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Colonialism and Its Discontents

Oxford ethicist Nigel Biggar’s controversial reassessment of Britain’s imperial record has reignited an important academic quarrel over the meaning and legacy of empire.

· 16 min read
Colonialism and Its Discontents
Nigel Biggar: YouTube

A review of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar; 480 pages; William Collins (February 2023)

Late in his new book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, Oxford Emeritus Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology Nigel Biggar quotes Michael Hechter, an American sociologist who spent some years at the same university. A decade ago, Hechter argued that, “Good alien government may be better than bad native government,” a remark that, if offered in public today, would be causing uproar on Twitter within moments. In support of his contention, Hechter instanced three examples—two in China and one in Turkey—where, he reported, the aliens (mainly the British) had administered important customs, trade, and inspection departments with “rigorously fair and effective policies.” Biggar’s book is, in large part, an intense and vivid unpacking of this view.

This task requires Biggar to tackle what remains the dominant school of colonial studies, which concentrates almost exclusively on the evils of imperialism. Nostalgia for empire, many commentators maintain, remains strong in English society and lately animated support for Brexit. Biggar’s review of imperial rule, however, is capacious rather than narrowly reproachful. The story he tells is peopled by arrogant young officials who shunned social contact with natives, but also reveals a policy directed by devout Christian leaders intent on improvement and understanding. European slave traders formed cordial and mutually profitable contracts with African chiefs, who were slave traffickers and owners in their own right. North American educators marshalled young Native Americans and Canadians into residential schools which could be oppressive and brutal, but their pupils often later wrote with gratitude of an education that helped them to prosper. Nationalist Irishmen who nursed hatred for the bigotry and land dispossession to which they had been subjected in the past nevertheless admitted that the bloody 1916 uprising had been widely unpopular in a country beginning to benefit from rather than groan under British rule.

Even the great villains of colonialism who seemed to be beyond anything but unambiguous condemnation receive a more nuanced assessment than usual. Colonel Reginald Dyer, for instance, directed his Sikh troops to fire on unarmed protestors in a park in Amritsar, an order in keeping, if rigidly, with his own directions to use deadly force should a crowd not disperse when instructed to do so. Biggar does not dissent from Winston Churchill’s description of the action as “monstrous” at the time. But he also includes a quote from Dyer’s biographer, Nigel Collett, who pointed out that when Dyer left India following his resignation, both the British and Indian officers stood to attention and saluted him. Dyer, Collett wrote, “felt truly Indian, and loved both the country and its natives.” This is not an attempt to rescue Dyer from obloquy; it is simply an insistence that we acknowledge the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of events and people.

Biggar’s study of empire will not be read by most of his fellow Brits, but it is a work with which many of them seem inclined to agree. In 2021, 34 percent of respondents said they felt pride in empire and 21 percent said they felt shame. A plurality (40 percent), however, said they felt neither, and that ambivalence reflects Biggar’s position. This may help to explain how he has managed to doggedly defend that position in the face of frequently furious opposition from academic colleagues.

Biggar’s many enemies have criticised the importance of faith in his historical analysis and depicted him as an ignoramus who has unwisely strayed outside his domain of expertise. After all, he is an ethicist not a specialist in imperial history. Biggar, on the other hand, believes that there is a moral and ethical component to all human activity, and that human equality is a Christian and a universal creed that has frequently animated Western choices and behaviour. Understanding that behaviour, he maintains, requires honesty most of all, and he insists that there is a “more historically accurate, fairer and more positive story to be told about the British empire than the anti-colonialists want us to hear.”

How we understand this history, he argues, will help shape “the self-perception and self-confidence of the British people today, and the way they conduct themselves in the world tomorrow. What is at stake, therefore, is the very integrity of the United Kingdom and the security of the West.”

