‘Colonialism’ Review: Empire Without Apology

01 September 2023.

Tunku Varadarajan reviews Colonialism for the Wall Street Journal.

There is acute subversive delight in reading Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, by Nigel Biggar, emeritus professor of theology at Oxford. The book’s manuscript was rejected in March 2021 by Bloomsbury, the British publishing house that commissioned it, on the spineless ground that “public opinion” (in the words of Bloomsbury’s top brass) was “not currently favourable” to Mr. Biggar’s arguments. When the author asked what was wrong with his book—for it was an editor at Bloomsbury, aware of its thesis, who’d encouraged the writing of it—he received no answer, except that the book’s publication was being canceled. This being Britain, however—where minds do not yet march entirely in lockstep—editorial cowardice didn’t prevail. Another publisher, William Collins, stepped into the breach and took the book to market.

And so a valuable polemic was rescued from crib-death at the hands of our progressive arbiters of taste and thought—people for whom the questions raised by Mr. Biggar are too awkward, too incorrect to allow expression in print. His book focuses on British colonialism and is, he writes, “not a history of the British Empire but a moral assessment of it.”

Mr. Biggar’s intellectual opponents are the anticolonialists who teem in Western academe, “self-appointed spokespeople for non-white minorities” who insist that “systemic racism” is “nourished by a persistent colonial mentality.” Their aim, he says, is to corrode faith in Western civilization by denigrating its historical record. They place particular emphasis on slavery, which for them epitomizes the West’s “essential, oppressive, racist white supremacism.”

If Mr. Biggar’s book has a flaw, it is not anti-anticolonialism. It is that some of his accounts of British imperial history have an overly potted quality, the result, no doubt, of his having to synthesize vast quantities of secondary literature. After all, he isn’t a historian (as he reminds us) but an Anglican theologian and ethicist. But his background in moral reasoning turns out to be an asset, bringing fresh perspective to a subject that has become morally Manichaean and intellectually hackneyed and one-sided.

With ethical accounting that is admirable and meticulous, he tallies the evils of British colonialism, “not only culpable wrongdoing or injustice, but also unintended harms.” These include “brutal” slavery; the spread of killer disease; the “unjust displacement” of natives by settlers; instances of unjustifiable military aggression (such as the First Opium War, 1839-42, when the British Empire waged war on China’s Qing Dynasty); the disproportionate use of force (the massacre in Amritsar, in India, in 1919); and the failure to admit “native talent” quickly enough into the upper reaches of colonial administration.

‘A Friendly Power in Egypt,’ an illustration in ‘Cassell’s Illustrated History of England’ (1906) after a painting by W.C. Horsley. PHOTO: CLASSIC IMAGE/ALAMY

What will grate with the throng for whom anticolonialism is a stock-in-trade is Mr. Biggar’s obdurate—and eloquent—insistence that there is also a hefty credit side. This can be summed up as follows: the creation of a “worldwide free market” that gave native producers and entrepreneurs opportunities that were previously absent; the establishment of peace by imposing curbs on warring peoples, some of whom would have wiped their opponents out; the setting up of a civil service and judges who were “extraordinarily incorrupt” (especially when compared with their postcolonial successors); the laying down of essential infrastructure (yes, the railways: the British laid down more track in India than all other European colonialists did in their empires); the dissemination of modern science and medicine; and the introduction of social reforms that raised living standards and relieved the plight of the most downtrodden. 

As for slavery, in the pursuit of which Britain—like every other slave-trading nation of the time—often acted with great cruelty, Mr. Biggar asks us to remember this: For the second half of its empire’s existence, “anti-slavery, not slavery, was at the heart of imperial policy”—that’s 150 years, he suggests, of abolitionist “imperial penance.” He also notes that slavery was neither invented by, nor the exclusive preserve of, Western imperialists. Contrary to Edward Said’s “Orientalism” (1978), many aspects of native cultures (especially Hindu) were “rescued from oblivion, not obliterated, by British Orientalists.” 

There is also the truth, uncomfortable to many today, that the colonized often bought into the mission of the colonizers. Mr. Biggar quotes Tirthankar Roy, an Indian history professor at the London School of Economics, who has written that the East India Co. “came to rule India because many Indians wanted it to rule India.” Mr. Biggar also quotes Manmohan Singh, a former prime minister of India, who said at Oxford in 2005 when being conferred with an honorary degree that the Indian constitution “remains a testimony to the enduring interplay between what is essentially Indian and what is very British in our intellectual heritage.”

Mr. Biggar, God bless him, has a Cordelia-like inability to say what a powerful audience craves—in his case, the academic establishment, particularly departments of postcolonial studies. To him, the truth about empire is “morally complicated and ambiguous.” He confronts mortarboard-leftists with questions that they are all too ready to evade: Are colonialism and slavery really essentially the same thing? Was the British Empire really a theater of nonstop racism? Was it driven fundamentally by material greed and economic exploitation, or were there also other, much less base, motivations?

No apologist for imperialism, Mr. Biggar is at pains to stress that the British Empire “did good as well as evil.” But he goes beyond that limited claim. Did the British Empire, he asks, “do moregood than evil?” This is the kind of query that elicits gasps in classrooms today. The very raising of such a question, one that accepts the possibility that empire wasn’t irredeemably bad, is offensive to a majority of Mr. Biggar’s colleagues. For his part, Mr. Biggar accuses his detractors of an “unscrupulous indifference to historical truth.”

Passions from the American Black Lives Matter movement had come to infiltrate British political discourse when Mr. Biggar was finishing his manuscript. He was already ripe for anathema, having courted controversy in the years before by coming to the defense of Cecil Rhodes. In a column in the Times of London, he argued that a statue of the late-19th-century imperialist should not be removed from its place on Oxford High Street.

Mr. Biggar had also blotted his copybook with the bien-pensant herd by running an academic project at Oxford called “Ethics and Empire.” It embraced the fact that the imperial form of political organization had been the world’s default mode until 1945 but rejected the assumption that “empire is always and everywhere wicked.” The project was denounced by students at Oxford, and hundreds of academics worldwide were exhorted to silence him, Mr. Biggar writes, by Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge University professor of postcolonial studies. On learning of the project, she tweeted a call to arms: “OMG. This is serious s—. . . . We need to SHUT THIS DOWN.”

Although Mr. Biggar’s book is not a work of imperial nostalgia—indeed, far from it—critics will caricature it as a whitewash of colonialism. He has been pilloried for the book but appears to be blessed with skin that is as thick as his mind is clear. Not for him the postcolonial self-flagellation and -censorship that would have modern Britons abase themselves to atone for the sins of their forefathers. For Britain to remain a confident pillar of the liberal international order, it must be proud of its own past, not paralyzed by it.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

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