The Petition for Abolishing the Slave-Trade. From Ameilia Opie "The Black Man's Lament; or How to Make Sugar", London, 1826. (Photo by Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The British empire, for good and ill

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning offers the first serious counterblast against the hysterical orthodoxy


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This is an important, timely and brave book. It is the first serious counterblast against the hysterical and ahistorical orthodoxy that has placed a stranglehold on public discourse over the British Empire, and it will prove to be an indispensable handbook in the battles to come.

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, Nigel Biggar (Harper Collins, £25)

It will no doubt be rejected out of hand by those who hold the view that imperialism and its sister “ism”, colonialism, are morally irredeemable and that therefore the sort of exercise undertaken by Biggar is itself morally suspect. Others will see this as yet another attack by reactionary “right-wingers” on what all right-thinking people should think.

The task Biggar has taken on is considerable, given that the vast bulk of the post-colonial conversation, in both academia and the media, seems to hold that as empire must involve the use of military violence and economic rapacity, it must therefore be evil and condemned without trial. There is no “innocent until proven guilty” for the British Empire.

This is the simplistic argument, so compelling in its naivety, offered by the spoonful to our children every day in schools and de rigueur in the academy. Today’s zeitgeist embraces the idea that empire is so self-evidently evil, we must redeem ourselves by means of a national cleansing programme of decolonisation. This includes the repatriation of the empire’s war loot, from the Elgin Marbles to the Benin Bronzes and beyond.

This book is a head-on challenge to those who hold these views to reconsider their perspective, with a reasoned explanation of the British Empire other than from the progressive playbook. Without such a work, we risk damning much of history to a morally inferior place, relative to the exalted ethical world we inhabit.

It is easy to be full of righteous indignation at the horrors of our country’s racist and brutal past, but do we understand the past sufficiently well to pass such judgement? Do we believe that we are morally superior to our forebears? The arrogance — and ignorance — of this assertion needs to be called out.

The book is a careful analysis of empire from an ethical perspective, examining a set of moral questions. This includes whether the British Empire was driven by lust or greed; whether it was racist and condoned, supported or encouraged slavery; whether it was based on the conquest of land; whether it entailed genocide and or economic exploitation; whether its lack of democracy made it illegitimate; and whether it was intrinsically or systemically violent.

Biggar reminds us that British imperialism had no single wellspring

Biggar’s proposition is simple: that we look at Britain’s history without assuming the zero-sum position that imperialism and colonialism were inherently bad, that motives and agency need to be considered and that good did flow from bad, as well as bad from good.

Whether he succeeds depends on the reader’s willingness to appreciate these moral or ethical propositions, and to re-evaluate accordingly. In my view, he has mounted a coolly dispassionate defence of his proposition, challenging the hysteria of those who suggest that the British Empire was the apotheosis of evil. Biggar’s calm dissection of these inflated claims allows us to see that they say much more about the motivations, assumptions and political ideologies of those who hold these views than they do about what history presents to us as the realities of a morally imperfect past.

He reminds us that British imperialism had no single wellspring. Most of us can easily dismiss the notion that it was a product of an aggressive, buccaneering state keen to enrich itself at the expense of peoples less able to defend themselves. Equally, it is untrue that economic motives drove all imperialist or colonial endeavour, or that economics (business, trade and commerce) was the primary force sustaining the colonial regimes that followed.

As Biggar asserts, both imperialism and colonialism were driven from different motivations at different times. Each ran different journeys, with different outcomes depending on circumstances. The assertion that there is a single defining imperative for each instance of imperial initiative or colonial endeavour simply does not accord with the facts.

Whilst other issues played a part, it was social, religious and political motives which drove the colonial endeavour in the New World from the 1620s: security and religion drove the subjugation of Catholic (and therefore Royalist) Ireland in the 1650s; social and administrative factors led to the settlement in Australia from 1788; and social and religious imperatives drove the colonisation of New Zealand in the 1840s.

