A reappraisal of colonialism by an Oxford professor strains credulity and ill serves his aim of defending ‘western values’
Mon 20 Feb 2023
The hand-coloured engraving Indian Mutiny 1857-59: Death of Brigadier Adrian Hope During British Attack on Fort Roodamow 15 April 1858. Photograph: Photo12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
In 1857, in the wake of the Indian mutiny, a British officer, Lt George Cracklow, described in a letter home what happened to captured rebels. “The prisoners were marched up to the guns… and lashed to the muzzles,” he wrote. “The guns exploded… I could hardly see for the smoke for about 2 seconds when down came something with a thud about 5 yards from me. This was the head and neck of one of the men… On each side of the guns, about 10 yards, lay the arms torn out at the shoulders.”
Nigel Biggar, in his new history of British colonialism, acknowledges the brutality of Britain’s response to the mutiny but argues that the use of violence is “essential” to any state, as is “the deterrence of others through fear”. He adds: “Whatever one thinks of ‘blowing from a gun’ as a method of execution, it was not indiscriminate, insofar as the victim had been judged guilty of some crime.”
The director of Oxford University’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, Biggar has caused waves in recent years with his call for a moral reappraisal of colonialism. Contemporary historians, he believes, have made us feel too guilty about Britain’s colonial past. We need to recognise not just the bad but also the good of empire. Colonialism is his attempt to create such a moral balance sheet.
Biggar’s response to the treatment of Indian rebels exemplifies his approach. One might have thought that a professor of theology would have paused before attempting to find moral exculpation for such savage punishment. Biggar’s approach, however, is wherever possible to find good motives behind every colonial act – he portrays racial segregation, for example, as the product not of racism but of the desire “to protect native peoples from harmful encounters with settlers”. And where it proves impossible to locate a nugget of good, he seeks instead to find exonerating circumstances for the bad.
Biggar concedes that the empire “did contain some appalling racial prejudice”, but this was relatively marginal
The British empire, for Biggar, “was not essentially racist, exploitative or wantonly violent”. It was born out of many motives, from “cultural curiosity” to “the vocation to lift oppression”, none of which was “morally wrong”. Britain’s “involvement in slavery was nothing out of the ordinary” but its attempts to abolish it were particularly selfless given “the higher price that British consumers would have to pay for freely produced sugar”.
Biggar concedes that the empire “did contain some appalling racial prejudice”, but this was relatively marginal. Rather, “the empire’s policies… were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of members of all races”.
These are claims that strain credulity, not least the belief that the British empire was not deeply invested in ideas of racial hierarchy. In 1919, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour dismissed the idea that the new League of Nations should adopt a statement about equality, insisting it unimaginable “that a man from central Africa could be regarded as the equal of a European or an American”.
This was a viewpoint long stitched into the fabric of empire. The Liberal politician Charles Wentworth Dilke’s claim that “nature seems to intend the English for a race of officers, to direct and guide the cheap labour of eastern peoples” was far closer to the reality of British perceptions than Biggar’s wishful account. As one-time prime minister Archibald Primrose, the 5th Earl of Rosebery, asked: “What is empire but the predominance of race?”
Similarly, with Biggar’s claim that violence was never an important part of empire. He suggests that the cannonading of Indian rebels, while morally explicable, was nevertheless “repudiated” by the “heart of the Raj”. That, again, is a tendentious view that sits ill with the reality of empire. As even John Kaye observes – in his semi-official A History of the Sepoy War in India, written in the the aftermath of the insurrection – the punishment served as “a wonderful display of moral force” designed to erase any “misgivings” about the “superiority of [the English] race”.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Colonialism is that, for all the claims to be a “moral reckoning”, moral questions are rarely taken seriously. Consider the discussion of Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1834, for which slave owners received total compensation of £20m (about £16bn today).
For liberal imperialists, the ‘backwardness’ of non-Europeans validated colonialism
Biggar describes the compensation as a necessary “political compromise”. That is a legitimate view; but a moral account should surely dig deeper into the ethics of providing recompense for lost “property” when that property consisted of other human beings.
Most tellingly, Biggar seems not to recognise as a moral issue the fact that while slave owners received reparations, slaves themselves did not. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary, Biggar imagines that freed slaves continued working on the old plantations not out of economic necessity, having been deprived of all resources, but because of the generosity of former masters in providing housing and food.
There is a more profound moral issue about colonialism, too. When Russia invaded Ukraine, most people recognised the denial of sovereignty to Ukrainians as a moral wrong. Few would suggest that we need to tabulate the “good” and the “bad” of Russian rule before passing judgment upon it.
Biggar refuses to view British colonialism through the same moral lens because he accepts the claims of colonial administrators that the people over whom they ruled were too “backward” to govern themselves. “It surely cannot always be patronising to believe that foreign people need help, guidance or protection,” he disingenuously suggests.
Even in the 19th century such claims were challenged. After the Indian mutiny, John Stuart Mill, the lodestone of Victorian liberalism, defended colonial rule, listing as justification, like Biggar 150 years later, the various improvements it had brought to India. Working-class radicals were unimpressed. An editorial in the Chartist People’s Paper insisted that “the revolt of Hindostan” was no different from struggles for freedom by European peoples. Many Britons had supported Poles in their conflict with Russia. They should equally support the struggle of Indians against Britain.
For liberal imperialists, the “backwardness” of non-Europeans validated colonialism. For radicals, liberty and equality were the prerogative of all, not the privilege of the “civilised” few. A century and a half later, we are still having that same debate.
Biggar’s real concern is not with the past but with the present. Denigrating colonialism, he claims, is an “important way of corroding faith in the west”. Yet, in seeking to challenge what he regards as cartoonish views of imperial history, Biggar has produced something equally cartoonish, a politicised history that ill-serves his aim of defending “western values”. After all, to rewrite the past to suit the needs of the present, and to defend people’s rights only when politically convenient, is hardly to present those values in a flattering light.
Kenan Malik is the author of Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics (Hurst, £20)
Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar is published by William Collins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
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