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The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

Basic Books,

15 min read
10 take-aways
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What's inside?

Over centuries of violence and slavery, and liberty and democracy, the British Empire rose – and fell – because of money.

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Editorial Rating



  • Comprehensive
  • Innovative
  • Engaging


First-rate historian and author Niall Ferguson offers a politically incorrect interpretation of the four-century history of the British Empire. Sure, he acknowledges that the imperialists stole, murdered and enslaved on their way to world domination. Yet, Ferguson argues, the Brits spread several traditions, including liberty, democracy and free trade, which improved the state of the world. To Ferguson’s credit, he makes no attempt to gloss over the Empire’s atrocities. In fact, with stellar prose, he takes the risk of undermining his central theme by describing the Empire’s bad behavior in great detail. His conclusions are as complex as history itself, which might prove frustrating to readers seeking simple answers. strongly recommends this memoir to readers who love history, and particularly to those seeking a historical perspective on the pitfalls of imperialism.


A Flawed but Noble Empire

The British Empire, which at its peak spanned the globe and ruled a quarter of the world’s population and geography, has become synonymous with racism, brutality and profiteering.

These criticisms are well founded; after all, the Brits actively participated in the slave trade before having a change of heart. British forces shot unarmed civilians in India, mowed down primitively armed tribesmen in lopsided battles in Africa and herded the wives and children of Boer guerrillas into concentration camps in South Africa. All true, yet such criticisms, accurate though they are, miss the benefits that the ambitious Brits brought to countries around the globe. Flawed though it was, the Empire also proved to be a force for good throughout the world. British imperialists spread democratic and free-market principles to their colonies. Indeed, the Empire did more than any other nation or organization to bring ideas such as liberty, democracy and free trade to the far corners of the planet.

To be fair, Britain’s empire building started not altruistically but atavistically. The Empire was born, in part, in 1663, when Welsh pirate Henry Morgan sailed...

About the Author

Niall Ferguson is Herzog Professor of Financial History at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He also is a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution. His previous books include The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus and Paper and Iron.

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