Niall Ferguson vs. Amartya Sen: How inspiring was the example of the British Empire?

Historians in the News

Niall Ferguson

I cannot let Amartya Sen's otherwise enjoyable piece ("Imperial Illusions", December 31) pass without a protest at his misuse of me as a straw man. Professor Sen may find Empire"rather didactic". He may even be justified in calling it"a guarded but enthusiastic celebration of British imperialism." But it is a complete misrepresentation to imply, as he does, that I have argued anywhere that"Americans [should] be inspired by ... early British rule in India". On the contrary, the first chapter of my book Empire pulls no punches in its account of Clive's role. Indeed, Professor Sen's account and my account of the era of Company rule have a strikingly large amount in common, though for some reason he does not acknowledge it.

Throughout Empire, I make it clear that I am on the side of Adam Smith, not Robert Clive. The British Empire (as opposed to"imperialism", a term of abuse) was only benign in so far as it promoted free trade, free migration and free capital mobility. It did not do those things until the mid-nineteenth century. Only then is it possible to speak of a"liberal empire." Only that empire offers any lessons for present-day America.

I quite agree, and have said myself, that any assessment of the costs and benefits of British rule in India needs to make the counterfactual(s) explicit. No one claims India would have stood still if there had been no 1757. With all due respect, however, Professor Sen's counterfactual of"Meiji India" lacks plausibility. Though I have often heard it argued, the notion seems to me utterly far-fetched that India could have adopted the Japanese route to economic and political modernization. (One might as well say, to take a European example, that Russia could have adopted the English route if only Peter the Great had read John Locke). Japan and India had scarcely anything in common. The proper comparison is surely between Mughal India and Qing China, which (with a few exceptions) was not subject to direct European rule, or between Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey. Do I need to point out that their economic performance was, if anything, worse than that of India in the period of British direct rule (1857-1947)? As for the Bengal famine of 1943, cited by Professor Sen as evidence of British misrule, he omits to mention that this was a direct result of the attack on Burma by that paragon of non-imperial modernization ... Japan.

Professor Sen is an exceedingly distinguished economist. But if there were such a thing as a Nobel Prize for history, I am afraid he would not win it.

Response by Amartya Sen

I am grateful to Niall Ferguson, whose insightful writings I admire, for bothering to respond to my essay. It is a pity that his response seems to be generated more by irritation than by reading or reflection. Ferguson says:"It is a complete misrepresentation to imply, as he [Sen] does, that I have argued anywhere that 'Americans [should] be inspired by ... early British rule in India.'" But where did I"imply" that Ferguson said anything like this about early British empire (to be distinguished from later days)? What I had, in fact, said was:"If Americans are to be inspired by the disciplined regularity of early British rule in India, they would do well to avoid reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, particularly Smith's discussion of the abuse of state power by a 'mercantile company that oppresses and domineers in the East Indies.'" While I did quote some remarks of Ferguson in celebration of the British empire in general (I used his words, not mine), not every defense of the British Empire has come from Ferguson alone. However, a puzzle that remains is how Ferguson can think that an empire that in his view became"benign" only in the mid-nineteenth century, after a century of doubtful practice, can deserve such admiration as would be needed to yield an invitation to America to learn from British imperial experience.

A second puzzle is how the history of British imperial rule after the mid-nineteenth century appears so"benign" to Ferguson. Even if we ignore the huge famine of 1769-70 with which the empire began (there had been none in the century before British rule was established) as being part of the problems of"early British rule," is there no governance problem at all in the continuation of famines in what Ferguson sees as the"benign" phase of the empire, ending with a large famine--the Bengal famine of 1943--just four years before Indian independence (India has had no such famine since independence). Ferguson simply attributes that last famine to the Japanese attack on Burma (in line with the views of earlier defenders of the non-culpability of the Raj), but as has been brought out by a number of empirical investigations of that famine, it was largely caused by huge policy blunders (my book Poverty and Famine, 1981, discusses the question in some detail)....

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