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.”  

 

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  1. Antoine Bisset says:

    British used violence. British bad. That sums up Mr Lester’s approach. Everyone used violence to some extent. I suppose the soldiers enjoyed it, collecting booty and medals. Of course the problem with the Empire is the present. The problem with the present is that the public narrative, the zeitgeist, the cultural bubble, many politicians, activists, the media, public and private (if Twitter, TikTok etc may be deemed to be “private”), is dominated by those whose views are so different to those held in society even 40 years ago as to amount to a deviation approaching insanity.
    Measuring our past actions against the standards of today is a silly, futile exercise, only serving to stir up contumely against our forebears. Our forebears are us. Is self-hating really the way to go?
    Men seek opportunities and rewards. British adventurers sought their fortunes throughout the world. John Company did this so successfully they ended up more or less controlling India. So much so that our government took over. Even then the forces of “occupation” numbered a mere handful amongst the teeming multitudes of the sub-continent. We bought silk and spices. We gave them the rule of law across the land, schools, medicine, hygiene, the English language (often with a Scots accent), railways, democracy, and cricket.
    If you want to beat people up for the past, try the Americans (Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee) or Belgium, whose King Leopold 2 owned the Congo and everyone in it as his own fiefdom.
    (Quote, regarding the management of King Leopold’s farm aka the Congo Free State, “The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State.” P. Forbath.
    Oh, and at the partition of India in 1947 there were over 500 “princely states” with maharajahs/sultans kind of thing. If the rajahs have vanished it was the Indian government that did it.

    1. I’m not sure what our point is Antoine?

      When you say “Everyone used violence to some extent” – do you mean violence is universal? That’s true but there is no country in the world that had an empire comparable to the British Empire in scale, due to an accident of history that gave a technological and military and industrial advantage. Examples of other European imperialism and violence does nothing to detract from the horrors of British empire.

      1. Antoine Bisset says:

        My point is that I disagree with Mr Lester. He is looking at detail. I look at patterns. The horrors were pretty minor in context, and of those many were the result of the decisions and actions of individuals (Amritsar). Here we had the Clearances and more recently the deaths in care homes. Both of these were government sponsored and organised. I think that the Empire was a wonderful thing, accidental though it was. Many of the alternatives around the globe were surely worse. That is not to excuse the abysmal treatment of Aborigines and similar. Was our behaviour in the Empire really much worse than at home? Did the good stuff not mostly outweigh the bad?
        I shall make some tea and think about it.

        1. Wee Walker says:

          The Empire was a wonderful thing. This has to be irony.

          1. Antoine Bisset says:

            No.

        2. Professor Alan Lester says:

          Antoine, I think the problem is that most Britons don’t know the extent to which violent conquest established the empire, because it’s not widely taught. There was actually an awful lot of British government- directed conquest and invasion of other lands. Col. Callwell wrote an Army guide for these ‘small wars’, as the British thought of them, against “savage” enemies. There were 65 in the late C19 alone. For example confederation policies in Southern Africa led to unprovoked attacks on Xhosa, Griqua, Pedi and Zulu in just the late 1870s alone. Two opium wars against China, two invasions of Afghanistan, numerous wars of conquest in India and Burma, numerous “punitive expeditions” in West and NE Africa etc. Isolated incidents of individuals enacting unauthorised violence like Amritsar were the exception while the rule was organised, directed invasion. Of course there were other acts of violence growing going on in Britain and elsewhere too. Nevertheless, I believe people should know more about this stuff rather than have it suppressed on patriotic grounds.

          1. Antoine Bisset says:

            I agree with your final point. Yet where did the Zulus come from? What were they doing? All violence is not bad. Chivalry as an idea refers to good bonded to violence. Your individual points are good, your examples support your argument. Yet. Was not the Empire a net force for good?
            Much of the morality of the time, our morality, our mores, was derived from Christian principles. This was bound to clash with head-hunting, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slave-trading and widow burning. Also the fun and games in Afghanistan (we never learn, nor did the Russians and Americans) were part of the Great Game manoeuvres intended to stop Russia expanding into India. Different places, different people and different reasons.
            I am looking at patterns and layers. It seems that historians look at detail. I am not a historian – you probably guessed that – yet it is difficult to see what different and better .pattern there might have been. Different is easy, if the British had stayed at home. Yet our urge to sail the globe, to go to far-off places to trade resulted in a powerful Navy that kept us safe from the French. The examples of French colonialism, the King of Belgium’s “Congo Free State”, German East Africa, Boer Free States, Dutch East Indies are hardly models for relationship with other peoples.
            Do the historians of Europe spend their happy hours nit-picking the violence and misery their countries inflicted on others? How far back do you go? Sweden’s European Empire, the Norman Conquest (I’ve met people who mentioned of their Norman descent in order to claim social superiority.)
            Today my ingredients include Ceylon tea, Caribbean sugar, Canadian wheat, Cuban coffee, English chicken, USA sweetcorn, Scottish oatmeal, milk, cream, and Chinese noodles, a fair dollop of items from the old Empire.
            Thank you for your replies, and for the article.

