Niall Ferguson: Empire (How Britain Made the Modern World) – Why Britain?

“The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth… Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!…The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.”–Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

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 legacy of the British empire, and the cultural, political, economic, and demographic debt that the modern world owes Britain.

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Again, a few simple points are made in this part of the overall series:

  • For Britain to remembered for its “sins” is to do an injustice to the real legacy of British empire: international trade and banking, parliamentary democracy, the spread of English, and the massive spread of Britons across the planet.
  • Consumerism, especially acquired tastes for products that could only be imported, plus new efficient technologies, increased financial power, and the dilapidation of rivals, are all part of this quickly painted picture of the rise of British global power.
  • “From piracy to power” — from bucaneers, to traders, to soldiers, to rulers: this is the direction followed by Ferguson.
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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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