Was the British empire evil?

David Martin Jones reviews Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar

20th June 2023
David Martin Jones

Biggar’s seminal study reveals the philistinism of fashionable western self-loathing, argues David Martin Jones.

The British empire went through numerous permutations between 1600-1960 yet the conventional view, dominant in universities and the mainstream media, is that it was throughout a morally deplorable exercise in colonialism, racism, brutal exploitation and violence. This view of the empire is not merely an act of historical revisionism, it also legitimates a progressive assault on British institutions in the present. It has been disseminated to Anglosphere states like Australia, New Zealand and Canada where it demands the re-education of the former empire’s deluded white subjects who are ipso facto permeated by both conscious and unconscious racism as a consequence of their benighted imperial past.

As Nigel Biggar argues in his latest book, Colonialism a Moral Reckoning, if the arguments made in the name of a decolonizing, anti-colonialist project have a valid basis in historical fact then a moral reckoning is long overdue. But is the now dominant view of colonialism based on fact or fiction?

Biggar considers the history of the empire through careful examination of hard moral cases in order to answer serious accusations made against the ‘colonial project’. These are that the empire was:

  • driven by greed and the lust to dominate
  • ‘equivalent to slavery’ (even after the UK parliament abolished slavery in 1807)
  • essentially racist
  • pervasively violent, addicted to state terror and guilty of genocide
  • economically exploitative, based on the theft of land
  • undemocratic and therefore illegitimate.

Biggar deals with each of these charges in a measured way that makes a notable contrast to the shrill rhetoric of the post-colonial discourse theorists he has to address. In particular, he scrupulously examines cases of historical abuse and arrives at informed judgments about what actually happened, the context of the claim and the outcome.

Biggar recognizes Britain’s role in the Atlantic slave trade to be a ‘morally repugnant’ and that, at its height in the eighteenth century, it furnished a degree of dubious wealth for the evolving colonial power’s industrializing economy. Yet, as Biggar argues and as recent studies of the UK’s industrial take off after 1760 demonstrate, the ill-gotten gains of the slave trade played comparatively little role in Britain’s industrialization. Other factors, like the emergence of a stock market, country banks and the development of canals, together with a political climate that facilitated an entrepreneurial spirit, played a far more significant role in forging modernity. Moreover, the UK not only abolished the slave trade in 1838, but, under the pressure of moral argument, it also devoted its powerful naval resources to abolishing the trade in Africa and the Mediterranean over the course of the long nineteenth century.

Biggar also contends that British rule in India, initially under the auspices of the East India Company (EIC) from the 1750s and direct colonial rule after 1857, was far from the rapacious affair that Whigs at the time (Burke springs to mind) or later historians, like Theodore Dalrymple assert. EIC officials like Ernest ‘Oriental’ Jones and Warren Hastings showed a profound interest in Hindu culture and went to great lengths to accommodate Indian custom to utilitarian understandings of law and property. Biggar suggests that Edward Said, the author of the 1978 book Orientalism which spawned post-colonial discourse theory and decolonise campaigns in education, distorted the character of European and British interest in both India and China.

Biggar shows that despite several conspicuous failings, the general intention of the British in developing colonies in Canada after 1785, Australia and New Zealand a decade or two later, and Africa from the 1870s, was to recognize native title rather than support the actions of migrant settlers in depriving natives of their customary lands. Indeed, the Conservative ministry of Lord North in the early 1770s tried to prevent the 13 North American colonies from pushing inexorably westwards across the Appalachians and triggering the struggle for an independent United States.

In this context, Biggar also examines cases of alleged genocide, like that of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, and shows that the record is far more nuanced than has become accepted as Australian academic orthodoxy. Much of the reduction in native populations in Van Diemen’s Land and elsewhere owed far more to disease, a historical fact the Annales school historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie convincingly established in the 1980s, than to European agency. Indeed colonial governors like George Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land, and later in Upper Canada and Lachlan Macquarie in New South Wales, worked tirelessly to constrain settler rapacity and ill-treatment of native populations.

Against the tendency to present the empire as a unitary colonial behemoth run by a ruthless centralised political and business oligarchy, Biggar shows that, in fact, the colonial office in London was politically weak and limited in its authority. Before the invention and development of the telegraph, it took weeks for a letter to reach Sydney from Westminster. Ultimately, colonial rule in Australia and Canada relied on the support of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh migrants and in both India and Africa it was dependent on the consent of native populations. Without that consent the diffuse imperial arrangement would have broken down long before it did. The eventual end of the empire came about less because of imperial resistance and more because of the massive expense funding two world wars imposed upon the UK treasury. In 1941 the British Eighth Army was the most ethnically varied force to assemble in modern history. Ironically, the Second World War witnessed a coordinated British-led global effort ‘the like of which will never be seen again’.

This view contrasts rather dramatically with the assumption that colonial peoples were living with a deluded and false imperial consciousness, or desperate to remove the British boot-heel weighing upon their collective necks. In order to take seriously claims not only of genocide and persistent imperial violence, Biggar further examines in detail inter alia the opium war (1842) the Irish famine (1846-9), the famine on the great plains of Canada (1879-83 – a ‘genocide’ that resulted in the loss of 45 lives), the Benin expedition (1897), the Boer War (1901), the Amritsar Massacre (1919) and the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya between 1952-56. In all these cases, Biggar shows that mistakes were made by the colonial powers as well as the military authorities on the ground. However, in none of these cases was there any evidence of a systematic attempt to commit genocide, destroy local culture or conduct a state licensed reign of terror. The opium war, which saw the Qing dynasty cede Hong Kong to the UK alone stands out as an example of an unjust war.

