The British Empire Rehabilitated?
Nigel Biggar, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, William Collins, 2023. Reviewed by Alan Lester
Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism begins with a story of its author’s persecution at the hands of domineering “anticolonial” academics and activists. Historians of colonialism (of whom I am one) have, according to Biggar, combined with unruly antiracist students to put the British Empire on trial. We have found it guilty without even properly analysing the evidence. Why? Because we see “anti-colonialism” as “fashionable, opening doors to posts, promotions and grants”; because we are brainwashed by Frantz Fanon’s “preference for ‘barbarous’ vitality and irresponsibility over civilised reason and restraint”, or even because of our “degenerate Christian sensibility” which allows us to focus exclusively on our own sins.
Worse than our motivations, however, is the effect of our work. “Academic post-colonialism”, we are told, “is an ally – no doubt, inadvertent – of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia and the Chinese Communist Party, which are determined to expand their own (respectively) authoritarian and totalitarian power at the expense of the West”. Our studies of empire are apparently indicative of the moral decadence that always triggers the collapse of dominant powers. “What is … at stake” in our writing of history “is the very integrity of the United Kingdom and the security of the West”. Colonialism was written not just to set the historical record straight, but to save a self-critical West from itself. It does not seem to have occurred to Biggar that arguing for the legitimacy of the invasion and occupation of other lands might rather more directly bolster Putin’s project.
Our work is now politicised in ways that most of us could never have imagined just a few years ago, and Biggar has been partly responsible. In 2015 antiracist activists objected to the figure of Cecil Rhodes standing above the entrance to Oriel College, Oxford. Biggar, a theologian, entered the field of colonial history to defend the statue. The struggle in Oxford became part of a broader culture war over empire from the summer of 2020, when US police murdered George Floyd and British Black Lives Matter protestors pulled down the statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston. That act crystallised the fears of extreme social conservatives, discomfited by changes in racial, gender and sexual relations over the last half century.
In 2021, Biggar helped to found a group of conservative academics called History Reclaimed. Its intention, according to the Daily Mail, was to battle Black Lives Matter’s “woke war on our great leaders [and] ‘morally bankrupt’ apologists for slavery and racism”. It is now a private company. The group overlaps with another private company, Restore Trust. Its campaigns focus on preventing the National Trust telling its members and visitors more about the role of slavery and colonialism in its properties’ history. Perhaps there is just a whiff of hypocrisy in the claim that it is a “tendency of the left to manipulate colonial history to suit its ideological prejudices”.
The importance of history asking difficult questions
Despite Biggar’s straw man caricature, professional historians tend not to focus solely on the “costs” of colonialism while denying its “benefits”. What we have done, in thousands of publications completely ignored by Biggar, is specify benefits for whom, appreciating that they were not universal. There are library shelves full of monographs on how, for example, Indian merchants and princes worked alongside British officials and businessmen to enhance their status and wealth, and how sometimes fragile colonial administrations relied on negotiation and compromise with indigenous elites. There are reams of studies on the legacies of colonial schooling, education and public health initiatives that tended to come in the later stages of imperialism.
Much to Biggar’s annoyance though, we seek also to tell the stories of those who experienced trauma and loss through the British takeover of their lands and assumption of sovereignty. We do not shy away from the millions who died in British wars of expansion, the great famines that colonial governments did little to mitigate, and we acknowledge the fact that colonialism guaranteed a readily exploitable labour supply to British settlers, planters and industrialists. It should come as no surprise to learn that benefits for some came at the expense of others.
Professional historians tend to write with an ethical code in mind, one that we are taught in our undergraduate and postgraduate training. We are of course influenced by our individual dispositions and politics, but we try our best to set these aside and to develop our arguments through finding and reading all the relevant evidence. We tend to be curiosity – rather than politically – driven. We are interested in explaining phenomena, not allocating collective virtue or blame. When we select quotations from a source, we try to set them in the context of that source’s overall stance rather than cherry-picking from it to substantiate a pre-determined argument. When we come across evidence that contradicts our general interpretation, we either try to explain the discrepancy or modify that interpretation. We read widely to try to take account of the work that other scholars have done on our topic, and we are grateful for their efforts. In essence we try, even if we do not always succeed, to avoid writing tendentiously.