    2. Denis Mollison says:

      “‘Men seek opportunities and rewards. British adventurers sought their fortunes throughout the world. John Company did this so successfully they ended up more or less controlling India. So much so that our government took over. Even then the forces of “occupation” numbered a mere handful amongst the teeming multitudes of the sub-continent. ”

      Do you really think that makes what they did right? or even acceptable? A relatively small number of people acting with violence and under morality-blind company law reduced one of the world’s richest countries to relative poverty. Read William Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal”.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        Dennis,

        The Mughals were (like the British) colonisers of India, they came from Central Asia in the 16th century and were greatly despised by the indigenous Indians many of whom willingly fought with the British to overthrow their Mughal rulers, the British were experts at divide and rule.
        The argument between the author and Mr Biggar is essentially, ‘would the world be a better or worse place without the British Empire’ and there is no way of ever settling these types of debates. Makes for interesting discussions though.

        1. Professor Alan Lester says:

          Sorry but that’s not the argument
          between me and Prof. Biggar. As I wrote in the blog on legacies linked in the article I agree that counterfactual history is of little utility in this instance. Historians deal with what happened, not what might have happened in a parallel universe.

          1. John Learmonth says:

            Historians also put their own prejudices on the actions of our ancestors as both you and Professor Biggar have done.
            Keeps you all in employment as fashions/prejudices change over time.’History’ is constantly been re-written to keep up with the times and book publishing deals!

          2. Professor Alan Lester says:

            Have you actually read the review? There’s quite a bit in it about how my and my colleague’s approach is different to Biggar’s, and how we refute the allegation that you’ve just repeated about our motivations.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @John Learmonth, I am intrigued by your preference for a fixed and unchanging Official History and wish to know more. Which version of History do you think we should adopt as the final one? Who should adjudicate (not contentious political parties, that’s for sure, perhaps you prefer the King to step in, since they’re already veterans of this at Windsor)? What loyalist (re)training for historians would you recommend? What penalties do you suggest should apply to unauthorised historical research and publication? How will you block out the influx of contradictory foreign History (obviously you’ll need a Great Firewall of Britain, sever links with post-imperial European academic institutions, and apply border control with extreme prejudice)? And how will you suppress British Science so it does not produce evidentiary disproval of this Great Work?

            One History, One People, One Empire… sounds jolly totalitarian.

    3. SleepingDog says:

      @Antoine Bisset, what utter, shameful drivel. Do you own a plantion in Barbados or something?

      If violence was universal to anywhere near the extent the colonial British dished out, the War of All Against All would have depopulated the planet of humans long ago. Actual violence tends to be sporadic, concentrated, usually sub-lethal. During the bloodiest conflict in the British isles, townsfolk could go years without seeing armies engaging in violence. Actually relative peace is the norm for many (in Britain anyway), at least most of the time, and violence is the aberration. Partly this is due to human nature (over-aggressiveness to one’s own species is not a great survival trait) and party to the State’s desire to monopolise violence.

      The very essence of Christianity (and similar religions) is that there are eternal laws behaviour that are even literally supposed to be *set in stone*. Of *course* a Christian like Anglican priest Biggar has to judge actions by timeless standards. However, the more reasonable view is that a core of our ethics comes from our shared biology (philosopher Adam Smith thought this empathy shaped our moral sentiments, something which science seems to support). Thus the Golden Rule predates Christianity by a long way, and is reflected throughout world cultures: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule

      Why exactly is it that you don’t want to learn from the past? To improve? That requires judgement of past behaviour. Perhaps you have already attained a state of perfection?

      1. Antoine Bisset says:

        You disagree with me. You are also rude at a personal level, is that an incitement to violence? Consider.

