In most reaches of contemporary academic discourse—not least in Theology, Religious Studies, Political Theory, Cultural Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies—the topic of ethics and empire raises no questions to which widely accepted answers are not immediately to hand. By definition, ‘empire’ is imperialist; imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical. Nothing of interest remains to be explored.
This project begs to differ. First, it observes that, as an historical phenomenon as distinct from an ideological construct, ‘empire’ has meant all manner of ethical thing. In the British case, on the one hand, it presided over the ‘genocide’ of Tasmanian aboriginals in the early 1800s, the Irish Famine in 1845-52, and the massacre of unarmed civilians at Amritsar in 1919. On the other hand, it suppressed the Atlantic and African slave-trades after 1807, granted black Africans the vote in Cape Colony seventeen years before the United States granted it to African Americans, and (apart from Greece) offered the only centre of armed resistance to European fascism between May 1940 and June 1941.
Second, three features of contemporary international and national experience raise ethical questions of urgent public importance, which the history of empire can illuminate.
- Recent interventions by Western powers in the affairs of other sovereign states, ostensibly to replace despotic regimes with constitutional and democratic polities, have been highly controversial, attracting the charge of ‘liberal imperialism’. These controversies have reprised many of the issues raised by, say, British imperial activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These include the moral responsibility of global powers to defend and promote ‘humane’ values and to maintain or impose peace in faraway parts of the world , the right of peoples to determine their own political life, and the contradictory combination of democratic demand to ‘do something’ about the plight of oppressed peoples with democratic reluctance to pay the necessary costs. Contemporary discussion is shaped, and sometimes distorted, by assumptions about ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’.
- Western liberal states, not least in Europe, continue to grapple with social, legal, and political tensions generated by the co-existence in a single polity of significantly different cultures. On the one hand policies of assimilation and integration have been denounced as racist and oppressive, while on the other hand laissez-faire, multicultural tolerance stands accused of presiding over de facto segregation, the violation of the rights of women, and the growth of jihadism. Multinational and multicultural empires faced the same problems, attracted the same criticisms, and developed a variety of policies in response. Reflection on their experience might augment current wisdom.
- Whether the First Nations in Canada, the Caricom [Slavery] Reparations Commission, those demanding the redistribution of land in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Greeks lobbying for the return of the Elgin Marbles, or Oxford students chanting ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, (some of) the descendants of the subjects of empire are now claiming restitution or compensation for alleged imperial crimes. This raises complicated questions of rights and responsibility: Do aboriginal peoples have a right to cultural immunity from ‘modernity’ (Canada), or do they have a right to full participation in ‘modernity’ (South Africa)? If contemporary British Government is responsible for the effects of slavery almost two centuries after its abolition, how is that responsibility to be shared with the descendants of the Africans who profited from selling their own people to the slave-traders?