In circumstances where trade and the security of trade was the primary motive for imperialism — think of Clive in the 1750s, for example — a wide variety of outcomes ensued. Some occurred as a natural consequence of imperialism. In India, Clive’s defeat of the Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in 1757 was in support of a palace coup that put Siraj’s uncle Mir Jafar on the throne of Bengal, thus allowing the East India Company the favoured trading status that Siraj had previously rejected.

This led in time to the Company taking over the administrative functions of the Bengal state (zamindars collected both rents for themselves and taxes for the government). Seeking to protect its new prerogatives, it provided security from both internal (civil disorder and lawlessness) and external threats (the Mahratta raiders, for example). The incremental, almost accidental, accrual of power that began in the early 1600s stepped into colonial administration 150 years later, leading to the transfer of power across a swathe of the sub-continent to the British Crown in 1858.

Biggar’s argument is that, running in parallel with this expansion came a host of other consequences, not all of which can be judged “bad”. We may not like what prompted the colonial enterprise at the outset (not all of which was morally contentious, such as the need to trade), but we cannot deny that good things, as well as bad, followed thereafter.

People in Assam were irritated by the arrival of the British but angered by their departure

Britain was a late entrant to the slave trade, for example, following the pattern of others. Horror ensued, but a great moral and political reversal then took place in Britain — largely a product of the Enlightenment and the “Great Evangelical Awakening” in the late 18th century (think of the Wesley brothers, George Whitefield and John Newton, the ex-slave trader) — which saw the country turn its back on slavery and lead the world for a century and a half, at great financial cost, to seek to suppress it across the globe. Any consideration of Britain’s role in the slave trade must be balanced, Biggar rightly asserts, with considerations of the country’s massive effort to eradicate it.

As he argues, the “basic problem with the anti-colonialist’s equation of British colonialism with slavery, and their consequent demand for cultural ‘decolonisation,’ is that it requires amnesia about everything that has happened since 1787”. It requires us to overlook how widely popular in Britain was the abolitionist cause from the closing decades of the 18th century. The uncomfortable reality for anti-slavery campaigners is that for “the second half of its life, anti-slavery, not slavery, was at the heart of imperial policy”.

Accordingly, this is a helpful and timely contribution to a public conversation about the nature of empire and colonialism that is dominated by many highly-charged assumptions, assertions and correlations (“fascism”, “genocide”, “racism”, “state violence”, “oppression” and others). The book is to be applauded for its careful handling of a range of complex and often emotionally-charged questions.

For my money, much of the current public debate about empire needs to be focused less on the intrinsic morality of what happened (because I am suspicious of the motives of those pressing modern political and ideological interpretations on the past) and more on the quality of governance that was provided across the various imperial projects that made up the experience of empire. It is in this that Biggar excels.

In most cases the quality of civic administration across the empire was exceptional; in a few it was abysmal. I agree with Biggar that a remarkable legacy of the British exercise of empire was to introduce standards of probity in public administration that were unparalleled in the history of imperialism, even if this legacy was tarnished by the horrors of, for instance, Amritsar and the Bengal famine. India, along with most other parts of the empire, received its independence as a “going concern” from its imperial parent in 1947.

One measure of its success is the remarkable extent to which India retained the civic structures it inherited. It is fascinating to see how the people of the Naga Hills in Assam were irritated by the arrival of the British in the 1870s (because they inhibited the traditional culture of inter-tribal warfare and headhunting) but angered by their departure in 1947. That rancour about Britain leaving exists to this day. The history of colonialism and imperialism is complicated.

Biggar has challenged all of us to recognise that motives, context and agency are crucial if we are to both understand the past and evaluate the present. In particular, his book challenges the motives of those who seek to destroy Britain’s faith in itself by asserting dogmatically that its past is nothing to be proud of, and that we have no right to assert moral virtue as a nation because of our past. His book will set the cat among the pigeons, but only if the pigeons are prepared to have their orthodoxy challenged.

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