        1. Professor Alan Lester says:

          Hi Antoine and thanks for commenting.
          Just a couple of quick comments in reply: 1. on applying today’s ethics to the past: it is Biggar not me who does this, by trying to justify past actions in contemporary ethical terms. As I noted historians don’t tend to do blame or justification; they just try to understand and explain. 2. On violence in history. Yes there’s lots! The point is that Biggar overlooks or seeks to excuse that committed by Britons. Drawing attention to others’ violence is fine but it doesn’t tell us any more or less about what Britons did. It’s called Whataboutery and is often seen as a deflection rather than a contribution to discussion of the issue at hand.

          1. Antoine Bisset says:

            Thank you for your response. The points you make are perfectly valid. We can see even in our own brief lives that ethics have changed more than in the previous few hundred years.
            Nevertheless I don’t think evil can be excused no matter who commits it, or when. I don’t wish to become involved in whataboutery, only to say that we were not the worst, and little of it was official. Yes, I come from a Christian standpoint, so do not consider Aztecs entitled to offer human sacrifices regardless the mores, beliefs and traditions of their own civilisation.
            Really, my view is this. Without those who went out and inadvertently set up the Empire (giving the UK government a big headache in the process) we would not have sugar for our tea, or tea to put it in. Nor would anyone else.

        2. SleepingDog says:

          @Antoine Bisset, which of these particularly relevant codes of Nigel Biggar’s God’s most fundamental laws were somehow revoked for the agents of the British Empire?
          “You shall not commit murder.
          You shall not commit adultery.
          You shall not steal.
          You shall not be a false witness.
          You shall not covet anything which belongs to your neighbour.”
          ?
          https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/what-we-believe/commandments

    4. Michael Farrell says:

      I am no historian and know too little about the material debated. I have not read the book in question. However, I can think critically and this (and the rest of the comment):

      “British used violence. British bad. That sums up Mr Lester’s approach.”

      seems to me to be an egregious caricature of the reviewer’s article which expressly seeks to avoid this binary approach, and is just pointing out that the harms and trauma of British colonialism need to be acknowledged where they are evident. It suggests that you didn’t actually read the piece Antoine.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    What other role have theologians than to suck up to power and provide specious arguments for temporal policy? I recall the prelates justifying Henry V’s (obviously criminal) invasion of France in Shakespeare’s play as a (possibly) fictional example, but I wouldn’t use that as evidence, there is more than enough in the historical record.

    We may have touched upon Jesuit casuistry when we covered sophistry in Philosophy class. These examples of twisting single cases into fake general laws look pretty much like old-school Jesuit arguments to me (apparently one Jesuit colonist boasted that he’d finally got some indigenous people to beat their own children, a foreign and unknown custom before). Christian values, eh? We know enough what happened in those indigenous residential schools (in fact we should have known this Story of a National Crime for a long, long time). People certainly saw through the Jesuits immediately, though no doubt they imagined themselves oh-so clever: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casuistry

    Of course, the problem with orthodox Christian ethics is that is doesn’t really have any, just obedience to God’s will, for which the reward is heavenly paradise, otherwise its eternal torture in hell. So lying about the history of the British Empire presents no problem at all to an Anglican.

    Why are the public academic defenders of British colonialism such lightweights these days? Are the heavyweights hiding? Are the lightweights’ arguments so poor as a kind of hostage’s cry for help, or sabotage-from-within? Does their work even pass the apparently-low threshold of academic quality these days?

    As for human sacrifice, how many people were sacrificed to the God of Property by Britain’s Bloody Code? Tortured and executed by rival Christian sects? Hanged for blasphemy or insulting the monarch? Lethally persecuted for being ‘witches’? And so on. Anyone looking in even in these days might think the British incapable of governing themselves.

    Well, I appreciate this review, as there seems no point to read the book, but I wonder if the picture of British historians as curiosity-driven and ethical shows a real awakening in the profession. Perhaps British historians considered themselves curiosity-driven and ethical back when they were regularly churning out pro-imperial histories. John Newsinger wrote, in the Introduction to the 2013 2nd edition of The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire:
    “The problem is not that there is too much anti-imperial history, but that there is not enough.”
    Newsinger wrote that Imperialists bemoan non-existent anti-imperial historical consensus, when Imperialism dominates and is celebrates (also US imperialism). Assuming that was the case even in 2013, what could have changed in the handful of years since?

