Peter Shawn Taylor: Colonialism contained ‘good things as well as bad.’ Why can’t we just accept that?

3 May 2023. By Peter Shawn Taylor for the National Post.

Nigel Biggar’s new moral report card on the British Empire argues it’s wrong to dwell on its failures without recognizing its successes.

Re-enactment participants dressed as early 19th-century British soldiers lower the Union Jack in a file photo from Fanshawe Pioneer Village in London, Ont. Photo by Craig Glover / Postmedia News.

Shortly before he died in 2013, Chinua Achebe — often considered Africa’s greatest novelist — was asked if his view of colonialism had changed in the half-century since he wrote Things Fall Apart, his famous first novel critical of British rule in his homeland of Nigeria. “The legacy of colonialism is not a simple one,” he explained to the interviewer, “but one of great complexity with contradictions — good things as well as bad.”

Today, Achebe’s regard for historical complexity seems like outright heresy. Where once nuance was allowed, over the past decade colonialism has become universally synonymous with racism, violence and exploitation. As such, all vestiges of it must be removed from sight. Nowhere has this Manichean perspective taken root with as much conviction as in Canada, with governments, universities and museums now racing to “decolonize” their institutions as quickly as possible. Statues must come down. Exhibits closed. Names changed. Narratives rewritten. Our new national story is that nothing good ever came from colonialism.

Nigel Biggar begs to differ.

Biggar is Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, and director of the school’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. His new book “Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning” seeks to recalibrate public opinion of colonialism by asking readers to consider both the good and bad aspects of the British Empire’s legacy and to come to a conclusion about its overall moral content. It’s an effort that set off heated debate when the book was released in Britain earlier this year. Biggar’s many critics declared the very notion that an empire might have something positive to recommend it to be preposterous. With his book tackling a generous supply of Canadian colonial controversies, including residential schools, our status as a settler nation and the legacy of Canada’s much-cancelled first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, it seems reasonable to expect a similar reaction as it hits North American book shelves this week.

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