Kwasi Kwarteng, Ghosts of Empire, Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, 2011).
One of several recent books on aspects of the former British Empire, Kwasi Kwarteng brings a well researched and highly readable account of events in Iraq, Kashmir, Burma (Myanmar), the Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong. He states (p.7) the focus is on the colonial empire and not the white dominions, and writes (p.3) “I have not written one of those books that purport to show that the empire was a good thing or a bad thing. I have tried to transcend what I believe to be a rather sterile debate on its merits and demerits.” He takes issue (p.6) with Niall Ferguson’s views which describe the British Empire as the champion of ‘free-market liberalism’ and democracy. Kwarteng writes, “Notions of democracy could not be further from the minds of the imperial administrators themselves. Their heads were filled with ideas of class, loosely defined, of intellectual superiority and paternalism. ‘Benign authoritarianism’ would be a better description of the political philosophy that sustained the empire.” His concluding remarks (p.391-7), while noting that “the British Empire did bring justice and order to often anarchic parts of the world,” provide a negative judgment about its overall functioning and achievements. I concluded that Kwarteng does not have a favourable view of the empire as a whole, even though he contends that the book is not about making such a judgment.
Ghosts of Empire contains six detailed case studies of the places listed above. Each is extremely well researched and highly readable, the latter not always found in someone with a PhD in history. I learned a great deal from it as will others with a particular interest in either the places or in how they were administered while part of the empire. Each tells a different story but with common elements about the people who administered these places and the political decisions made in London.
Iraq was only under British control for about 20 years and many may not associate it with having an imperial connection. Burma was part of India (1880-1948), occupied by the Japanese, and granted independence after the war. Nigeria was a country cobbled together to include three tribes who continue to dislike each other. Hong Kong is the latest place (1997) to be separated from the UK and returned to China. The inside stories of what happened in each is fascinating. My only quibble with the book is that based on limited coverage of the imperial connections, it is not possible to make the overall judgment which the book and its subtitle to my reading contains.
Other recent publications include Stephanie Williams, Running the Show, Governors of the British Empire, 1857-1912, (Penguin, 2011) which I have yet to read, Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer, The secret history of the End of an Empire (McClelland and Stewart, 2007), and Peter Clarke, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire, (Penguin, 2007) – reviewed on this blog Sept.10, 2011. A more complete bibliography is found in each of these books.
The author of “Ghosts” was born in the UK and is the son of Ghanaian immigrants to the UK. He won a scholarship to Eton, attended Trinity College Cambridge where he received a PhD in history and is now a Conservative MP in the government of Prime Minister Cameron. Further details on Kwarteng are found on the web.