    1. Professor Alan Lester says:

      Hi and thanks for the comment. Yes you’re spot on. No one has been as critical of past generations of historians complacently recycling the myths propagated by colonial apologists as have more recent historians! There has indeed been a reawakening with scholars focused on aspects of the colonial past previously ignored or suppressed, including gender, sexuality, environmental and ‘racial’ relations. Indeed it is this new attention to previously hidden histories that so infuriates many on the Right.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Professor Alan Lester, yes, I have read a few histories like the kind you describe. I didn’t know about the Atlantic history approach until I read Building the Atlantic Empires: Unfree Labor and Imperial States in the Political Economy of Capitalism, CA 1500–1914, edited by John Donoghue and Evelyn P Jennings, for example, while feminist critiques and perspectives have been extremely helpful, and I have started reading works that provide some insight into historical issues driving L*G*B*T politics. I was also interested to read Andrea Wulf’s argument that the environmentalist thought of Alexander von Humboldt may have been suppressed in Britain due to anti-German sentiment, something that does not surprise me given the critique of Peter Barton that British military historians ignored German sources when writing about the Battle of the Somme.

        My impression is that current Historiography is more multidisciplinary, transnational, technology-and-science-assisted than at any period I am aware of. Classicist Mary Beard explained how much her field has been aided by technology-assisted Archaeology. We now have capacities to look at buried structures without digging, genetic traces, recovery of damaged ancient texts, chemical analyses, underwater recovery, as well as computer modelling and large-scale semi-automated textual analysis, unavailable to previous generations of Historians. These approaches are bound to continually throw up new insights. For instance, it is now seemingly possible to accurately locate the geographical source of many materials used in artefacts, which might have come from thousands of kilometres away from where they were found, or thought to have been made.

        And in the course of employing these methods, forensic evidence of the multitudinous, multigeneration, pancontinental crimes of the British Empire will come to light to corroborate some of the other sources of historical evidence, as I think for example a Danish researcher found at the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, shown in a Channel 4 documentary.

        1. Professor Alan Lester says:

          Interesting stuff – thank you!

  3. Shabnam says:

    Antoine are you feeling ok? India already had schools, hygiene, medicine, its own rich languages and literatures, transport, its own sports, and its own democratic systems. Britain actively undermined and dismantled existing systems and institutions to replace them with “British” ones that colonial administrators could occupy instead. Look up Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education. The idea that Britain somehow did India a favour by seizing land, fomenting mistrust between communities and looting and siphoning off wealth is laughable. By the way you may not be aware but “teeming multitudes” is itself a very colonialist trope.

    1. Antoine Bisset says:

      Yes, thank you. I do think that while India was civilised, some improvements were necessary, do you not? Indian mathematicians were brilliant and Indian undertakers burned widows. In many ways we can only ever judge by our own standards. The flower of Western civilisation bloomed in the UK in the 1950s, after centuries of struggle. Other civilisations have bloomed, but differently.
      While you may have wished that India would be have been left untouched to develop its own version of civilisation from 1600 onwards, that was never going to happen. Some facets of Western civilisation were all-conquering. Industrialisation was one. Some places moved slowly towards it. Some, like Japan, embarked on industrialisation and social change (Western suits) almost overnight. Japan then went on to attempt domination of Asia. Do you think that India would have been left out of a Japanese Empire bent on conquest?
      The pattern was all-embracing and all-conquering. In this country we sent wee girls to work in mills and factories and wee boys were sent up chimneys and down mines.
      I have not tried to evade the bad things, but these were part and parcel of the changes, mistakes, but not the objective.
      Would you go back to an India* that was on the same lines as that encountered by John Company? Your country could make that choice, could it not? It is a democracy, no longer a patchwork of states run by bloodline inheritors of absolutely power.

      Please forgive me if I am wrongly making the assumption that you have personal connections to India. Nothing I say is intended to be derogatory in any way.

