Reckoning with colonialism
A common feature of many cultural revolutions is the effort to distort or even erase historical truth in the service of ideological goals. Past events, customs, economic systems, and political structures are presented as irredeemably evil. It follows that only radical redress in the present (self-denouncing struggle sessions, reparations, and purges of books, artifacts, and people) offers any possibility of atonement (though rarely redemption). Woe betide those who indicate that history and the human choices that drive it are a little more complicated.
Events like the Shoah are rightly labeled evil on account of their foundational premises and the intrinsic wrongness of any policy aimed at eliminating an entire people. Most historical occurrences, however, are not so easily categorized. Assessing a political, cultural, and economic phenomenon like feudalism or the series of choices that led European statesmen to go to war in 1914 is an even more difficult exercise.
Three things are required if any such analysis is to withstand critical scrutiny. The first is an accurate grasp of the relevant facts. That involves identifying myths that distort the truth of what really happened. Second, those facts that are pivotal to grasping the moral dimension of historical phenomena must be distinguished from those that are largely accidental and incidental. The third is to establish a defensible standard for making moral judgments of historical events, figures, and regimes that avoids the temptation of presentism. Taking these preconditions seriously is central to Oxford Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology Nigel Biggar’s enterprise in his new book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning.
In our time, the very word “colonialism”—specifically, the emergence and spread of European colonial empires from the sixteenth century onward before their dismantling in the twentieth century’s second half—generally functions as a synonym for the worst forms of perfidy and exploitation.
This connotation has been fueled by knowledge of past real injustices associated with these empires. But also at work in our time is contemporary “wokeism”: the ideological conviction that everything, ranging from constitutions to mathematics, is stained by systemic injustices to which people (especially white male people) must be “awoken.”
To propose that the multifaceted figures, events, and institutions associated with the British Empire are more morally complex than is generally supposed is one of the fastest ways to be canceled these days. This proposition, however, is central to Biggar’s Colonialism. Biggar’s account of the genesis of his book, its original commissioning, and the subsequent obstacles it had to overcome before eventually being published underscores how difficult it is today to question any historical narrative proclaimed to be sacrosanct by the perpetually outraged.
Such a thesis is anathema to the “Rhodes Must Fall” types who have tried since 2016 to secure the removal of the statute of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, on account of Rhodes’s alleged racism and his role in the growth of British power in Africa in the late nineteenth century. Certainly, Rhodes was a man of his time. He used expressions that strike us today as patronizing. But Biggar shows that Rhodes was not the racist that today’s activists proclaim him to be. The claims made about Rhodes and his various ventures in Africa turn out to be based on, in Biggar’s words, “unscrupulous indifference to historical truth.” The underlying reason for such lack of interest in facts is that contemporary efforts to vilify the British Empire as evil are really, Biggar states, “about the present, not the past.”
To illustrate his point, Biggar observes that there have been many non-Western empires throughout history. Yet one rarely hears any moral critique of entities like the Aztec empire, a regime that engaged in mass human sacrifice, slavery, and the active oppression of non-Aztecs—so much so that conquistadors like Hernán Cortés found non-Aztecs more than willing to ally themselves with the Spanish invaders against the Aztecs. Only Western empires are subject to substantive criticism. For the point of the exercise, according to Biggar, is to erode “faith in the West,” especially “the Anglo-American liberal order that has prevailed since 1945,” by denigrating it as inherently racist, oppressive, responsible for all the developing world’s problems, etc.
A Complicated Story
Biggar’s book is a moral assessment of the British Empire, not a history. Hence, it does not proceed chronologically. Rather, he addresses particular themes emphasized by historians who are hyper-critical of Western colonialism. These range from questions like slavery and accusations of cultural genocide to claims that the British Empire was built on and sustained by pervasive violence.
In each case, Biggar looks carefully at original sources like diaries, correspondence, and official documents of prime ministers, members of cabinet, colonial governors, soldiers, merchants, and settlers. Dozens of secondary sources, including many authored by scholars deeply hostile to British colonialism, are considered. But Biggar also examines the writings and observations of those who were colonized and who, in many cases, had good reason to resent aspects of British colonialism.
Unsurprisingly, the emerging picture is mixed. Consider British attitudes to the inhabitants of India. Following the shock of the Indian Mutiny of 1857—an event that involved gross violence against British officials, merchants, and their families by mutinous sepoys and equally violent reprisals against those same sepoys and their supporters by British troops—many British civil servants, soldiers, planters, and businessmen who subsequently traveled to India displayed attitudes of racial contempt and superiority to native Indians. Such racist attitudes toward Indians, Biggar notes, persisted for decades among many Britons in India.
At the same time, Biggar shows that some British merchants, soldiers, and colonial administrators were deeply impressed by many features of the cultures they encountered in India. He also illustrates the relative absence of racist mindsets among many such individuals. Some of them went to substantial lengths to preserve the languages, philosophies, and legal codes of various Indian cultures from neglect and forgetfulness. Eighteenth-century British scholars like Sir William Jones effectively saved knowledge of the classical Sanskritic civilization from oblivion, thereby enabling later generation of Indians to take pride in their ancestors’ cultural and legal achievements.
This is just one example of a significant good that might not have been realized without British colonialism. Biggar also notes how the British were appalled by many of the practices they encountered such as female infanticide, child marriage, suttee (the Indian custom of a wife’s immolating herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre), etc., in the countries they came to govern. In some cases, British officials adopted softly-softly approaches, not least because they were wary of directly interfering with native cultures. Over time, however, they brought about the abolition of many such practices—practices that doubtless would horrify us today.
