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A Mixture of Pride and Shame

The left’s refusal to frame the British Empire as anything but a force for pure evil makes for effective culture-war politics. But it also makes for bad history.

· 10 min read
A Mixture of Pride and Shame
A painting produced by an unknown Indian artist for the East India Company, c. 1760. It is believed that the centred figure is William Fullerton of Rosemount, a Scottish surgeon who served in Bengal and Bihar. Public Domain.

It was December 2017, and my wife and I were at Heathrow airport, waiting to board a flight to Germany. Just before setting off for the departure gate, I could not resist checking my email one last time. My attention sharpened when I saw a message in my inbox from the University of Oxford’s Public Affairs Directorate. What I found was a notification that my “Ethics and Empire” project, organized under the auspices of Oxford’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics & Public Life, had become the target of an online denunciation by a group of students; followed by reassurance from the university that it had risen to defend my right to run such a thing.

So began a weeks-long public row that raged over the project, which had “gathered colleagues from Classics, Oriental Studies, History, Political Thought, and Theology in a series of annual workshops to measure apologias and critiques of empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the globe.” Four days after I flew, the eminent imperial historian who had conceived the project with me abruptly resigned. Within a week of the first online denunciation, two further ones appeared, this time manned by professional academics, the first comprising 58 colleagues at Oxford, the second, about 200 academics from around the world. For over a fortnight, my name was in the press every day.

What had I done to deserve all this unexpected attention? Three things. In late 2015 and early 2016, I had offered a partial defence of the late-19th-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford. Then, in late November 2017, I published a column in the Times, in which I referred approvingly to Bruce Gilley’s controversial article The Case for Colonialism, and argued that the British (along with Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders) have reason to feel pride as well as shame about their imperial past. Note: pride, as well as shame. And a few days later, third, I finally got around to publishing an online account of the “Ethics and Empire” project, whose first conference had in fact been held the previous July.

Contrary to what the critics seemed to think, the Ethics and Empire project is not designed to defend the British Empire, or even empire in general. Rather, it aims to select and analyse evaluations of empire from ancient China to the modern period, in order to understand and reflect on the ethical terms in which empires have been viewed historically. A classic instance of such an evaluation is St Augustine’s The City of God, the early-fifth-century AD defence of Christianity, which involves a generally critical reading of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, Ethics and Empire was conceived with awareness that the imperial form of political organisation was common across the world and throughout history until 1945; and so does not assume that empire is always and everywhere wicked; and does assume that the history of empires should inform—positively, as well as negatively—the foreign policy of Western states today.

A Wikimedia Commons map indicating the territories that were once part of the British Empire. 

Thus did I stumble, blindly, into the Imperial History Wars. Had I been a professional historian, I would have known what to expect, but being a mere ethicist, I did not. Still, naivety has its advantages, bringing fresh eyes to see sharply what weary ones have learned to live with.

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