Empire state of mind

Rorke’s Drift, by Lady Elizabeth Butler

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning

Nigel Biggar, London: William Collins, 2023, 480pps., $34.99

Ideologues are frequently performative, but sometimes they are simply pantomimic. One of today’s major stock villains is the British Empire – seen in melodramatic minds as a swaggering dastard, slashing through global history like Captain Hook in murderous search of Peter Pan and treasure, and whose malign legacy can be blamed for many modern ills. Attitudes toward the Empire have certainly evolved since 1922, when George Santayana could argue seriously in Soliloquies in England that Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.”

Oxford ethicist Nigel Biggar got drawn into this ‘debate’ in 2017, when he wrote a Times piece commending Bruce Gilley’s apoplexy-inducing Third World Quarterly article, ‘The Case for Colonialism’. He had waded in these waters before, during the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, when impassioned ‘activists’ demanded the removal of all memorials of Cecil Rhodes, including Oxford’s prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, on the grounds that he had been responsible for rapine in southern Africa. Biggar had also convened a comparative educational project called Ethics and Empire, which was caricatured as an attempt to whitewash Britain’s imperial record. He has formerly criticised human rights, made a Christian case for ‘just wars,’ and sometimes he can’t resist teasing, or exposition for exposition’s sake. It is therefore fair to say, as the Economist noted in its otherwise unfair review of this book, “For a professor of theology, Nigel Biggar has a sharp appetite for controversy.”

Biggar was naturally threatened by Twitterati for his temerity in taking a nuanced view of history, and denounced by ‘colleagues’, who bravely co-signed letters upholding elite opinion. Emotionally incontinent (or cunningly calculating) monomaniacs dominate this ‘discussion’, and he was therefore grateful when the respected publisher Bloomsbury commissioned him to write a dissenting book. Bloomsbury then had prudent second thoughts because of “public feeling,” but happily a less pusillanimous publisher stepped in.

This book is about the British Empire, so anyone expecting exculpation of, say, Magellan (under threat of excision from the astronomical atlas) will be disappointed. It is nevertheless relevant to all Western nations, whose records (and even existences) faux-radicals find repugnant, and whose resources they seek to capture by exploiting post-Christian feelings of guilt. The rhodomontade is as tendentious as it is tedious, and tinged with significance. Biggar worries that if Britain becomes demoralised through cultural-historical criticism, it may become psychologically unfit to play its crucial international role. He bolsters his defence with an impressive 131 pages of endnotes, some especially dogged dissections extending over several pages.

As a small island with a growing population, skilled in navigation and galvanised by both ambition and curiosity, Britain was always going to accrue an empire, especially once rival powers started accumulating overseas possessions. Contrary to post-colonial conspiracy theories, this centuries-long endeavour was not centrally driven, nor motivated by simple greed and lust for power. The Empire in truth grew adventitiously, sometimes almost accidentally. There were bewilderingly many motives, sometimes conflicting – cultural, economic, military, personal, political, royal, strategic – and a degree of happenstance. As the Liberal historian J. R. Seeley reflected in 1883’s The Expansion of England, “We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.”

Even actions seen now as uniformly negative were often carried out with partly good intentions. In 1831, thirteen Māori chiefs petitioned King William IV for official protection against private settlers, and the French; the now excoriated 1840 Treaty of Waitangi was an inevitable outcome. Cecil Rhodes’ 1891 establishment of an official British presence in Matabeleland was similarly intended to prevent an inflow of unscrupulous concessionaries. The 1897 raid on Benin in Africa was at least partly designed to halt human sacrifice. The Boer War was caused partly by British dislike of Afrikaners’ treatment of Africans.

Those who scoff cynically at such actions as self-serving are often innocents in other respects – uncritically trusting tribal ‘feelings’ or oral histories rather than empirical research, and swallowing sentimental ideas about native societies being egalitarian and Edenic, pacific and unspoiled. Biggar has sardonic fun with some naif notions; “The natives [of North America] had plenty of experience of the alienability of land, since they were intermittently pushing each other off it.”

Some colonisers brought unmitigated benefits. Edmund Burke’s bête noire, Warren Hastings, India’s Governor-General between 1772 and 1785, was fluent in Bengali, spoke some Urdu and Persian, and pioneered the scholarly revival of Sanskrit (possibly ensuring its survival). He was only one of many intellectually-inclined Englishmen who beguiled sweaty spare time expanding knowledge of, and perpetuating, the captivating cultures surrounding them. All such earnest interest is now flippantly dismissed as condescending ‘Orientalism’, or ‘cultural appropriation’, when it was really cultural appreciation.