In 2017, Biggar declared his determination to reckon frankly with imperialism and its legacy when he proposed a six-year interdisciplinary project titled “Ethics and Empire” for the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life (the US-based NGO that funds the Oxford branch, directed by Biggar). A series of invitation-only colloquiums would consider empires through ancient, medieval, early-modern, and modern times, and the last of these would focus on postcolonial critiques of empire. The first four of these events inform Colonialism; the fifth is due to take place later this year. The project was to have been co-led by Biggar and John Darwin, a retired professor of Global and Imperial History at Oxford, widely regarded as the doyen of the (older) academic approach to empire. To Biggar’s consternation, Darwin, who had drafted the project with him, pulled out in December 2017 but declined to give a reason for doing so. (Darwin has not commented publicly, but it is widely believed that his colleagues in the history department persuaded him to resign.)

Large parts of elite academia were not slow to mobilise against Biggar’s project. In Cambridge, Professor of Postcolonial Studies Priyamvada Gopal called for him to be “shut down.” In a Medium post, she later called this “poor phrasing” before dismissing him with haughty contempt. “Much of this ‘controversy,’” she wrote, “is a desperate bid by an entirely uninteresting don with a mediocre project to keep himself in the public eye and somehow make the national story about him and himself the national story.” This is rather rich coming from Gopal, whose place in the public eye invariably results from the incendiary accusations of racism she directs at anyone with whom she disagrees, be they fellow academics or the porters at Cambridge. So, it was hardly surprising that when the Daily Mail carried an account of the Biggar row that was firmly supportive of Biggar and critical of Gopal, she accused the paper of racism. “Nothing,” she announced in her Medium response, “gets up the nose of a patrician white establishmentarian male [more] than a gobby brown woman: we are, after all, supposed to sit weeping on burning pyres to be rescued by dashing colonial men in pith helmets, then to spend the rest of our lives in silent gratitude with a few sexual favours thrown in if required. Not happening.”

Shortly after Darwin announced his resignation from the project, Biggar published an article in the Times, titled “Don’t Feel Guilty About Our Colonial History,” in which he called for an end to historical self-flagellation. Days later, 58 Oxford academics signed an open letter denouncing both the article and Biggar’s proposed project. The letter stated, in part:

Professor Biggar has every right to hold and to express whatever views he chooses or finds compelling, and to conduct whatever research he chooses in the way he feels appropriate. But his views on [the question of empire], which have been widely publicised at the Oxford Union, as well as in national newspapers, risk being misconstrued as representative of Oxford scholarship. For many of us, and more importantly for our students, they also reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past. We therefore feel obliged to express our firm rejection of them.

The signatories accused Biggar of erecting a straw man—implausibly contending that “no historian (or, as far as we know, any cultural critic or postcolonial theorist) argues simply that imperialism was ‘wicked’”—and of excusing British imperial sins by invoking worse crimes committed by later native rulers. They concluded by scorning the idea that Biggar’s project could possibly be of any value at all. “The ‘Ethics and Empire’ project,” they wrote, “asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes. However seriously intended, far from offering greater nuance and complexity, Biggar’s approach is too polemical and simplistic to be taken seriously.”

That letter was quickly followed by another.

This time, the letter was signed by 170 scholars from universities across the UK and abroad, largely organised by Gopal, and took aim at Oxford for allowing the project to proceed:

We welcome all scholarly enquiry into empire and its relationship with the present. However, the crude cost/benefit analysis proposed by the Ethics and Empire project wilfully obscures the complexities which scholars of empire have carefully unpicked in recent decades. Nor is it possible to clearly demarcate ‘empire’ as a fixed and stable subject which can be imputed with moral characteristics through time. The ‘balance sheet’ approach to empire is rooted in the self-serving justifications of imperial administrators, attempting to balance out the violence committed in the name of empire with its supposed benefits. It has long since lost its scholarly legitimacy, as research has instead moved to trace the actions which occurred in the name of empire in their complexity through time. We are not surprised that such an approach should be recuperated by Professor Biggar—a long-time apologist for colonialism—but we are alarmed that the University of Oxford should invest resources in this project.

