British Empire

Every so often a historical monograph produces a heated debate that places the author on the defensive for his or her views.  In our current world the term “wokeness” has worked its way into discussions of what should be taught and explored about our past.  The general view of those who are champions of this line of reasoning is that anything that disturbs our view of the past, places whites in an unfavorable light, and explores issues such as slavery, anti-immigration, possible racism, misogyny, etc. should not be taught in our schools.  This has led to book banning, violence when school boards meetings, and politicians who like to raise the woke agenda as a tool to gain or retain political power.  

In this environment enters Nigel Biggar’s new book, COLONIALISM: A MORAL RECKONING which supports the idea that the British Empire was not fundamentally racist, unequal or shamelessly violent.  Bigger argues the Empire had the capacity to learn from its errors and correct them.  Further, as the Empire evolved it became motivated by a sense of Christian altruism intent on preparing those who they colonized to assume self-government as liberal democracies.  Progressive historians are appalled by this view of history, and it is hard to classify Biggar’s argument on a wokeness scale.  Should his ideas be banished because they support a thesis that most find unacceptable, or should it be taught and discussed because of its support for the positive aspects of empire, which in the case of England outweighed any negative components.

Sadly, in the United States we live in a society that is in the grip of educational experts who support the woke agenda, individuals such as Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and others who appear in the media daily offering their convoluted viewpoints.  For them the College Board which oversees AP courses must adapt their curricula, i.e.; AP African Studies to avoid criticizing whites and exploring slavery.  Further books that they find offensive must be banned, and if a school board does not conform to their views they are met with threats and at times violence.

Prof Nigel Biggar

(Author, Nigel Biggar)

Whether we are exploring the past by American or British historians on topics that place their perspective pasts in a positive or negative light, academic freedom and intellectual curiosity should be the gold standard of education.  In both societies many feel threatened by the study of slavery, genocide against native populations, and prejudice that led to violence against non-white ethnicities.  If we accept the premise of the wok curriculum our future will become distorted as we refuse to honestly evaluate our past as a means of avoiding mistakes as we prepare for the future.

Professor Biggar who possesses a Ph. D in Christian Theology from the University of Chicago finds himself in the midst of the wok debate.  His new book encompasses the errors and positives as he perceives the impact of the British Empire on history.  Whether you agree with his thesis or not, he deserves the right to be published and read by those who wish.  Biggar’s call for a moral reappraisal of colonialism has not been met with open arms, but he argues historians have made people feel much too guilty about Britain’s colonial past.  He further argues that we must recognize the good and bad related to empire and his book is an attempt to create a moral balance sheet as we study the past.

The book itself had a rocky road to publication as one publisher stalled publication for months then withdrew Biggar’s contract.  Finally, when published it has entered the wokeness debate.  Biggar asks eight questions which he addresses throughout the monograph:

(1) was the imperial endeavor driven primarily by greed and the lust to dominate;
(2) should we speak of colonialism and slavery in the same breath, as if they were the same thing;
(3) was the British Empire essentially racist;
(4) how far was it based on the conquest of land;
(5) did it involve genocide;
(6) was it driven fundamentally by the motive of economic exploitation;
(7) since colonial government was not democratic, did that make it illegitimate; and
(8) was the empire essentiallyviolent and was its violence pervasively racist and terroristic.

Portrait of Chinese scholar and official Lin Zexu.

(Commissioner Lin Zexu)

