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Niall Ferguson's compelling tour de force, Empire, was published to coincide with a British TV series. Ferguson, author of The Pity of War and The Cash Nexus, does not so much provide a synoptic survey of the British empire since the 17th century, as an arresting argument about why it arose, and how it fell. Ferguson's emphasis throughout is on the pursuit of economic profit and military might.
Piracy overseas and a taste for sugar and spice at home combined with an unerring ability to vanquish rival European powers, such as the Dutch and French, in the dash for stash and status across the globe. But Ferguson is also alive to the peculiarities of British dominion: the manly and Christian civil service--less than a thousand strong--who ruled India, missionaries such as Livingstone, who explored and mapped as they preached, and the barons of empire--Rhodes, Curzon, and Kitchener--who found in empire an outlet for their homoeroticism.
The book is brilliant and persuasive on trade and buccaneering before 1750, on India, on the late Victorian imperial mentalité, and on the two world wars, but less convincing on the empire of white settlement, and strangely silent on the most difficult colony of all, Ireland. In the end, Ferguson's penchant for polemic gets the upper hand--the book closes with a controversial balance sheet of the gains and losses of the British imperial experience--but he provides a riveting read nonetheless. --Miles Taylor [via]