A similar mix of good and evil can be found in the Empire’s economic impact. That most mercantilist of British colonialist outfits—the East India Company—behaved in a highly predatory way throughout India during much of the eighteenth century. This, Biggar notes, proved an economic disaster for places like Bengal, as figures like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith observed at the time. But to contextualize (without excusing) this behavior, Biggar shows that most Indian princes lived just as much off predation on Indian merchants and peasants as EIC officers did.
Or take Britain’s decision to embrace free trade from 1846 onward. Certainly, this rendered many traditional industries in India like spinning and weaving of muslins uncompetitive in the face of efficiently produced imports from Britain. That produced economic hardship for those employed in those industries. The same trade liberalization, however, allowed native businesses to buy and use new British-developed technologies more easily, to build factories that employed ever growing numbers of Indians, and eventually to outcompete English industrial cities like Manchester. Likewise, the opportunities created by free trade incentivized many African merchants to abandon the slave trade for more lucrative alternatives.
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These are just some of the topics Biggar discusses in his exploration of British colonialism’s moral dimension. In his final chapter and epilogue, Biggar seeks to render judgment on the phenomenon as a whole.
The list of negatives that Biggar tallies is formidable: participation in the slave trade; the endemic spread of devastating diseases; unjust displacement of natives by settlers; instances of unjustifiable military aggression and the disproportionate use of force; elements of racist contempt; grave miscarriages of justice, etc. But so too the positives are significant: the role played by British governments, colonial officials, clergy, and the British navy in suppressing the global slave trade; the establishment of the rule of law in much of the world; the ending of rampant intertribal warfare throughout much of Africa; the dissemination of modern medicine and agricultural methods; the spreading of ideas about liberal constitutionalism, and so forth.
Significantly, Biggar’s moral assessment of British colonialism is not based on an attempt to engage in a consequentialist weighing of the various positives and negatives. Trying to reduce varied goods and evils to a single measuring factor, he states, runs into all the well-known methodological problems associated with utilitarianism, which render it incoherent and useless as a moral philosophy. How much racism is balanced out by an imperially imposed peace? As Biggar states, “To ask these questions is immediately to expose their absurdity.”
Instead, Biggar suggests, we should look to the essential values underlying the regime of the British Empire and ask if they were “gravely evil and immoral.” To demonstrate his point, Biggar asks: what made Nazi Germany and its short-lived European empire fundamentally unjust? His answer is that the Third Reich was premised on violent racism and an aggressive ethno-nationalist expansionism “unburdened by moral scruple.” The Shoah was not incidental to National Socialism: it reflected its essence.
By comparison, Biggar maintains, the British Empire cannot be seen as fundamentally evil. Yes, many bad choices were made, deeply mistaken and destructive policies were sometimes adopted, and profoundly objectionable attitudes regularly manifested themselves. But British colonialism was not, Biggar states, “essentially racist or disproportionately violent [or] essentially exploitative.” That is what makes the difference.
History, Truth, and Ideology
Biggar’s moral assessment of British colonialism stands in stark contrast to the views of many contemporary scholars of colonialism. The latter often decline to acknowledge any meaningful distinction between fundamentally unjust regimes like Hitler’s Germany, Lenin and Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or today’s Cuba and North Korea and those many other systems that produce mixtures of good and evil but whose foundations are permeated by essentially sound values. The fact that a regime reflects mixtures of good and evil is not enough to condemn it as evil. If it were, every regime that has ever existed would be classified as evil.
Unlike Nazi Germany, the British Empire was characterized (albeit imperfectly, inconsistently, and occasionally by way of lip service) by growing liberal constitutionalism rather than totalitarianism; an ever-firming rule of law rather than the rule of man; and the magnifying influence of a Christian and humanist belief in human dignity rather than a world divided between übermensch and untermensch. It was the growing salience of these values that not only drove Britain to crush slavery throughout its Empire and beyond in the nineteenth century, but also to employ hundreds of parliamentary debates, committees of inquiry, and royal commissions from the late eighteenth century onward that sought to identify and correct various injustices throughout the Empire. By contrast, National Socialism’s foundational commitments could never lead the Nazi leadership to reassess, reject, or atone for the regime’s racist foundations and genocidal policies. Thanks to its core values, the British Empire had reference points and mechanisms that allowed for self-correction and even some degree of accountability. Nazi Germany did not.
As a moral framework for assessing regimes—whether ancient Greek polis, nineteenth-century colonial empire, or twenty-first-century nation-state—in an imperfect world, Biggar’s approach has much to recommend it. It takes good and evil seriously, avoids the errors of consequentialism, follows principles of good social science in gathering and analyzing evidence, and does not succumb to the fallacy of presentism. This is surely preferable to what Biggar describes as the “revolutionary self-righteousness,” “cavalier treatments of historical evidence,” and reliance on “ideological axioms” that drive much contemporary historical study of colonialism.
To that extent, Biggar’s book is a direct challenge to those many activists and ideologues who are effectively pursuing their own colonization of all intellectual discipline—a quest that is finally about power rather than the desire for truth. Ultimately, this is what is at stake in Biggar’s endeavor, and why his book deserves the attention of anyone who cares about truth rather than ideology.
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