Johann Hari: There can be no defence for empire

For over a decade Niall Ferguson has built a role as a court historian for the imperial US hard right


Next week, Channel 4 will broadcast a startlingly obscene television series. A handsome historian will walk around the rubble and mass graves of Soviet Russia and declare with an aggressive smile, "If it hadn't been Stalin, it might have been somebody worse. In any case, Russia has been ruled by murderous despots for centuries and centuries, so you might as well cast a moral judgement on rain as on Stalin." He will argue that the collapse of Stalinism was "one of the great tragedies of the 20th century."

Sounds impossible? Thankfully, it is. But Niall Ferguson will be doing the same thing for an equally psychopathic and murderous form of totalitarianism - one that killed even more people. For over a decade now, Ferguson has built a role as a court historian for the imperial American hard right, arguing that the British Empire from the Victorian period on was a good thing with some unfortunate "blemishes" that have been over-rated and over-stated.

"If it hadn't been the British, it might have been somebody worse," he says. "In any case, empires have been with us as a means of power and control for centuries and centuries, so you might as well cast a moral judgement on rain as on the British Empire." He adds, "I am fundamentally in favour of empire," and says the Americans should be our successors as imperial rulers of the world.

His latest series, accompanied by a flimsy-but-fat book, is called The War of the World. Picking up where his last work Empire left off, he argues that one of the primary causes of genocidal violence in the 20th century was the collapse of empires. While the British Empire, with its "elevated aspirations", kept a lid on ethnic tension, its retreat allowed them to erupt. Ferguson has, to his credit, been admirably honest about the origins of his dedication to empire.

"Thanks to the British Empire, my earliest childhood memories are of colonial Africa," he says mistily about growing up in Kenya. "Scarcely anything had changed since the days of White Mischief ... It was a magical time."

Perhaps for him. Ferguson does not accompany this account of his childhood with even a passing mention of the fact that he was surrounded by the very recent survivors of gulags and torture centres built by his beloved Empire. Less than a decade before, the mass British theft of Kenyan land had prompted a backlash. Thousands of destitute Kenyans began to fight against the British. They responded by herding more than 300,000 Kenyans into gulags to be whipped, castrated and raped. Many had their eardrums burst with knives, others were doused in paraffin and burnt alive. The soldiers were told they could kill anyone they wanted "so long as he is black" - and they slew more than 50,000. Ah, such mischief.

Today, Ferguson poses as somebody who is simply providing a hard-headed balance sheet of Empire. Yes, there were "drawbacks", he admits - but we have to weigh them against the good things. The problem is that his calculations consistently underestimate or ignore the massive crimes of Empire, and grossly overstate the benefits.

Let's look at two specific examples. Ferguson repeatedly praises the empire for integrating the poorest parts of the world into the global economy, making them richer in the process. But far from building up India to make it capable of self-rule, in reality the British destroyed it. When Clive of India arrived in Calcutta, he described it - as all visitors did - as a place of such "richness and abundance [that] neither war, pestilence nor oppression could destroy [it]."

But he did his best. Within the first century of British occupation, the population fell from 150,000 to 30,000 as its industries were wrecked. By the time the British left, it was one of the poorest places in the world. Jawaharlal Nehru, the man elected prime minister after Ferguson's heroes finally left, explained: "Those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are poorest today. Indeed, some kind of chart might be drawn up to indicate the close connection between length of British rule and progressive growth of poverty."

Or look at how Ferguson describes the British Empire's conscious policy of mass starvation of Indians in the 1870s and 1890s. In reality, severe natural climate disruption hit India, and there was massive crop failure. The British viceroy - Lord Lytton, appointed because he was Queen Victoria's favourite poet - declared that grain shipments to London must continue, by force if necessary. The institutions that Ferguson presents as Britain's glorious gift to India - the railways and telegraph lines - were in fact used more efficiently to steal and ship out India's food, so Londoners could enjoy them over breakfast. Some gift.

And even this was not enough. Lytton went further and declared all relief efforts illegal. The result? One journalist noted that the train lines of India were strewn with "bony remnants of human beings" begging for grain. "Their very eyeballs were gone ... Their fleshless jaws and skulls were supported on necks like those of plucked chickens. Their bodies - they had none; only the framework was left." Some 29 million innocent people died, a crime worthy of Stalin and Mao.

But where does this figure on Ferguson's balance sheet? He dedicates a few dry lines to it. To give some sense of perspective, he gives almost as much space to describing a statue of the Prince of Wales that was made out of butter. He then minimises the crime, chiding anybody who compares it to Nazism ("the intention was not murderous") and demanding to know "would Indians have been better off under the Moghuls?" (Yes, actually.)

As those of us who were foolish enough to back George Bush's invasion of Iraq have learnt, you can't laud the occasional positive effects of imperial violence - the toppling of a fascist dictator, say - without quickly becoming complicit in the downside: the torture, the suppression, the use of chemical weapons in a civilian city. Ferguson doesn't even try very hard to distance himself from the downsides, usually following them with excuses that somebody else's rule would have been harsher.

Perhaps it is foolish to take Ferguson seriously. If he is remembered at all, it will be as the inspiration for Irwin, the ludicrous telly-don in Alan Bennett's The History Boys who takes increasingly preposterous and indefensible positions in a quest for contrarianism. When he says the Americans should have threatened to nuke China in the 1950s, or that the Indians should be grateful for Empire, does he mean a word of it? I doubt it.

But whenever somebody argues that there are great swaths of humanity inherently incapable of self-rule who must be forever subject to imperial masters, it's an essential act of intellectual hygiene to condemn them. With uncharacteristic politeness, Ferguson does not tell us precisely who these people who must be always subject to colonial domination are. But I think we can assume that - like the servants and maids who waited on him as a child - they are black- and brown-skinned, bwana.

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