But Oxford held firm. The Chancellor, Chris Patten, had already opposed the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes above the main door of Oriel College (which Rhodes had funded). Those who couldn’t deal with freedom of thought, Patten advised, “should think of being educated elsewhere.” This statement was backed by the then-Vice Chancellor, Louise Richardson, who remarked that students “must learn to embrace complexity and retain conviction” and that “an Oxford education is not meant to be a comfortable experience.” Among those opposed to the removal of the Rhodes statue, Biggar had been a prominent voice, and the sentiments expressed by Richardson and Patten appear to have covered his “Ethics and Empire” course too.

The lengthiest response to Biggar’s project came from Richard Drayton, Professor of Imperial History at King’s College London. In an essay titled, “Biggar and Little Britain,” Drayton proposes a journey into the mind of the Oxford ethicist, which he believes to be emblematic of a “return of the repressed.” In support of this contention, he lists Biggar’s political allegiances, including support for such apparently loathsome positions as Northern Irish and Scottish unionism. Drayton sees Biggar’s activism as “part of the music of the Brexit moment, a passive aggressive lament of a denigrated traditionalism, a denigrated Conservatism, a British patriotism, perhaps even a denigrated ‘whiteness’, which will now take back control.” (As it happens, Biggar voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, though he later regretted it.) The Drayton essay trawls through Biggar’s public positions, some of which are widely shared (such as support for Scottish unionism) and some of which are not (such as support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq). But while Biggar has defended these positions, Drayton does not bother to offer any arguments against them. Instead, he simply invites the reader to regard them as self-evidently absurd, dangerous, or toadying to conservative newspapers and a wider “mob of rightwards opinion.”

For merely proposing that the ethics of empire and its costs and benefits be reconsidered and discussed, Biggar had truly unleashed a flood of silliness and posturing, driven by much furious indignation that Oxford should permit such an exercise to proceed.

From these fields of battle, what victory resulted? Or what defeat? Can the book and its arguments really be as naïve, dangerous, morally repellent, and lacking in scholarship as the ranks of critics insist? On the other hand, can it really be fairly described as a defence of the “very integrity of the United Kingdom and the security of the West”? And how far can the application of an ethical Occam’s razor across the cratered chin of the British empire prove itself superior—even morally so—to histories which interpret its actions and beliefs as more or less inevitably oppressive?

Slavery cannot be defended today, and Biggar does not defend it. But slavery can be set in its proper historical context before we decide to call it a uniquely British or Western sin. It was, after all, practiced worldwide (and remains so in places—the International Labour Office estimates that 50 million people can still be said to languish in “modern slavery”). In imperial times, Africa was the largest resource for slaves, and European slavers, led by the Portuguese, entered into mutually profitable contracts with African chiefs, who sold slaves to European and Arab merchants. One estimate cited by Biggar reckons that “the Muslim slave trade as a whole, which lasted until 1920, transported about 17m slaves, mostly African, exceeding by a considerable margin the 11m shipped by Europeans across the Atlantic.” Biggar spends some time emphasising the cruelty of the West Indian (British) plantation owners and the savage punishments they employed. Others, he notes, were relatively humane. But all forced men and women to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, in broiling heat. Conditions on the “middle passage” that transported slaves from Africa, meanwhile, were so degrading that up to a quarter of the human cargo died before reaching the West Indies, and later the United States. These horrors may already be well known but Biggar’s accounting recapitulates them all.

However, he also reappraises many of colonialism’s most trenchant and famous critics. In his 1944 work, Capitalism and Slavery, Trinidadian historian Eric Williams argued that the profits from the slave trade were essential to fund the British industrial revolution. This claim was once widely believed and accepted, but it is now regarded as greatly exaggerated by most economists. Biggar relies for his rejection of this point on several of them, most emphatically the historian of slavery David Brion Davis, who in 2010 pronounced Williams’s thesis “wholly discredited.” That Britain was the first state to attempt to end slavery is routinely seen as too-little-too-late by many imperial historians and irrelevant in any case. Biggar, on the other hand, emphasises the point. British ships carried African slaves in hideous conditions for 150 years, until 1807, when the slave trade was abolished. It took a further three decades for slavery to be abolished throughout the empire.