The rise (or re-emergence) of colonialist denialism
Colonialism, however, is littered with examples of what many of us would see as the most egregious misuse of sources. There is no space here to list all the examples I have uncovered in the book, and it would be repetitive, so I will identify just three examples. First, Biggar quotes the Canadian Métis leader Louis Riel’s speech at his trial after an anticolonial rebellion in 1885 to suggest that Riel recognised the right of British settlers to take Métis and First Nations land. The extract he uses is: “. . . [British] civilization has the means of improving life that Indians or half-breeds have not. So when they come in our savage country, in our uncultivated land, they come and help us with their civilization, but we helped them with our lands, so the question comes: Your land, you Cree or you half- breed, your land is worth today one-seventh of what it will be when the civilization will have opened it? Your country unopened is worth to you only one-seventh of what it will be when opened. I think it is a fair share to acknowledge the genius of civilization to such an extent as to give, when I have seven pairs of socks, six, to keep one.” However, Biggar omits crucial sentences before and after this extract, which drastically alter its meaning.
Riel led up to the extracted portion of his speech by saying “when [the British] have crowded their country because they had no room to stay any more at home, it does not give them the right to come and take the share of all tribes besides them”. In principle then, he was saying that settlers were not entitled to any of the land. Riel proceeded to note that at least the Canadian colonial government had agreed a treaty which, nominally, allocated one seventh of the land to the Métis. In Biggar’s selected extract he was paraphrasing, rather than endorsing, the government’s rationale: that seizing the rest was in exchange for the “civilization” that British settlement brought. Riel’s point though, was that even this nominal allocation had not been observed in practice. Biggar omits the next bit of Riel’s speech: “They made the treaty with us. As they made the treaty they have to observe it. And did they observe it? No.” Intentionally or not, Biggar uses a cherry picked extract to suggest that Riel recognised the right of settlers to take Métis land, when he was arguing precisely the opposite.
A second example. Biggar consistently presents African people as unfit to govern themselves; as requiring British rule for their own sakes – even to the extent of repeating slave-owners’ original arguments against emancipation: “Can we be sure that [descendants of enslaved people] would have been better off had their ancestors remained in West Africa – some as slaves and sacrificial funeral fodder?” Biggar’s methods of establishing the necessity for British rule in Africa include frequent, seemingly innocuous asides, which have the cumulative effect of reinforcing tropes of African savagery. Human sacrifice is his favourite. He states that it “continued to be a part of royal funeral ceremonies in the Gold Coast as late as 1944.” However, there is no evidence to support this claim. What Biggar is referring to was a singular and bizarre case of suspected murder that was discussed in Britain. Three suspects were hanged in the absence of a body, but the sentencing was delayed by protests that no murder had been committed. Biggar converts an isolated incident that the historian Richard Rathbone notes, “may or may not have taken place in southern Ghana on 28 February I944”, into a barbaric cultural practice that justified continued British rule.
A final example: in his attempt to defend Cecil Rhodes, Biggar disputes three racist quotes attributed to the mining magnate and politician. Although all could be discussed further, I will focus on just the first. Biggar writes:
In a 2006 book review … [Adekeye] Adebajo sought to substantiate Rhodes’ alleged racism and genocidal intent by reporting him as saying ‘I prefer land to n—ers’ …. Appearances, however, deceived. For Adebajo had omitted to tell his readers that the … ‘quotation’ had been lifted from a novel by Olive Schreiner … – it is fiction.
Biggar later repeats, “The only documentary source is Schreiner’s 1897 novel, where the words are spoken by a character that looks like Rhodes. It’s fiction.”
