The Upsides of Empire

REVIEW: ‘Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning’ by Nigel Biggar

Police guard a statue of Winston Churchill during a June 2020 trans rights protest in London / Getty Images
August 6, 2023

Never rile a Regius professor of theology. That is one takeaway from this magnificent and timely book. Nigel Biggar was a Regius professor and an expert in ethics at Oxford University when that university went through one of the odd periods of iconoclasm that has distinguished the past decade. Even before America started tearing down its statues in earnest, students at Oxford were asserting that a statue of Cecil Rhodes must come down from its perch on Oxford's High Street, at the side of the college which he once generously endowed.

The students were led by a group of South Africans, the leader of whom was only at Oxford because he was there on a Rhodes scholarship. Yet back home in South Africa, a "Rhodes must fall" campaign had already been underway and proved successful at the University of Cape Town—a university built on land given by Rhodes. This act of "decolonization" was led by students and others who decided to revise the reputation of the great 19th-century colonialist in the most reductive and hostile light. In 2015 his statue was duly removed.

Fresh from this success, the South African students at Oxford hoped to build political careers for themselves back home by repeating the trick. They ran very far very fast, getting a considerable amount of support from the student body. Suddenly everybody in Oxford had a view of Cecil Rhodes, and almost entirely negative. One reason for that was doubtless the fact that anti-Rhodes campaigners passed around leaflets and other literature in which they made up quotes that Rhodes had not said, and invented the most racial and violent statements which they then put in his mouth. Most students did not think to challenge this, and the hyper-specialization that exists in U.K., as in U.S., campuses meant that there were few informed adults around to push back.

A rare adult who did emerge was the Regius professor at Christchurch College, who started off (as any scholar might) by reading the entry for Rhodes in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Even from doing that much, he realized that something was amiss in the debate and so he became one of the very few figures to put his head above the parapet. He participated in debates and challenged the then-prevailing mood.

The lesson clearly taught him something, as it did a number of others. One such thing was the realization that the whole issue of empire and colonialism was a confused moral mess. The era of colonialism had, of course, long since given way to the post-colonialists. And these figures had been unopposed for at least a couple of generations. As a result, by the 2010s the ability to see the matter in the round seemed to have disappeared entirely. Shrill voices from the academic and non-academic worlds were insisting that colonialism was genocide or that the British Empire stood on a moral level with Nazi Germany (the go-to moral equivalence for everybody who knows no other history).

As a result, Biggar thought that it would be a good idea to set up a course with some colleagues at Oxford University looking into the ethics of empire. Contra his critics, he did not plan to say "rah-rah the empire," but rather to look into how we should think about this part of European history. What were the positives of colonialism, what were the negatives, and how might we weigh these two against each other? Is it even possible to do so?

Alas, the course did not begin because the academic who Biggar was meant to lead it with (a historian) dropped out under pressure. Meantime hundreds of academics signed multiple petitions condemning the idea of even starting such a course. Biggar was defamed by colleagues, smeared online and off. All of which begged many questions, but one in particular: If you cannot weigh up a complex question of history and ethics at Oxford University, where should it be done? At a lesser university? On Twitter? Not at all?

All of this was clearly a crucible of fire for Biggar himself, who gained a deserved prominence in the media. As the public were able to see for themselves, Biggar is not some fire-breathing neo-colonialist (if such a thing even exists). He is a deeply thoughtful, wise, and kindly man who is genuinely interested in good-faith arguments, academic inquiry, truth, and the free exchange of knowledge and ideas.

Although Biggar himself has been put through a lot, the reading public are lucky to have the benefit of the resulting book. Clearly, the resistance Biggar came up against as well as the willful lying, misleading, and hyperbole of his critics spurred him to keep looking ever deeper into colonialism. The result is not a history of colonialism—though it certainly acts as a primer for that along the way. It is really a book about colonialism in the round. How are we to think about it today? As he says, this is not a history of the British Empire, but "a moral assessment of it."

Biggar starts his book by laying out the basics. Any analysis of empire (and we are principally talking about the British Empire here, though other empires across history inevitably appear along the way) must be able to weigh up the good and the bad. Some countries have thrived after the colonialists left (Singapore), others have not (Zimbabwe). The British left India with the best civil service in the world, one of the greatest transportation systems, and much more. How are we to weigh this up against the downsides of British presence?

As Biggar says in his introduction, and as he has found out first-hand, these are not abstract questions or mere questions of historical accuracy. They weigh heavily on the nation's image of itself today. As he writes, getting this history right matters because it affects "the self-perception and self-confidence of the British today, and the way they conduct themselves in the world tomorrow."