As Biggar answers the questions he presents what seem to be reasonable arguments, though some are difficult to absorb.  He begins by arguing that we should not judge the past by the present as circumstances from previous centuries often vary from our own therefore it is difficult to morally judge the past.  Once Biggar explores the concept of motivations for empire he argues there was no main British motivation for empire.  But, he then argues that in many cases it was a protective tool against an enemy.  For example, England had no choice but to go after Spanish colonies to protect itself as Philip II sought to destroy Protestantism.  If we accept Biggar’s thesis it is clear that all territory England conquered in North America and the Caribbean was due to encroachment by foreign powers like France but in reality the motivation existed apart from protection of its own territory – the motivation was profit and money be it from the fur trade, natural resources, textiles, areas to place recalcitrant citizens etc.   Biggar needs to examine the concept of trade in greater detail if we are to accept his argument.  One cannot tell me that the East India Company was altruistic and were not motivated by profit.  Everything they did be it improving education or health rested on the bottom line profit.  One can argue that native people were backward and therefore superior civilizations had the right to rule them.  But as Ruth Benedict, the noted anthropologist and mentor to Margaret Meade has argued that “all cultures are equally valid, as long as they meet the needs of the existing culture.”  It is clear that certain cultures are backward according to “British” standards, but does that give them the right to oppress in the name of uplifting them for profit? 

Biggar does admit that “motives can be corrupted by vices, of course, and we have already seen evidence of greed and impudence.  Yet some degree of moral corruption is an invariable feature of human affairs infecting even the noblest of endeavors.  Moral malice or weakness is universal, but it need not be central or systematic.”  The author cannot have it both ways.

In discussing slavery Biggar argues that the British should be praised for abolishing the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in general in 1834.  Hurrah, but what of the 150 years of slavery that existed previously in which they were a practitioner?  What of the African slave trade or the fact that slave owners were compensated for lost slaves to the tune of 20 million pounds.  Interestingly, in Africa British slave traders played rival chieftains off against each other to further the trade or the fact that freed slaves were given little once they were freed, many of which stayed with masters as a means of survival.  British altruism is clear as slaves had to work (or be apprenticed) for 40-45 hours per week over a six year period to be freed!  Biggar seems to forget the legacy of slavery, its profitability for a century and a half, and the impact on the lives and families of slaves as they were separated at the slave auction, but as Biggar states “involvement in slavery was nothing out of the ordinary.” 

A major accusation against proponents of Empire is that of racism and prejudice.  Biggar argues that it was marginal as practiced by the Colonial Office and “the empire’s policies…were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of members of all races.”  There is a myriad of statements by British officials one can refer to like that of Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour that stated that it was unimaginable to equate a man from Central Africa as equal to that of a European or an American.

Biggar also argues that violence was never a major component of the Empire.  I would point to the Boer War of 1899-1902 and the use of concentration camps as a tool to defeat their perceived enemy.  The Opium Wars cannot be seen as nothing but violence against a government that sought to slow or eradicate the Opium trade.  Commissioner Lin’s demands of 1839 may have been off putting for the British ruling class, but it was a plea, perhaps in wording that came off as superior, but it was designed to protect the Chinese people from drugs which the British used to gain a favorable balance of trade. What of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, was not that violent.   Perhaps the Amritsar Massacre of April 1919 would come under the heading of extreme violence when British General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on an unarmed crowd of men, women, and children trapped in an abandoned walled garden during a Sikh festival.   I would also point to the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s against British rule and oppression – the result was war crimes committed by both sides.  What about the 1956 Suez War where the British attacked Egypt because Gamal Nasser, a nationalist Arab leader had the temerity to seize the Suez Canal.  If one reads the comments of Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd at the time they are more than just tinged with racism.  Biggar has been praised for setting these examples in their proper historical context, but that does not take away from the British attitude towards those who disagreed with them and their use of violence.

Photo of Nasser in black and white

(Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser)

For liberal imperialists, the “backwardness of non-Europeans, justified colonialism.”  Liberty and equality were the prerogatives of the privileged societal elites. In addition,  Biggar implies that the Empire was acquired by a series of accidents.  Once achieved it was designed to civilize the colonies, and train them for self-government.  If this is so why was the period of decolonization so bloody?  The bottom line is that the study of British colonialism is morally complex, so why is his thesis so simplistic? I agree with Kenan Malik’s view of Biggar’s work which appeared in the February 20, 2023, edition of The Guardian where he argues “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 politicized 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.”

Just remember the old joke” “Why doesn’t the sun set over the British Empire?” “Because you can’t trust the British at night!”

(The British Empire)


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