      1. Shabnam says:

        Antoine, some improvements are always necessary in any society; that is not the point. The argument is simply that bad things also happened under colonial rule, and should be acknowledged; they have not always been, at least not in British history books. “The flower of Western civilisation bloomed in the UK in the 1950s” is quite a claim and requires some qualification I think. You paint Western hegemony as inevitable and perhaps it was, but nobody knows what the world would have looked like had another empire ruled swathes of the globe. India, like Britain, was ruled by different waves of invaders and settlers throughout her history, like the Turkic rulers, the Abyssinian kings, and the Mughals, which also involved their share of violence and inequality. However, the Indian subcontinent and diaspora are still dealing with the fallout of British colonialism and Partition. I have ancestral ties with the subcontinent but “my country” is Britain, another effect of British colonialism, so I would not be going back anywhere! 🙂 My forefathers were born in pre-Partition India, lived in East Pakistan, and died in Bangladesh, all without moving a step. My great-uncle served in the British army. My grandfather came to the UK to help rebuild the postwar economy. The amount of wealth and resources, human as well as economic, that flowed out of India and into Britain, contributing massively to Britain’s power, cannot be paid back, no matter how many railways and courthouses they left behind. To end on a facetious note, ask not what Britain did for India, but what India did for Britain.

        1. Antoine Bisset says:

          Thanks for that. I would not be sending you back. The idea of “racism” seems to be newish. I never encountered it when I was growing up in Scotland in the 50s and 60s. Sectarianism was a completely different matter. Perhaps people were so busy being religious bigots that there was no time left for other things. There were a number of non-whites at my school, four , I think. One of them whom I remember in a senior year was an Indian boy. He was always smiling and always carried a black umbrella, like a London lawyer. He was, at that time, the most popular boy in the school.
          Racism was alien to us, and it still is.

          1. Shabnam says:

            Getting off-topic here but I think prejudice has always existed in some form or another, though it probably looked different in different areas and communities of the UK; your interesting point about sectarianism illustrates that. In the 50s and early 60s I imagine people were more likely to regard people of other ethnicities as a novelty and accept them as part of their community. Of course, racism isn’t always overt forms of aggression, and it’s possible as a young person you were not aware or didn’t notice some things, if they were happening. That said, my grandparents always said their English neighbours were kind and friendly at first; it was their children who experienced racism from the 70s onward, which can be correlated to changes in political rhetoric and policies.

    2. Harris Coverley says:

      “its own democratic systems”

      I’m sorry but I’ve never seen any named example of this, even though those I’d call the ‘left-wing of Hindutva’ frequently assert it.

      1. Shabnam says:

        Far be it from me to agree with Hindutva ideologies of any kind, but as one example, elected village councils called Panchayat existed in many parts of India, whose role it was to make decisions for the community and arbitrate disputes through discussion and consensus. It may not be “democracy” as we understand it today, and groups of people were disenfranchised, but certainly electing representatives to act on behalf of the people was nothing new, hence why I said “their own democratic systems.”

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Shabnam, yes, that pattern seems like a deliberate policy of British colonial rule, which preferred to impose a system of loyalist ‘chiefs’, even on societies that did not have such a traditional hierarchy, like the Kikuyu in Africa (writes Caroline Elkins in Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, pp18–19), who were “governed by councils of elders and lineage heads”, and the chiefs were a new colonial phenomenon. Anyone familiar with the history can see the British hated democracy and destroyed it where they could. They cultivated corrupt or loyalist ‘strongmen’ or controlled politically weak but symbolically powerful puppet rulers by preference. Female elders and teachers not only lost out but their traditional roles were sometimes eradicated by patriarchal Christianisation.

          On the question of violence outside of large set-piece battles and massacres, Elizabeth Kolsky in Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law writes in the Introduction that everyday physical violence committed by historically forgotten cast of Europeans was endemic:
          “Although the archive is replete with incidents of Britons murdering, maiming, and assaulting Indians — and getting away with it — white violence remains one of the empire’s most closely guarded secrets.” p2
          “This book analyzes over 150 years of cases of violent crime.” p11

        2. Harris Coverley says:

          “elected village councils…electing representatives”

          Panchayati raj doesn’t seem to resemble any kind of real “democratic system” at all, but a local grouping of self-selected elders.

          Such assertions of “local democracy” are really just anachronistic spin.

  4. Harris Coverley says:

    There are a lot of things I could have a go at here, but I think implying Biggar is a “racist” because he uses the term “natives” is over the line.

    1. Professor Alan Lester says:

      The comment about Biggar’s use of the word “natives” is more of a supplementary aside. The crux of his treatment of race is in the paragraphs around that and here in particular: “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”.”

      1. Harris Coverley says:

        Let me quote a larger chunk: “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.”

        Are you actually saying here that the use of the word “natives” is racist in itself?

