imperial economy.” The rest of the story is of the good, civilizing intentions of the missionaries. Yet, even among the missionaries we hear of their dual concern for Christianity and commerce, which elicits no comment or further detail from Ferguson, who prefers to hail “Victorian visionaries.”

While emphasizing the discourse used by the actors themselves, along with their justifications and rationalizations (without any questioning from Ferguson), it is interesting to hear Ferguson compare David Livingstone to the first medécin sans frontières [see this post].

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About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production.
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