Each of the hottest of hot-button issues is evaluated in turn. There is the question of slavery and anti-slavery in the British Empire. Yes, Britain was involved in the slave trade, as was most of the rest of the world for most of recorded history. But from the early 19th century, the British Empire was unique not just in abolishing the slave trade in its own territories but in using its naval supremacy to stamp the trade out across the high seas at great cost of blood and treasure.

Biggar addresses the issues of human equality, "cultural superiority," and "racism." He looks at the "Conquest" of lands and settlers on it, at cultural assimilation, and accusations of "genocide." And then there are the issues of free trade, investment, and "exploitation," government, legitimacy, and nationalism, and finally the issue of "justified force and ‘pervasive violence.’" Finally, in the end, Biggar provides a masterclass in attempting to sum up what attitude we might have toward all of this and what Britain might think about it all going into the future.

As a previous reviewer, Niall Ferguson, has said, the result is a book that "simply cannot be ignored by anyone who wishes to hold a view on the subject." After this book, there will be scholars and pseudo-scholars who will try to continue their "post-colonial" studies while ignoring this book, but their own pursuits will become increasingly meaningless.

For the deep shades of black that colonialism has been painted in during recent years are here shown to be at least as ludicrous as any whitewashing of the crimes of empire that may have gone on in centuries past (though even this is shown to be much exaggerated by modern campaigners). For example, those demagogues and others who insist that the empire was purely a history of slavery and oppression must find some way to disappear the simple facts of how Britain abolished slavery and against what opposition.

Shortly before his death in 1865, Lord Palmerston (two-time prime minister) said that the achievement of his in office which he looked back on "with the greatest and purest pleasure was forcing the Brazilians to give up their slave trade." It had not been easy. After strong-arming the Brazilians, the British attacked Lagos to try to stamp out their slaving facilities. When an attempt was made to revive the trade, the British annexed Lagos as a colony.

For of course it is uncomfortable to remember this today, black Africans were among the last people in the world who wanted to give up slaving. Millions of black Africans remain in slavery in Africa to this day. It is worth remembering the detail, as Biggar does here. I wonder how many professors of post-colonial studies even know of the enormous pressure the British brought to bear on the Sultanate of Zanzibar to stop the vast Great Lakes slave trade? As Biggar writes, "Treaties were signed banning trade in slaves to the Americas in 1822 and to the more important Persian Gulf in 1845. In 1873 the sultan gave way when Sir Bartle Frere, governor of Bombay and a resolute opponent of the East African slave trade, threatened a naval blockade unless the export of slaves from the African mainland ceased altogether and the slave market was shut down once and for all."

Everywhere you look Biggar provides a judicious, informed, and fair-minded appraisal, far from the madding simplicities of the current age. On the issue of racism in the empire he sums up, "The British Empire did contain some appalling racial prejudice, but not only that. It also contained respect, admiration and genuine, well-informed costly benevolence. Indeed, from the opening of the 1800s until its end, the empire's policies towards slaves and native peoples were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of the members of all the races. It cannot fairly be said, therefore, that the empire was centrally, essentially racist."

These are thorny issues, and there has been a prevailing wind in recent decades in Britain as across the rest of the anglophone world to pretend that these are issues of great simplicity. Specifically, there seems to have been a movement underway to imply firstly that the history of empire is solely the story of European empires, that the history of slavery is solely a history of European and North American slavery, and finally that all of these added together make the Western democracies not just as bad as anybody else in the world but actively worse.

This trick could only be pulled off by doing two things simultaneously. The first is consistently leaning on and repeating the worst aspects of empire. There is a reason why almost any educated person knows the name of Amritsar. And that is because of the massacre of hundreds of people by British troops there in 1919. An event that Winston Churchill denounced along with his parliamentary colleagues in Westminster as a "monstrous day" and one of the darkest days in the history of the empire. Of course, Amritsar is known about because it happened in the British Empire—because it was the exception, not the rule. But I wonder how many people who deplore the 1919 massacre even know of the far larger massacre at the same site in 1984 when Indira Gandhi sent the army in to quell similar protests. In other words, the simplicities of recent years are only possible by accentuating the worst moments of the British Empire whilst being completely ignorant of the actions of the rest of the world then, before, or after.

Six months before his death in 2013, Chinua Achebe—most famously the author of Things Fall Apart—was asked his opinions on colonialism. He told the Iranian journalist who was interviewing him, "The legacy of colonialism is not a simple one but one of great complexity, with contradictions—good things as well as bad." Biggar's book provides precisely this context, packed full of facts, filled with wisdom and empathy for all. It is a book which ought to, and I expect will, change the current debate.

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning
by Nigel Biggar
William Collins, 480 pp., $34.99

Douglas Murray is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, a columnist at the New York Post, and author most recently of The War on the West.