        And pursuant to that other quote of your own: are you yourself not just ending up asserting that “culture” and “race” are in some way equatable?

        1. Alan Lester says:

          Thanks Harris,

          What I’m saying is that, like C19 liberal imperialists, Biggar seems to believe that cultural racism is not racism. By cultural racism we mean the idea that certain whole peoples lag behind others in their cultural development. While exceptional individuals among them may ‘learn’ rapidly to become ‘civilised’ (the C19 term) or ‘developed’ (Biggar’s C21 updated term), they are generally unable to govern themselves well because of their confinement within these backward cultures. I’ve written on the genesis of this discourse and the idea that British colonial policies should be redirected from ‘backward peoples’ protection to their ‘amalgamation’ focusing on a colonial Governor, George Grey, who helped consolidate the idea. There was, in this view, and in Biggar’s, a remarkably close overlap between the definition of ‘races’ and that of ‘cultures’, such that the two words became effectively interchangeable. Another remarkable feature of the discourse was that while, rhetorically, it allowed for the possibility that individual Black people could become as ‘civilised/developed’ as White people (hence not biological), as soon as enough such ‘acculturated’ individuals started to claim the right to govern their own countries the bar was lifted again so as to preserve exclusive White control in every colony until independence. Concessions to a limited role for colonised people in local government or as advisors to central government came late, and only as a result of pressure from these new elites, disillusioned with the fundamental racism that underpinned talk of the ‘civilising mission’. This ‘cultural’ rather than biological distinction was not just a recognition of cultural difference; it was an alternative and more dextrous form of White supremacy.

          I am not the one equating culture to race. I prefer to see individuals and social groups forming assemblages at various scales, the boundaries of which are always permeable to cultural, technological, medical, military etc influences. Wherever you draw your boundaries between groups, whether you call them races or cultures, there are always biological and social flows and exchanges which invalidate them as categories. I and others have written lots more on this if you want to engage more with the scholarship.

          1. Alan Lester says:

            Sorry I meant also to add that Biggar’s use of the word ‘natives’ may not necessarily be racist in itself but it is indicative of a flagrant disregard of the way that diverse Black, Asian, colonised and indigenous people have tried to represent and distinguish their own views and agency, and the ways that scholars have tried to tell their diverse stories of colonialism.

  5. Nick C says:

    Thank you for this extremely thought-provoking review. In particular, the three examples of errors are very helpful––perhaps a referenced catalogue of all the errors could be produced?

    Although I can’t comment much on the descriptive case re: the history of empire (beyond thinking the points made here seem reasonable), there are some areas which seem a bit more questionable. (Happy to be corrected.)

    1. Lester claims that “The most problematic feature of all[…] is the book’s treatment of race”––in particular, Biggar’s claim that judging one group to be culturally––not biologically––superior to another is not a case of racism. To show that Biggar is wrong, Lester cites a definition of racism––“the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior[…]”. To the extent that one interprets ‘race’ biologically (obviously this would be somewhat controversial among biologists but probably not among the general public) it agrees with Biggar’s view, not Lester’s. Lester seems to agree, as instead of interpreting ‘race’ in a cultural sense, he says that “Simply substituting the word ‘cultures’ for ‘races’ does little to change the dynamic.“ But this does not make the case that ‘culturism’ amounts to racism, this makes the case that the dynamics underpinning them are similar. This might be seen as a semantic difference, but getting categories right is important for descriptive accuracy.

    2. Beyond the issue of category error, a related issue––which is also a problem for Biggar––is that ‘culturism’ might not always be bad. E.g. if one simply notes that one culture does better by a number of important criteria (infant mortality, human rights, scientific achievement, etc.) and then aggregates this into some judgement of descriptive cultural superiority, this does not seem normatively troubling––so long as that judgement process is fair and the judgement is not interpreted as a point about moral worth. If one then uses that descriptive judgement to (normatively) justify the subjugation of the ‘inferior’ group, then it becomes problematic. So, Lester seems to hold that any such descriptive claim is problematic in itself, whereas Biggar seems to hold that the normative justification of subjugation is not problematic. (Obviously, I’m not claiming that every/most claim(s) of cultural superiority is/are justified, only that some could be given the right judgement process.)