Biggar is just plain wrong. A little research would have alerted him that the quote is not fiction. There is plenty of documentary evidence for it in sources including the Manchester Guardian, The Journal, the Illustrated London News and the Pall Mall Gazette. Rhodes even clarified that “what he meant was that where there was a land bereft of natives and another swarming with natives he preferred the former because he considered the latter not to be to the advantage of South Africa”. To add insult to the injury that Biggar inflicts on Adebajo, Colonialism itself frequently uses fiction rather than historical evidence as sources, including a reference to the TV drama The West Wing.
Confronting the nature of the British empire
Aside from a dubious approach to the data, there are further systematic flaws in Biggar’s approach. Whereas other empires grew through conquest and invasion, there is a strange lack of violence in his version of how the British empire came about. “From 1757 for a hundred years the EIC … came to rule vast swathes of Indian territory.” The British “acquired Hong Kong by treaty with imperial China in 1842”. “In West Africa British influence grew along the coast, and then into the interior” (my emphases). The facts that many Indian states were conquered in battle (some by the future Duke of Wellington), that the treaty ceding Hong Kong to Britain was signed only after China’s defeat in the First Opium War, which Biggar himself later admits was unjustified (the only colonial war that was, according to him), and that West African rulers were overthrown through a combination of armed force and deceit, have no place in Biggar’s explanation of how an empire came to land in Britain’s lap.
Biggar’s claim that “For the second half of its life, anti-slavery, not slavery, was at the heart of imperial policy” is absurd. The post-emancipation antislavery lobby was real and as many historians including James Heartfield have explained, it sought to influence colonial policy. Sometimes, when it could mobilise public opinion sufficiently, it succeeded. But to claim that it generally outweighed commercial, strategic and private British interests, and infer that it was antislavery that prompted over sixty colonial wars during the period, is ludicrously misleading. To believe it is to accept that Britons operated on some unique moral plane untouched by any other group in history.
The most problematic feature of all though, is the book’s treatment of race. Biggar does not see himself, or the liberal imperialists whom he defends, as racist, because they do not believe Black or Brown peoples are biologically inferior to White people. They simply “observe” that these people’s cultures were backwards compared to that of the British and other Europeans. By Biggar’s definition, the attribution of “cultural inferiority to a lack of development, rather than biological nature” is not racist. Nor is his use of the word “natives” to describe all the diverse and multifarious peoples colonised by Britons. Asserting a biological distinction may not be the only way of being racist, however. Oxford Languages defines racism as “the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another”. Simply substituting the word “cultures” for “races” does little to change the dynamic.
Biggar’s argument is that deployed by most British colonial officials from the early nineteenth century: that while exceptional indigenous individuals might learn the benefits of British civilisation rapidly, most were so culturally backward that it would take generations for them to develop. When colonised people showed evidence of their “learning” British ways and sought inclusion, however, White people still maintained an exclusive right to govern, with just a few concessions to local or advisory roles towards the end of empire. This observation does not feature in Biggar’s account and neither does the possibility that people of any “culture”/race might access technologies without being conquered, dispossessed and subjected to racially hierarchical, alien rule. The historian Michael Taylor sums up the general colonial situation well when he quotes a British planter: “’pre-eminence and distinction” are “necessarily attached to the complexion of a White man”.
Failing to acknowledge everyday colonial racism is like examining Nazi Germany without the antisemitism, or modern Russia without the communism. Racism was a “common sense” belief system that fundamentally underpinned the British Empire, and it is deeply concerning, to me at least, that there is now such an appetite to deny this with semantic differences between “race” and “culture”.
Biggar’s excuse for his lack of primary research or knowledge of the literature is that he is not an historian and is not writing a history book but an analysis of ethics. However he has to acknowledge that his ethical case relies on “judging by what we have seen of the British case”. What we have seen is a distorted and partial account, determined from the start by the intention to excuse rather than to analyse. It is almost as if, to justify the ethic of colonialism one has to write unethically. It is just too tempting to turn Biggar’s own words against his book: “This unscrupulous indifference to historical truth indicates that the controversy over empire is not really a controversy about history at all. It is about the present, not the past.”