Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World by Niall Ferguson

Cover of Empire: How Britain made the modern worldThe British Empire evokes all manner of contentions and sentiments.

Some have profoundly resentful feelings toward it, others take a more positive and apologetic position regarding its history and legacy.

It was the largest empire in history. Its size and magnitude equalled by no other – with territories, dominions, colonies, businesses, religious organisations, armies and navies spanning almost a quarter of the earth. With mixed results. Depending on what side of history you are on.

Therefore, any book which attempts to provide a detailed, fair and comprehensive exposition of the British behemoth could conceivably stretch out into several volumes, or one book featuring squillions of pages, all rigorously peer reviewed and counter argued.

In Empire: How Britain made the modern world Ferguson doesn’t do that. Who would?

But, he manages to cleverly consolidate almost 400 years of British Empire history into six relatively well rounded chapters.

He begins with his own brief and intimate family history, detailing how his impoverished Scottish ancestors fared under the Empire as settlers grinding out a better life in the North American plains. Something to be proud of, as the family sips port and gives historical accounts around the fire.

Beyond this we get mostly objective historical stuff, beginning in England, where the British population’s appetite for tea, sugar, fine linens and tobacco drove industrious and ambitious types to India and the Caribbean, in order to cash in on what was an insatiable consumerism for new treats on the streets of London. Quite a funny treatment actually.

This consumerism then lead to an entrepreneurialism fused with coercion – as England set up export platforms “protected” by armies and English merchant vessels chaperoned by navies, complete with the use of slaves until interestingly, Christian lobby groups lead by William Wilberforce finally lobbied parliament to end the slave trade – arguably making England the first to end the evil practice.

While many aspects of British doings and wrongdoings are left untouched, much of the Empire’s history is given a good going over featuring the Americas, Africa, India, Australia with lots of others in between (New Zealand is touched on a bit). All with quite a bit of depth.

The book is laced with intimate and honest accounts from various individuals who found themselves receiving the charity or inhumane treatment of the Empire (Slaves, Kipling, Livingston). This comes as Ferguson traces the lives and travels of various subjects and victims who found themselves in unfamiliar parts of the globe through slavery, indentured slavery, crime, commerce and political work.

The British Gentleman’s fascination with the exotic Indian women is revealed candidly in the musings of diaries. Quite hilarious – English men caught in the paradox of exclusivity, class and lust…..

These reports really bring the academic/historical work to life.

It’s certainly an apologetic piece, but rather than address the familiar question of whether or not the Empire was “good or bad”, rather, he attempts to vindicate England in a sense by mooting what otherwise would have been in England’s absence – one is left to make extrapolations in imagining various parts of the globe under the Japanese or Russians (among others) instead. He puts forward an interesting case.

I don’t think there will ever be an account of the British Empire which won’t be contested by commentators and academics. There’s just too much scope for that.

Ferguson tries to be unbiased though, highlighting the virtues and sins of England over the lengthy 400 year period.

As an economic historian, his particular angle is quite unique and insightful.

Recommended reading for anyone interested in history, economics and trade. The political, economic and philosophical legacy imparted to many peoples by the British is easily overlooked, as we’re immersed in it. For better or worse. You decide.

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Road Worthy Art Exhibition

The ever-present symbols of... progress?
The ever-present symbols of… progress?

Road cones and Christchurch. It’s a thing. Not so much a symbiotic relationship as a grudging one. We need them more than they need us, I think.

They’ve also become something of a symbol of the rebuild and there’s no surer sign that an item has wormed its way into the collective psyche than when it turns up in our art. So it’s no great surprise that the humble road cone has once again provided inspiration for CPIT Certificate in Design students in the exhibition ‘Road Worthy’ that is currently on in the Christchurch City Council foyer.

I happened upon the exhibition earlier in the week and it is filled with whimsy and humour. It is intended to acknowledge road workers and show appreciation to those still busy repairing our city’s infrastructure.

Road cone exhibition sign
“Road” sign for exhibition, Flickr File reference: 2015-11-09-IMG_0579
Road cone as dog toilet
Dog tinkle cone, Flickr File reference: 2015-11-09-IMG_0586

The exhibition is on until the end of next week, 20 November, at Civic Offices, 53 Hereford St and is guaranteed to give you a wry smile.

If you can’t make the exhibition you can see photos of some of the pieces on our Flickr.

Armistice Day in the news

Wednesday 11 November is Armistice Day, when we remember New Zealanders and others who served in the First World War and other conflicts since. 2015 is 97 years since the agreement that ended fighting in the First World War came into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

The Bridge of Remembrance with Cashel Street in the background [193-?] CCL PhotoCD 10, IMG0073
he Bridge of Remembrance with Cashel Street in the background [193-?] CCL PhotoCD 10, IMG0073
While Anzac Day has become the main memorial day in New Zealand and Australia, events still take place on Armistice Day. Using resources such as Papers Past we can find out more about how the day has been celebrated and then commemorated over time.

On 13 November 1918, in a article called ‘the city rejoices with wild enthusiasm‘ the Star records:

Never before in the history of the city has such intense enthusiasm been displayed as yesterday, when the news of the signing of the armistice with Germany was received. The people streamed into the town, leaving the suburbs all but deserted. Throughout, the tramwaymen stuck heroically to their tasks, this factor being a large one in the general success of the celebrations.

A year later the Press laments how long it took to move from an armistice to a final peace treaty:

Just as nobody imagined, when the war broke out, that it would last for over four years, so few people, on November 11th last year, supposed that the world would, after twelve months, be as far as it is from a return to normal conditions.

By 1935 another article in The Press states:

The celebration of Armistice Day this year will show, as previous celebrations have shown, that the anniversary does not grow less poignant or less significant with the passage of time.

This sentiment is still true.