    3. It seems a strange omission to purely mention the reaction of *extreme* social conservatives to the toppling of the Colston statue. There were a broad range of views on the ‘anti-toppling’ side––e.g. ‘it shouldn’t have been undemocratically removed’––many of which were not the result of discomfort regarding social reforms concerning race, sex, etc. Given that many of these more moderate ‘anti-topplers’ will be part of Biggar’s readership, it might be a better persuasive technique to acknowledge the potential for good-faith disagreement here.

    1. Alan Lester says:

      Thanks Nick

      I think I’ve addressed your points 1 and 2 in my reply just now to Harris. Re. Point 3: I was referring to the extremists who were triggered by the toppling of the statue to see an existential threat. Yes there was also a range of more moderate but critical reactions and I mention this in my book on the British Empire in the culture war, Deny and Disavow.

      1. Nick C says:

        Thanks for your reply Alan, I really do appreciate it given how busy you must be.

        Re: point 3. Your book does indeed allow for the possibility of good faith disagreement (e.g. Ch.3, §Retain and Explain)—though the main focus is on (those you characterise as) bad faith actors (Conservative MPs and ministers, the race report authors, etc.). My point was merely that it might have been a better persuasive strategy to allow for such good-faith disagreement *here* (in this publicly accessible piece). As those to the right of you may very well read political bias into this review from the lack of such an allowance—and therefore just dismiss it, which would be a shame.

        Re: points 1 and 2, with the greatest of respect, I’m not sure your response to Harris covers them. You say “I am not the one equating culture to race”, but if you equate culturism with racism, then you are equating ‘culture’ and ‘race’ in the context of discrimination. Your article seemed to imply that you take the ‘racism’ and ‘culturism’ as synonymous. Your book Deny and Disavow is even clearer on this: “most White Britons considered it common sense that they were superior to people of colour (not necessarily biologically but culturally) — an attitude that we call racism today” (preface & Ch.7). So, to the extent that there are important differences between culturism and racism, the position is questionable.

        It *seems* (to this layman) like many colonising forces were more advanced (in general, not in totality) than the native populations in the places they colonised. (E.g. compare the Romans to the native Britons in terms of institutions, architecture, warfare, governance, scholarship, etc.) My point was that judgements regarding ‘cultural superiority’ are not necessarily wrong. That is, so long as they are (i) the result of a fair reasoning process (specifically the one I outlined), (ii) not taken as a judgement of moral worth, and (iii) not taken as a justification for subjugation.

        Your reply to Harris seemed to say that, broadly, representatives of the British Empire made such descriptive judgements (fairly or unfairly), and took them as justifications for subjugation (contra iii)—and that this was ‘cultural racism’. Of course I think this was wrong, I’m just baffled as to why this is ‘racism’ (of any type). Calling it this may mislead lay readers who are likely to define racism as (something akin to) discrimination on the basis of race.

        Perhaps your point is that, because the British kept changing the goalposts (re: self rule), this suggests a certain amount of insincerity regarding their proclaimed focus on culture—perhaps instead they cared about race. (But even then they might just have cared about keeping hold of what they had taken—although perhaps the sources say otherwise.) If this is what you mean—that actual racism (not just culturism) underlay their claims of cultural superiority—it might be better to make this less opaque.

        Alternatively, perhaps your point is that the British treated some cultures *as* races—in the same way that anti-semites typically treat Jews as a race rather than as a religious group. However, to treat a non-racial group *as* a race, one must make claims about *biological* superiority—as the Nazis made about Jews. So, the truth of this claim would not justify your claim that it is racist to see one’s group as *culturally* superior to another.

        (Just to be clear, I’m only responding to these conceptual points you’ve made, not making an empirical claim myself. I’m not denying that the British Empire can be fairly characterised as racist; I’m merely denying that equating ‘racism’ and ‘culturism’ justifies this characterisation.)

