Last week I was honoured to win first prize in the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, History Essay Competition 2014. The essay title was 'When Historians Write About the Past They Are Nearly Always Writing About the Present'. I decided to use the historiography of the British Empire and explore the different writings of it to prove my argument (that yes, whilst the title is correct, other factors such as political bias and gender influence a historian's writing more).
I read about Niall Ferguson's views to start with. In Empire, Niall Ferguson argued that the Britain's version of empire was more of a "good thing" than a bad, and was essentially an engine of modernity.
Ferguson looked at Britain's commerce and consumerism, its lust for sugar drawing it to the Caribbean, its taste for fine fabrics, spices and tea enticing it into India. He then looks at the role of voluntary and involuntary emigration, among blacks and whites, and at missionaries and reformers. Later in the book he deals with the hard working bureaucrats and patrician proconsuls.
By 1914 the European powers had became caught up and consumed by the same kinds of hi-tech violence they had previously launched against other continents. It was this crisis, Ferguson argues, and the emergence of other, newer empires, Japan, Germany, and the United States - rather than the actions and aspirations of colonial nationalists - that terminally undermined Britain's own brand of global supremacy.
Ferguson challenges the view that the empire only busied itself in racism, violence and exploitation. He draws attention, as others have done, to its episodes of idealism, creativity and administrative integrity, to its many examples of overlap and collaborations between different peoples, and above all to its historical context. He argued that Britain's global inroads would not have been a pure, unsullied world, but rather the emergence of other empires that might have been worse.
However Ferguson's ideas are complicated. For example, Britain's role in the slave trade in the 18th century makes the empire seem like an early holocaust. However, if we concentrate on how Royal Navy seamen sacrificed their time and lives hunting down other countries' slavers in the 19th century it seems as if the Empire was a force for good. Again, the fact that the British covered India with railroads is more evidence as the British as modernisers. However, the abysmal levels of mass illiteracy in the subcontinent they left behind in 1947 makes them seem rather different.
Ferguson focused on the Victorians and their successors, exaggerating the degree to which British imperialism was distinctive and better - for example, he suggested that it was the Victorians who invented the notion that overseas initiatives should be for God not gain and claimed this would have astounded those French, Portuguese and Spanish Catholic Fathers who had earlier devoted far more care to the indigenous peoples of the Americas than many of their Anglo, Protestant competitors.
The most problematic issue raised but not resolved here, however, is the question of what criteria are to be invoked when assessing empire. Doubtless many of the Normans who invaded England in 1066 were decent people and they arguably made it a more efficient state, but the English themselves still referred for centuries to the "Norman yoke". By the same token, those who were once on the receiving end of British imperial invasions are less likely than us to view them in a positive light. Ferguson argues this is short-sighted because, whatever its faults, British empire fostered globalisation, overseas investment and free trade and - in the long run - this raised levels of prosperity all round. Possibly so: but individual human beings do not live by the free market alone and nor do they live in the long run. The immediate impact of British imperial free-trading was often the collapse of local indigenous industries which were in no position to compete, and a consequent destruction of livelihoods and communities.
This points to the tension at the heart of empire. Its exponents may seek (as many Britons genuinely did) to make the world a better place, but they also want to dominate. The Victorians wanted to spread the gospel of free trade, but they also wanted to continue being the premier workshop of the world. In much the same way, contemporary America wants (often with the best of intentions) the world to be wide open to its ideas, exports and technologies, but not if this means third-world nations developing weapons of mass destruction or the Europeans competing in space.
However it is impossible to think about the empire as a simple "good" or "bad" thing because it has many intrinsic paradoxes, and there is no simple answer. Ferguson also argued, which I found very interesting, that the United States should cease being in denial about its imperial status and face up to its global responsibilities.