Indeed, the empire in its most enlightened late nineteenth century manifestation demanded that its officials were committed, as Lord Cromer put it, to the ‘granite code’ of Christian values. Significantly, an earlier and more nuanced generation of historians of the post war period, like Margery Perham, recognized that during the Victorian era ‘Christian humanitarianism, a commitment to public service and a liberal vision of public life’ supplemented the desire to maintain trade and the empire’s global strategic advantage. By the late nineteenth century, the public service mindset developed the particular character type of the devoted District Commissioner who worked tirelessly and with a notable lack of corruption that earned native affection – a fact that Graham Greene, no great friend of empire, depicted in the character of Scobie in The Heart of the Matter (1948). As a native schoolboy informed his white school teacher in 1970 when asked whether Rhodesia should have home rule, replied: ‘No Sir … because the tribes will all kill themselves’. In other words, the trauma of contemporary Africa is not the result of empire but the rise of ethno- nationalism.

The rise and fall of the British empire occurred over a 300-year period. It was neither unchanging nor monolithic; it was a different thing in Ireland from what it was in Australia, New Zealand or Africa to say nothing of India or Southeast Asia which, surprisingly, receives very little attention. There are no campaigns to pull down the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles on Clarke Quay in Singapore or to erase the memory of Frank Swettenham in contemporary Malaysia. Biggar comprehensively dispels the myth that the UK was a brutal genocidal dictatorship. So how has this destructive and distorted interpretation of British and Commonwealth history gained such political and academic traction?

Biggar suggests several reasons. Intellectual fashion in the final decades of the last century, encapsulated in the work of Edward Said, sired a dramatic revision of western civilization generally and British imperialism in particular. No academic today could receive a large research grant for extolling the virtues of empire.

Certainly, as Biggar asserts, ‘anti -colonialists cannot be blamed for condemning racism’. However, ‘they can be blamed for letting their condemnation run ahead of the data’ in order to arrive at a predetermined moral judgment. A consistent feature of postcolonial discourse is its exaggeration of the sins of British colonialism. A notable exemplar of this distorted mode of inquiry is Dan Hicks, Oxford professor of contemporary archaeology and curator of the Pitt River museum, who develops a form of ‘ethical schizophrenia’ in his analysis of the British seizure of Benin in 1897. The British intervention sought to remove the slave owning and slave trading rule of the Edo people, a regime addicted to human sacrifice. These historical facts notwithstanding, Hicks finds the Edo casual victims of ‘extractive capitalism’, ‘militarism’, ‘racism’ and ‘proto fascism’. Somewhat incoherently, this post-colonial method is ‘morally neutral and infinitely indulgent with regard’ to native practices, but applies a moral absolutism to British values.

What propels this mindset, beyond scholarly fashion, is a ‘dogmatic revolutionary authoritarianism’ that dismisses contradictory evidence and reasons as mere reactionary rationalisation. A Maoist cultural revolution thus pervades what passes for analysis. Three of the essential keywords of historical inquiry: ‘evidence’, ‘context’ and ‘explanation’ are disconcertingly absent from such critical studies.

Biggar, following Pascal Bruckner, finds a contemporary European propensity to self-loathing reinforces this denunciation of a decaying west. Such corrosive self-hatred really has no place for the non-western other. It is a form of narcissism in which the African, Indian, or aboriginal merely serve as a convenient prop. ‘The evil white colonialist fills the centre stage, entirely obscuring black agency’. Meanwhile, ‘the white post-colonialist gets to play champion of the oppressed’.

One might add a further factor to this genre of specious, academic melodrama. As Kenneth Minogue wrote in his neglected 1985 study Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, the revolutionary left has always had a fascination with intellectual validation. Instead of historical inquiry proper, which assumes an understanding of a past that has been completed and needs to be understood in its own terms before any judgment, Marxist critical mimesis instead requires a simplistic melodrama cloaked in the apparatus of scholarship. The more recent Maoist dialectic further reveals a thesis, namely a brutally evil, white, racist supremacism, masking a seemingly liberal imperial humanitarian project. Its antithesis, meanwhile, sees the oppressed throw off their chains, leading to a synthesis where true consciousness, endless re-education and emancipation prevail. In its long march through the institutions, this pseudo-scholarship has captured all the apparatus of academic inquiry across the Anglosphere. It relishes academic promotions, celebrates large grants, conferences, legitimates questionable sources, obscure methodologies, establishes specialist journals with impact ratings and controls university presses. But it is an essentially imitative endeavour riven with envy and subsumed with what Roger Scruton referred to as ‘a culture of repudiation’.

Biggar’s seminal study exposes the depths to which this perverse culture has sunk. It should be a required text on all introductory university modern history and social science courses. Instead, Biggar had difficulty finding a publisher and Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning receives captious and denunciatory reviews in once reputable scholarly periodicals. As Cicero remarked in an analogous age of corruption and confusion ‘O tempora, O mores’.

David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor in War Studies at King’s College, London. His latest book is The Strategy of Maoism in the West, co-authored with M.L.R. Smith and published by Edward Elgar.

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar can be purchased here.