        1. Professor Alan Lester says:

          Hi Nick
          All valid queries and they deserve proper reflection and response- this is why talking to, rather than past, one another, can make these comments fora productive (on occasion!) Give me a bit of time and I’ll try to write a blog or something more nuanced to elaborate on the real world deployments of these malleable & overlapping terms ‘race’ and ‘culture’ in empire. For now though,, and putting things too simplistically: there’s is too close an overlap between the loose notion of race and that of culture in liberal imperial apologists’ and Biggar’s own writing. This overlap provides justifications for the power imbalance between White Britons and colonised people of colour. The main difference, which served to distinguish mainstream cultural racists from biological determinists (who were always a minority) is the possibility of an escape route for individual people of colour who could ‘learn’ to discard a supposedly backward ‘culture’ (thought of as something like a concrete formed from the bonding together of ways of dress, speech, cooking, manners, spiritual belief, architecture, governance etc, rather than a set of individually adaptable habits). In practice, however, as you note from my observations, even when individuals acquired some of the supposedly more advanced accomplishments of British ‘culture’ they were still excluded on the grounds of their ‘race’ (itself understood not just as biological difference but in terms of colour, physiognomy, upbringing, accent, hybridity of thought about spirituality, mannerisms etc). Hence, there was considerable overlap between what you distinguish as ‘culturalism’ and what you see more narrowly as biological ‘racism’. As a well known scholar has put it, colonised people could be ‘white but not quite’ in the imperial world. In effect the idea of ‘cultural’ difference came simply to legitimate popular notions of ‘racial’ difference and to explain why the surrender of white supremacy had perpetually to be deferred. Put another way, with the acceptance of Darwinian ideas, rather than being forever inferior, other ‘cultures’ would ‘evolve’, but rather like species, only so slowly as to make beneficial (white) British rule and therefore white dominance and privilege a necessity for the foreseeable future. Hence Biggar’s argument, adopted from Perham, that Africans and others were still not yet ready for independence when it came. A perpetual deferral of the accomplishment of the ‘civilising mission’ was accomplished as readily through Perham and Biggar’s ‘culturalism’ as it was through ‘racism).

          1. Nick C says:

            Thanks Alan, it’s certainly possible that, were I better acquainted with the sources (and Biggar’s work, which I may read now to try and see your point), then I would agree with the conceptual picture you have painted.

            I’ll be very interested to read any further work you produce on this. I’ve taken a long time to respond as I’ve been trying to think about what would win me round, and it’s difficult as I imagine much of one’s thinking (even conceptually) on such topics is forged in the archives. (Obviously winning *me* round is not important, but I think many laymen will take a similar stance, so that’s more of an interesting problem—closing the gap between an important school of expert thought and a proportion of the general public.) Certainly an understanding of the empirical backing for the notion of ‘racism’ you are interested in would help. E.g. outlining the sources which show that this extended notion of ‘race’—“not just as biological difference but in terms of colour, physiognomy, upbringing, accent, hybridity of thought about spirituality, mannerisms etc.”—was the popular one. I guess your argument would then be that they were racist according to a modern definition of racism in which the modern referent of the term ‘race’ is swapped for this (extended) historical referent. (Clearly the charge against this would be that it projects today’s values (the modern definition of racism) onto the past, although I’m aware that you are not so worried about this charge (Ch.9, §argument 2)).

            And perhaps something which addressed the evidence for and against the various different explanations for the treatment of ‘colonial subjects’ at the hands of the British—e.g.1. they did not grant self-rule because of racism; e.g.2. they did not grant it because they simply wanted to keep what they had taken; e.g.3. they did not grant it because they genuinely believed the native population was not ready. As this would show the causal power of their racism—rather than it being causally inert.

            In any case, thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my comments. Happy to bow out here as you’ve been generous enough already.

  6. Dean smith says:

    Mr Lesters review of this book is clearly a reaction expected when his thesis and evidence are challenged.

    Just read the book and make your own mind up. Personally, the evidence and arguments put forward by Mr Biggar are not for those who lack nuance, nor have an invested interest in post-colonial theory.

    1. Prof Alan Lester says:

      Prof Biggar does not challenge my thesis. There is no reference to my work or that of most other specialists in his book. I am not a postcolonial theorist either. My work is largely empirical (based on evidence rather than theory). You are of course free to be persuaded by Biggar and many will choose to be, because his story is a more comforting one for nationalists committed to a certain version of the past. But if you’re interested in the realities of colonialism, just be cautious of it. Like climate change denial, for instance, it flies in the face of expertise and evidence.

  7. Josie Glausiusz says:

    Thank you for your interesting and informative review of “Colonialism.”

    As regards the reader comments, the trope of “what about the baskets of severed hands,” in the Congo Free State is a perfect example of “whataboutism.” The fact that the Belgians, or the Germans, or the Americans committed atrocities in their colonial conquests does not detract from the violence of the British Empire. Indeed, if “everyone used violence to some extent” it should be universally deplored no matter where it was deployed.

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