The British Empire is not a morality tale
Nigel Biggar's Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning provides some welcome pushback to the ‘decolonise’ movement.
Nigel Biggar is no stranger to being cancelled.
When Biggar, a professor of moral and pastoral theology, first launched his ‘Ethics and Empire’ project at the University of Oxford back in 2017, a long list of academics called openly for his project to be shut down. Then, in 2021, publishers Bloomsbury shelved plans to release his book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. Despite Biggar’s editor initially describing the manuscript as a work of ‘major importance’, within a few months, Bloomsbury decided that ‘conditions are not currently favourable to publication’. Fortunately for Biggar, a new publisher, William Collins, has now shown the moral courage to hit print.
The furore surrounding Biggar’s work proves his point that today, only one view of Britain’s history is acceptable. Schools, universities and popular culture all confirm the same narrative: the 400 years of empire – including the first voyages of discovery, the Atlantic slave trade, the establishment and management of the colonies, the abolition of slavery, decolonisation and the establishment of the Commonwealth – represent a uniquely reprehensible period in human history. All of this was apparently motivated by ruthless and murderous profiteering and, above all, a racist sense of white superiority and black inferiority. What’s more, the legacy of all this is said to endure to this day.
Biggar argues that the academics promoting this one-sided narrative show an ‘unscrupulous indifference to historical truth’. This, he says, ‘indicates that the controversy over empire is not really a controversy about history at all. It is about the present, not the past.’ On this at least, Biggar is right.
Biggar argues compellingly that colonialism was never ‘a coherent project, methodically developed out of some original plan’. It was not started by ‘a single agent or like-minded group of agents’, intent on racial and economic dominance. Instead, the motivations of historical actors were rarely explicitly verbalised. They also altered considerably over time.
Biggar suggests that the British empire began with individuals like Sir Francis Drake and Captain James Cook simply seeking adventure, fame and fortune. What happened next was often a pragmatic response to immediate circumstances that later took on a logic of its own. One thing led to another, he writes: ‘The logic of trade led, through the need for security, to the acquisition of military power. It also led to control over territory.’ Biggar explains that, particularly in the later stages of the empire, the driving force was not always exploitative and expansionist, but sometimes protectionist and concerned with preserving lives – those of indigenous peoples as much as foreign settlers. ‘In order to stay still, one has to move forward’, writes Biggar, ‘in order to keep what you have got, you must expand’.
Some of this is uncontroversial. Slavery clearly has a history of its own that both predates and supersedes the Atlantic slave trade. The likes of Drake in the 16th century did not foresee the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century. And the compulsion to expand the empire was, at times, no doubt driven more by a defensive need to protect territorial gains from competing European powers than by a desire for conquest as an end in itself. What’s also undoubtedly true is that just as Britain played a significant role in establishing and later profiting from the slave trade, it also worked to bring an end to slavery. Ironically, as Biggar notes, ‘[f]or the second half of its life, anti-slavery, not slavery, was at the heart of imperial policy’.
Britain’s role in helping to end the slave trade is missing from many history lessons today. The contemporary urge to dwell on past atrocities means that Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu and Adam Smith, and abolitionist campaigners like William Wilberforce, are in danger of being written out of history. Biggar gives them their rightful recognition.
Abolishing slavery was undoubtedly the morally correct course of action, but it was also a pragmatic move. It became a way to stem competition from other European nations and to consolidate the gains of the empire. Under a more developed form of capitalism, imperialism was more sustainable, and ultimately more profitable, without slavery. Added to this, we must not forget the significant role that slaves played in liberating themselves – for example, in the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century. In other words, history is complex and much of Britain’s past is morally ambiguous.
Biggar acknowledges this complexity. But his desire to push back against the relentlessly negative consensus and to tell a more positive national story can go too far. While he certainly acknowledges the atrocities of colonialism, too often it is just that – an acknowledgement. Eye-wateringly brutal massacres and ruthless displays of cruelty are dispassionately rationalised. ‘British colonial settlement did sometimes cause the annihilation of a native people’, is typical of Biggar’s understatement.
More difficult to read are justifications for such devastating actions. Biggar appears to suggest that colonialism occasionally happened by accident: ‘Sometimes native peoples lost territory to colonists because the latter mistook land that was unoccupied or uncultivated for land that was unowned.’ Even deaths are portrayed as merely accidental – the result of diseases carried by foreigners, not all of whom were British.
Elsewhere, Biggar describes some killings as necessary, either to defend British lives or to prevent the natives from killing each other. The general responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Reginald Dyer, is quoted as saying the killings prevented ‘more bloodshed, more looting, more lives lost’. And deaths by famine, whether in India or Ireland, are presented as the inevitable result of local distribution problems. These tragedies, he says, would not have been prevented simply by sending food from Britain.
Biggar certainly challenges the popular perception that the British empire was uniquely evil. But he sails close to rehabilitating the myth of the white man’s burden, an unwanted responsibility that had to be borne with a stiff upper-lip. From this it follows that the British were duty-bound to prevent foreign natives from either killing each other or selling their neighbours into slavery. That it was an act of compassion to build schools, hospitals, roads and railways in economically backward territories – whether the indigenous population wanted them or not. That, as Biggar puts it, because ‘it really is possible for one culture to be superior to another in certain respects, it cannot be racist to recognise it’.
When Biggar permits indigenous people to speak for themselves, it is so they can thank their colonial rulers. To this end, he quotes the late Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe: ‘Here is a piece of heresy. The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care.’
What is often missing from Biggar’s account is any sense of a colonised people or nation having any right to self-determination – and, crucially, the moral autonomy to exercise such agency.
So determined is Biggar to challenge the current woke consensus about Britain’s shameful past that his moral reckoning with colonialism does, at times, tilt too far in the opposite direction. He’s right to resist the view that every past action was sinful because of the immorality of long-dead white men. But in doing so, Biggar risks harking back to an era when every past action was justified because of the supposed infantilism of the black natives. ‘It surely cannot always be patronising to believe that foreign people need help, guidance or protection’, he argues.
It is good that Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning can be read, not least because it reminds us that history is complex and never simply good or bad. Sadly, as Biggar admits, ‘my critics are really not interested in the complicated, morally ambiguous truth about the past’. Instead, today’s academic decolonisers are only really interested in the past as a moralistic weapon. It turns out that they view us just as yesteryear’s colonialists viewed indigenous peoples: as either wicked or as childlike and in need of correction.
Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and author of How Woke Won, which you can order here.
Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, by Nigel Biggar, is published by William Collins. Order it here.
Picture by: YouTube / Telegraph.
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