Enlightenment thought was one agent of change: Montesquieu, in his 1748 treatise, De l’esprit des Lois, deplored the slave’s loss of freedom and (even more) the master’s loss of moral virtue. Adam Smith, in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, pushed the thought further when he wrote, “There is not a Negro from the coast of Africa who does not possess … a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of receiving.” The other influence—and certainly the greater in terms of political organising and religious activism—came from Christian sects, led by the Quakers, the Methodists, and other evangelicals, all of whom derived their arguments from the Bible and from radical Christian teaching. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached that “liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air.”

This sentiment passed from the pulpits into politics, and by the turn of the century, an estimated 30 percent of the male population had signed anti-slavery petitions. Not only was the trade in—and then the possession of—slaves rendered unlawful, but it was also enforced on other states by the Royal Navy. Assigned in some force to the western shores of Africa, British ships were empowered to stop, search, and detain slave ships sailing under any flag. This was an early and genuinely humanitarian intervention, which cost the exchequer dearly. First it was relieved of the £20m required to compensate the plantation owners for the loss of their slaves, then it had to bear the cost of these naval patrols. But this was indeed a popular moral crusade, and one which British diplomats continued even at the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna, where they tried—without initial success—to have a general abolition treaty signed by all the European powers.

Here, as elsewhere, Biggar stands accused of ethical balancing—a salient gripe in the letter written by his fellow Oxford dons. His project (hardly then begun), they wrote, cannot “pretend to offer serious history when it proposes such arguments as that the British empire’s abolition of the slave trade stands simply as a positive entry in a balance-book against (for example) the Amritsar massacre or the Tasmanian genocide.” There is sometimes something in that criticism. Almost inevitably, when a balance is struck between the good and the bad, it can seem as though the former is designed to whitewash the latter. But a serious reading of Biggar’s work simply doesn’t support that interpretation. His clear intent is to render the iconic incidents, and the imperial experience as a whole, comprehensible as acts and policies undertaken by (as he would put it) fallen humans. Many of them strove to be at least fair—at least according to their own lights—even if they harboured and displayed contempt or engaged in monstrous acts.

In support of this complexity, Biggar enlists a little platoon of the formerly colonised, who look back on their colonial experience with some favour. The expert most frequently quoted is Tirthankar Roy, author of many books and essays on the Indian economy, particularly in the colonial period. Roy was educated in Indian universities, and began his academic career there before coming to the LSE as Professor of Economic History. Roy is important to Biggar’s argument because he is a strong believer in the benign effects of British colonialism in its Jewel in the Crown. “The empire,” he has written, “was not an invasion. Many Indians, because they did not trust other Indians, wanted the British to secure power. They preferred British rule over indigenous alternatives and helped the [East India] Company form a state. … The empire emerged … from lands ‘ceded’ to the Company by Indian friends, rather than lands it ‘conquered’ … the Company came to rule India because many Indians wanted it to rule India.”

Unsurprisingly, Roy has many of the same opponents as Biggar. These include Shashi Tharoor, a former minister of the Congress Party, and his book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, and William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. Roy quotes Tharoor’s claims that by combining a “license to loot everything” with “perfidy, chicanery and cupidity,” the East India Company “extracted wealth from the native princes,” and he takes a dim view of Dalrymple’s judgement that the British “conquest” of India was the “supreme act of corporate violence.” Roy notes, tartly, that these polemicists had not done the work necessary to justify their criticisms. “Tharoor and Dalrymple,” he writes, “are not sufficiently well informed to bat for the Indian warlords. Claims like theirs peddle sentiments—triumph or righteous outrage—but they are not correctly based on evidence and not reliable as history.”

