The Economist: Nigel Biggar Responds

01 April 2023.

By Nigel Biggar in response to The Economist.

Your review of my book, “Colo­ nialism: A Moral Reckoning”, judged it to be “often foolhardy and sometimes just banal” (“The sun never sets”, March 4th). First, you tell us that plenty of people “in Britain’s former colonies have long regarded the British Empire as racist and exploitative, even genocidal”. Sure, but the sub­ jects of British rule didn’t all think the same thing. For example, Chinua Achebe, the African nationalist man of letters, refused to condemn British colonial rule shortly before he died in 2013.

Next, your review was astonished that exhibit A in my case for the growing humanitarianism of the Brit­ ish Empire is “the slave trade”. Of course, my prime exhibit is the fact that Britain was among the first states in the world’s history to abolish the trade and slavery itself. You then empha­ sise the role of slave rebellions in bringing about abolition. I acknowledge that on page 56. But until you can present a cogent argument that the humanitarian revolution in British mores, which gathered steam decades before the 1791 slave­revolt in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), did not play a leading role in securing abolitionist victories in Britain’s Parliament in 1807 and 1833, my case stands.

Correctly, you point out that “in some analyses” Brit­ ain’s subsequent investment in suppressing slavery world­ wide was intended to stop slaveholding economies undercutting British exporters, now reliant on free labour. But human actions usually spring from several motives and sometimes genuinely humani­ tarian motives really do dom­ inate economic ones. You also claim that I argue that the empire was not “wantonly violent”. That is untrue: I admit it was—sometimes.

Finally, you find “lazy and banal” my point that the empire was like any long­ standing state in harbouring evils and injustices. But that was merely the elementary stage in the larger argument, clearly stated in the Conclu­ sion, which you overlooked. That concludes that the British Empire wasn’t “essentially” racist and murderous and that it contained growing humani­ tarian and liberal elements, which found climactic expres­ sion when, between May 1940 and June 1941, the empire stood alone (with Greece) as the only military opposition to the massively murderous racist regime in Nazi Berlin.

Nigel Biggar


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