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Colonialism - A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar

Book Review by Anthony Lewis

This is an uncompromising book by the Oxford Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology about the complexity of empire, that contests many of the historic inaccuracies promoted by ‘anti-colonialists’. Biggar lays out the moral ledger and urges the reader to make up their own mind based on the evidence. As Niall Ferguson comments on the front cover of the book - ‘this book cannot be ignored by anyone who wishes to hold a view on the subject’.

The author, Professor Nigel Biggar, from the outset makes clear that his motivation for writing this thoroughly researched ‘moral ledger’ of the British Empire is not driven by a patriotic wish for its return. He emphasises in his introduction and concluding chapters that ‘Britain's imperial moment has passed - once and for all for good and ill’. The book is full of facts and references and half the book is taken up with footnotes. It does not pull any punches on the evils committed by the British Empire but neither does it ignore the benefits. For example the export of enlightenment liberal values around the world and the ending of the global slave trade. His overall rather obvious conclusion is that the British Empire like all imperial ventures in history was ‘morally complicated and ambiguous’.

Biggar argues very powerfully in the last two chapters that ‘we must not allow the canker of imaginary guilt to erode the important ideals of the liberal humanitarian enlightenment that are important pillars of the present liberal international order’ which include the belief that 'all human beings are basically equal’. A sentiment most humanists would certainly agree with. This book he makes very clear is a deliberate and robust counter to ‘the moral-political dogmatism of the anti-colonists …. and is a defence of evidence based history and a riposte to the pseudo scientific discourse of decolonisation studies which are disconcertingly absent of evidence, context and historic explanation… which selectively treats historic data as political ammunition going well beyond the evidence’. It is not surprising then that some tried to stop his book being published.

The British Empire in 1930

Biggar demonstrates that the British Empire was not a single project with a singular driving ideology. He splits the British Imperialism into two 150 year phases. For the first 150 years British imperialism was driven by economic self interest, promoting trade and securing strategic national interests. The British Empire originated during the Tudor period in the English desire for colonies, partly as a defence against Catholic Spain and later France. In contrast areas such as India were never settled but were governed through Treaties and commercial contracts between the East India Company and the existing Indian authorities. Given the vast distances and slow communications the British Empire was highly decentralised and many colonies were self governing. Each had its own set up reflecting the local indigenous structures and culture. Biggar concludes that overall this early British Empire was not ‘essentially racist, exploitative or wantonly violent’ but was a product of its time. He argues that humans have always been ‘morally learning’ and that ‘some truths that are obvious to us now were just not obvious to our ancestors.’ He makes the obvious point that assessing historic behaviour through the lens of modern moral sensibilities is both condescending and indiscriminate.

Britain’s democracy and society progressed enormously during the second 150 year phase of the empire from 1800 onwards. This phase was dominated by the industrial revolution, social modernisation and the spread of enlightenment values. Biggar argues that these liberal democratic ideals increasingly drove policy and decision making across the British Empire. Biggar points out that slavery had existed throughout history and is rightly considered morally repugnant. However the growth of liberal sentiments on the universal equality of all humanity together with what Biggar calls 'Christian humanitarianism' resulted in the UK 1807 Slave Trade Act. This led directly to the sustained use of the Royal Navy to end the Atlantic slave trade by force within 60 years, at a cost to the UK which has been estimated as 1.8% of GDP. It is estimated that Europeans moved 11m Africans into slavery westwards to the ‘New World’ before the British closed it down. Over the centuries, some 17 million Africans were sold eastwards into slavery into the Ottoman, Persian and other Middle Eastern empires and countries. But this overland slave trade was only brought to a complete end by the League of Nations in the 1920s following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Biggar leaves it up to the reader to decide how much credit the British Empire should be given on any ‘moral ledger’ for bringing the global slave trend to an end.

The Siege of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny 1857

Throughout the book, Biggar clearly lays out the evidence for the evils committed by the various British administrations. Some of it is a difficult, brutal read. Biggar particularly picks out the First Opium War 1839-42 in China as morally reprehensible and highlights the ‘disproportionate and indiscriminate use of violence’ during the Indian Mutiny 1857, the use of camps of refugees’ during the Boer War, the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 and the Mau Mau uprising during the Kenya Emergency in 1950s. He points out that in ‘all of these cases the imperial and colonial governments repudiated the abuse and resolved to stop it'. Biggar concludes that ‘all are lamentable and merit moral condemnation' but none amount to genocide as there is nothing ‘morally equivalent to Nazi concentration camps or the Soviet Gulags’ as the atrocities were not on the same scale nor part of an explicit systemic policy or overarching ideology.

As well as the evils perpetrated Biggar also examines the credit side of the moral balance sheet. He describes how the British Empire helped spread the ideals and values of the liberal enlightenment driving global economic development, technological innovation, rule of law, constitutional government, universal education and universities, abolition of global slavery, improvements in agriculture and health, literacy and women’s emancipation. He controversially points out that all cultures are not equal and are always constantly changing. He describes how eradicating abhorrent cultural practices such as sati, the caste system, female genital mutilation and female infanticide were all deliberate imperial policy objectives. The fact that some of these unfortunate cultural practices continue today demonstrates perhaps the limits to imperial power?

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