Chinua Achebe is Nigeria’s best-known novelist, especially for his debut novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 and picked up in the UK by Heinemann in 1962 to be the first in its African Writers’ series. It is a work highly critical of British imperialism and officialdom (in the form of a District Commissioner). The British are portrayed as lacking any understanding of those they govern (though another character, the missionary Mr Brown, does show comprehension of native life and compassion) and ignorantly complicit in the suicide of the central character, Okonkwo. Yet Achebe, who thought the arrival of the British “a gross crime,” still praised the British missionaries for their dedication to the education from which he and many thousands benefitted. He also refused to agree that the Igbo culture of which he was a part was destroyed by the imperialists. A year before his death in 2013, Achebe published a memoir, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, in which he wrote (as a “piece of heresy”) that “the British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care. … British colonies were, more or less, expertly run … one was not consumed by fear of abduction or armed robbery.”

Also cited by Biggar are the Indian nationalist and leader of the Dalits, B.R. Ambedkar, who wrote that “the Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age long tyranny and oppression by the Orthodox Hindus,” and Sun Yat-sen, first leader of the Kuomintang (the Chinese nationalist party), who told students at Hong Kong University that “you and I studied in this English [sic] colony and in an English university and we must learn by English examples. We must carry this English example to every part of China.”

There was, as Achebe wrote, good and bad in being governed by the British. However, he differs from Biggar on this point in an important respect. The formerly colonised who praised the UK did so provisionally: Sun, Ambedkar, and Achebe were writing about the good and decent behaviour of an imperial overlord. Once nationalism became the dominant political response to those rulers, their governing ability, their systems of justice, and the technological and medical superiority from which the colonised benefitted were of less importance than the scandal of keeping increasingly educated native elites out of governance.

In this way, the empire had created its own scourge. In Egypt, for example, a British de facto protectorate rather than a possession, only 24 percent of civil service posts—the only employment for the educated citizen—were open to Egyptians in the early years of the 20th century. Biggar quotes Margery Perham, a doughty traveller in Africa who became an Oxford academic, as writing that, “with [British] standards of efficiency and her sense of obligation to minority groups, British governments wanted to see the transfer of power carried out by gradual, orderly stages … it was the African leaders … who forced the pace.”

Nigel Biggar has stirred up storms in Oxford, Cambridge, and beyond. These could be dismissed with some version of Kissinger’s observation, in a 1997 speech, that the “intensity of academic politics and the bitterness of it is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject they’re discussing.” But in this case (and in many others besides), that would be at once lofty and wrong. Biggar is right to claim, at the beginning of his book, that the stakes in this debate are high.

To settle for a version of empire that depicts a corrupt and arrogant class looting a quarter of the world in a uniquely brutal display of historical oppression is to reduce the liberal democracy it fostered and preserved as mere facades covering violence, corruption, greed, and hypocrisy. Such a distorted reading of history also has deleterious implications for all states who seek to preserve such a system of government. That vices were displayed in the British empire is only to underscore the banal fact that it was a human endeavour. A system that builds in challenges to power at every level (while allowing powers to do their necessary work) and encourages a robust civil society is one of existential value. This is especially true now, when autocrats promise freedom, wealth, and the restoration of national dignity if all power is granted to them.

Yet even if the stakes were low, and this were merely a squabble among scholars for the dominance of one interpretation of history, Colonialism would still be worth the effort. It is patiently argued and carefully balanced yet passionately committed to the production of a narrative which replaces denunciation with evidence and understanding. This evidence is often contradictory, but it speaks to an audience interested in grasping how badly and how cruelly things went wrong all over the vast construction that was the British empire. At the same time, it sheds light on the various ways in which empire improved the lives and wellbeing of the peoples it governed. Finally, it gives the young and ardent examples of how to rid themselves of imperial rule, and find a national purpose of their own—that, too, for good and ill.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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