Other colonists brought modernity, often greatly welcomed. In India (which the British united), the incoming authorities erased the custom of sati – whereby widows of the recently-deceased were immolated along with their late husbands – and eliminated the murderous thuggee cult. The stereotypically class-bound British also strove mightily against the Hindu caste system, which locked millions of unfortunates into ‘Untouchable’ status. Imperial troops saved countless lives by separating mutually antipathetic Hindus and Muslims, although this is forgotten in justifiable criticism for the horrors of 1947’s Partition. Indians got thousands of miles of roads, the world’s largest railway network, vastly improved education, law and medicine, a civil service, an army – and cricket. Many natives became rich thanks to imperial opportunities. Third World Christians furthermore owe their now-valued faith to European evangelists, and even the angriest anti-imperial ideologies are grounded in Western political theory.

British rule was often a better guarantor of peace and justice than any other. Even at its nadirs, there was some degree of imperial accountability, hitherto usually absent. In 1919, after General Dyer’s local levies opened fire on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar, killing and wounding hundreds, Dyer was forced to resign, and compensation was paid to victims and families. In 1959, after 11 Mau Mau insurgents were beaten to death in a Kenyan prison camp, there were passionate denunciations in Parliament (famously by Enoch Powell), and shortly afterwards all the detention camps were shut. The fact that colonial government could be administered by so few (in 1939, the ratio of Britons to Africans in British tropical Africa was 1:18,432) implies that most imperial subjects consented to be governed.

It is often asserted that colonialism and slavery are essentially synonymous, and many of England’s famous country houses were therefore built with blood money. Biggar cites credible studies showing that slavery was not as economically important as is assumed; according to one, it contributed under one percent of total domestic investment around 1790. He naturally reprehends the activities of the Elizabethan sailor-speculators who initiated the triangular transatlantic trade (slaves from Africa to America, revenues and American goods to England, slaving expeditions back to Africa). But he reminds those who want to hear that slavery is as old as mankind, and hardly unique to England; the Portuguese actually played a larger part in New World slavery. It is not callow ‘whataboutery’ to remember that indentured English people sometimes lived in even worse conditions than slaves.

British public opinion and politicians, aided by Royal Navy vessels, later made some kind of recompense by almost extirpating the global trade, at great expense to the Treasury. Slave owners were controversially compensated for losing ‘their’ slaves, but even leading abolitionists supported this as expediting the end. In 1861, Lagos in Nigeria ironically became an imperial colony because the British wanted to destroy its slavery facilities. The Mahdists of Sudan rose against the British in 1883 partly because the British were stamping out ‘blackbirding’ (Arab enslavement of Africans).

There was a sense of English superiority, but this was complacent rather than persecutory, and culturally rather than racially rooted – based on scientific or technological comparators, religious idealism, or liberal notions about progress. The Empire was in no wise democratic, but nor was England for most of its history. Introducing democracy in the colonies could in any case have imperilled resented minorities, like Egypt’s Christians. Feelings of exceptionalism surfaced, but often only after some striking reminder of vulnerability – such as when thousands of sepoys rose in the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 and slaughtered colonists, including women and children – horrors further hyperbolised by jingoist journalism. But even at the lowest moments, there were always powerful voices urging kind treatment and sensitivity to native feelings, including that of Queen Victoria.

The Empire was never institutionally racist, as is lazily alleged, although many colonists were personally prejudiced, and there were informal barriers, like private club membership rules. It was widely (perhaps wishfully) assumed that natives could and would assimilate, and become honorary ‘English’ through example. The tragic cases of Newfoundland’s Beothuk people, and the aborigines of Tasmania, are frequently adduced as evidence of genocidal intentions. There were undoubtedly outrages, but there was no systematic extirpation. Inadvertently introduced epidemics and inter-tribal conflicts seem likelier causes in pushing these always small populations to extinction’s edge; recent DNA evidence furthermore suggests the Beothuk withdrew into Canada’s interior, there to intermingle with others.

All of us judge our ancestors, but Biggar reminds us that we must understand their ethical and historical constraints, and make allowance for human frailty. If we cannot always be proud of previous generations, nor is there any reason to feel ashamed. Old ills cannot usually be undone anyway, as the author notes sadly: “History contains an ocean of injustice, most of it unremedied and now lying beyond correction in this world.” This is a wise and informative book indeed – and a welcome corrective to a bad-tempered, distorted and above all deeply damaging orthodoxy.

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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