Colonialism by Nigel Biggar: defending the British empire, this book is spoiling for a fight

‘Decolonialism’ misrepresents history, the Oxford professor argues in a book that’s perfect ammunition for dinner-table debates

Review in The Telegraph by Tim Stanley. 26 January 2023.

Prof Nigel Biggar, the Oxford ethicist, has written thebook on the morality of the British Empire, a kind of Encyclopaedia Pax Britannica. It is not, he insists, a defence of the good old days but rather a response to the ideological self-certainty of “decolonialism”, which sows doubt in the present order by delegitimising the past. By so doing, he argues, it gets both history and ethics wrong.

Decolonialists insist the empire was an exploitative, racist project akin to the Third Reich. Biggar says it had “no essential motivation”. Merchant adventurers struck out; companies followed; the government stepped in to formalise and bring order, cooking up a moral purpose to justify what was already under way. Once empire began, retreat was considered impossible, though many a Briton wondered if it was right or affordable.

It could be racist; it also “contained respect, admiration, and genuine, well-informed, costly benevolence.” Cecil Rhodes, whom Biggar recently gained an unwanted level of fame by defending, apparently regarded Englishman and African as essentially the same, different only by degree of civilisation – and was this such a surprising assessment given the obvious technological advancement of the West? The arrival of Christianity eroded local cultures, for sure, but it also meant a war on widow burning in India or Female Genital Mutilation in Africa.

Nigel Biggar
CREDIT: Tom Pilston/William Collins

Our ancestors plundered, true, but they also laid railways and built schools. “In Kenya annual infant mortality among Africans declined from 300-500 deaths per thousand live births in the 1920s to 145 in the 1950s,” Biggar notes. In Uganda and the Gold Coast it roughly halved. An Egyptian historian wrote, in 1968, that the British management brought “low taxation, efficient fiscal administration… The real per capita income during the first decade of [the 20th] century was higher than at any time in modern Egyptian history, with the possible exception of the early 1920s.”

Order was maintained by force. In the wake of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, British soldiers compelled rebels to “lick the blood” from the floor, and sewed Muslims into pig skins before hanging them. But “the heart of the Raj actually repudiated” the killing, and it provoked “a lot of self-criticism at home.” Indeed, decolonisation’s focus on the evils of empire tends to omit from the record those Britons who opposed it, painting a two-dimensional picture of our historical character. Frederick Douglass, the black American reformer, arrived in England in 1845 and found “in every man a recognition of my manhood”, lacking the hatred he had to contend with back home. The campaign for the abolition of slavery was “widely popular”.

How one views the British empire perhaps hinges on its relationship to slavery. You can lament that it profited from it or you can celebrate the fact that it abolished it (at significant cost). The fully moral being, Biggar suggests, is capable of both, acknowledging the culture or limited choices of our ancestors. It is distasteful, for example, that slave-owners were compensated for the loss of their “property” – but contemporary reformers found it as depressing as we do, judging that a little compromise was necessary to avoid coercion and get a good thing done.

Decolonisers emphasise the role of slavery in the economy of early empire yet the later empire – the episode that looms largest in the imagination, when we were scrambling for Africa and ruling the waves – was motivated in part by the effort to eradicate the trade: “It compelled General Charles Gordon into the Sudan… It found expression in the principles of the Imperial British East Africa Company.” In Malaysia and Indonesia, Sir Stamford Raffles “abolished the importation of slaves” and emancipated them at Bencoolen, establishing a school for their children. The fact that some of this was not known to me suggests that far from British culture brainwashing us to be mini-imperialists, things have swung the other way. There is much that is benign about our civilisation that has been forgotten.

Biggar’s book is a thoughtful, compelling text that one can imagine readers plundering for facts and quotes to deploy in dinner-table debate. One can also see the criticisms a mile off.

The author might insist he is not an empire fan, but by marshalling so much evidence in its mitigation, the text inevitably reads as an apologia. At the same time, the tone is so dispassionate as to be Vulcan. “Whatever one thinks of ‘blowing from a gun’,” he writes of that hideous execution method used by the British in India, “it was not indiscriminate, insofar as the victim had been judged guilty of some crime.” I’d still prefer a slap on the wrist.

Biggar has attracted sympathy as a gentle academic who stumbled into the culture wars as if it were a patch of nettles, yet this book is clearly provocative. Imperialism and colonialism were distinct things, he writes in the introduction, and he prefers to avoid the terms because they do no justice to the amorphous character of this complex phenomenon – but then what does he call his book? Colonialism! The professor is spoiling for a fight, and I fear he’s going to get one.

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