Saturday 2 September 2023

Colonialism – A Moral Reckoning

As the very long tem reader of the blog might recall, so long as they have an excellent memory as well, I have a passing interest in issues of colonialism, even going so far as to wonder, vaguely, whether wargaming categorization of native troops in colonial games was, itself, colonialism. At that point, in danger of disappearing into a logical vortex, colonialism took a bit of a back burner.

However, a while ago I read this:

Biggar, N., Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (London: William Collins, 2023).

Biggar is, of course, a quite well-known trendy righty moral philosopher and theologian, emeritus Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology the of University of Oxford. A while ago I read his in Defence of War, in which he took unfashionable views of whether warfare, in the modern world, was ever a valid response to what was going on in the world.

This book, as the background and title might suggest, tackles the anti-colonialism bent of recent years and attempt to debunk some of that movement’s key claims. Biggar is not a historian (but then, nor am I) and I think the book ran into a bit of a storm from trendy-lefty historians, as it questions some of the narratives (one might go so far as to call them tropes) of that movement.

I am not particularly committed to any side in this argument, I confess. While being a white male, my family are from poor stock and never seem to have benefited from the opportunities of imperialism. Nor do I have much time for the claims and counter-claims of ‘wokeness’, whatever the claimer might mean by that. Biggar does remark that sometimes it seems that the British Empire is targetted for anti-colonial rhetoric and demands for reparations because it is a relatively wealthy modern nation with a bit of a liberal conscience, and a significant number of people as citizens whose families came from the said colonies.

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Topic by topic Biggar attempts to undermine the narrative of bad faith, racism, slavery, conquest, cultural and other sorts of genocide, free trade and exploitation of natural and human resources, government and nationalism and the use of violence to maintain empire. Quite a charge list, I suspect you would agree.

Does Biggar’s anti-anti-colonialism case add up?

It has to be said that some of the claims that are made by the anti-colonial academics and journalists (not to mention irrelevancies such as bloggers and twits) do seem to be rather overblown in scale, if not in the events taking place. The British Empire was as inept as the next global scale government in dealing with people and places about which it knew very little. This does not amount to racism or deliberate bad government. It may well relate to bad communications, local circumstances and general incompetence.

A bunch of bad decisions, poor decision makers and non-communicated instructions does not make an empire a necessarily bad think. Biggar observes that, in some cases at least, the citizens of some of the now independent states look back on the time of colonial rule with some fondness because it brought order and, in the form of the local white officials, people who got to know them, their culture and who could represent them to government. The book, inside its covers, has a photograph of pro-British protests in Hong Kong. Well, all right. Point made: maybe transferring from one empire to another is a bad idea.

Whether Biggar’s counter-arguments work is something I am not really competent to assess. As I said, I am not a historian and do not have access to the works he quotes from and cites. While it is true that some of the anti-colonial academics should be rather embarrassed by their overblown rhetoric, proving it to be overblown does not establish the counter-argument. 

At best, and here Biggar is probably at his strongest, or would be if he had made this point, the anti-colonial arguments need nuancing against some sort of bench-mark of international nastiness. As we continue to see in the world today, international nastiness can be very nasty indeed. The crimes of the British Empire over 200 years are probably not on the same plane as those of Nazi Germany over 12.

Of course, it is perhaps unhelpful to compare empire with empire, gruesome crime against gruesome crime. The British Empire did do some good things in the world, such as a large contribution to stopping slavery, although the timings and mechanisms are open to criticism. It also bankrupted itself in fighting international fascism, although its response to that, in trying to exploit colonies all the harder was misguided.

I think, to be fair to both sides of the rather acrimonious debate, Biggar’s case is rather unproven. It reads more like a series of counter-examples to anti-colonialism cases than anything else. It might weaken some of the anti-colonial rhetoric, but that would probably happen over time anyway as historians calm down a bit and do some real work rather than plastering social media with the iniquities of the relatively recent past.

As a side note, the book was originally to be published by Bloomsbury, who seem to have got cold feet and pulled out of the contract. The time, it seems, was not right. To be honest, this is a bit lily-livered by the publisher. The book puts forward a case to be answered and, if the intellectual left prefers to burn it in public rather than refute its claims then so much the worse for them.

I do think, however, that there can be no calculus of colonialism. It is not possible to decide whether it was a good thing (it did bring some good things) or a bad thing (it did bring bad things). We cannot balance, say, the removal of voting rights from Cape Coloureds against the restoration of financial stability in Egypt in the 1880s. That we can even have such things in the same book shows the global reach o the British Empire and the impossibility of deciding whether it was a force for good or ill in the world.


  1. It is a very fraught subject, of course and on a moral level, we can probably agree that it would probably have been better for all concerned if everyone, starting with the Greeks and Romans (or perhaps earlier, I am not a historian either), had just been satisfied with their own countries and stayed there!
    But they didn't, empires rose and fell, the British was one of the most recent to do the latter and was also one of the largest to ever exist, so it probably gets the most "hate mail".
    For me, it is just history, and I don't see a lot of point in repeatedly poking it and raking it over to try and prove it was a Bad Thing - because that depends on your perspective and point of view.
    Having been born and lived in the UK for the first twenty-five years of my life, I have now lived in a former British colony (New Zealand) for over thirty-five years, and here, we can observe some of the post-colonial angst at first hand.
    For good or ill (again it depends on your perspective) the British crown made a treaty with the independent tribes of New Zealand, at Waitangi, in 1840. For about 140 years, it lay in dust covered obscurity, while the Pakeha New Zealanders got on with chopping down 90% of the preexisting forest to create thousands of farms, damming rivers for reservoirs and hydro power schemes and generally creating a first world liberal democracy along the lines of what they left behind in Blighty. Everyone thought the result was the land of milk and honey, a veritable heaven on earth......well, everyone with pale pink skin, anyway!
    Only a few years before I arrived in NZ in 1988, this started to slowly change, and the indigenous Maori people started a long and tortuous struggle/journey to redress some of the "wrongs" committed during the previous 150 years or so. The Waitangi Tribunal was established to make legally binding decisions on some controversial (to say the least) actions of the "Crown" (ie local settler government) in obtaining land from the tribes for the influx of Europeans. Thirty years later, most of the major land claims have been settled, Iwi (tribes) have been paid hundreds of millions of dollars and given formal apologies (in one case, even by the late Queen personally) but nothing is really any better - the majority of the population thinks the Maoris have been given more than enough but they still want more, the activist Maori politicians and advocates point out that the hundreds of millions of dollars they have received are a drop in the ocean compared with what the land they have lost would actually be worth, and meanwhile, every bad statistic in the country from poor health, bad education outcomes and over representation in the prison population indicates that the indigenous inhabitants of this country have been disadvantaged by colonialism.
    But what would their lives be like if we could have a make-believe world where the Europeans just stayed home and left them to their own devices? The Maoris had been in New Zealand for about 700 years when the British started colonising the country and they had created a stone age society that had no written language, had hunted the Moa and many other flightless birds to extinction, practiced slavery and cannibalism, and had a warrior culture that resulted in almost constant, low level inter-tribal war. (And, depending on which historian you choose to believe, they may also have committed genocide by wiping out the previous inhabitants of the land, the so called Moriori)
    With no foreign intervention, that society and way of life would presumably have continued - would the people who had lived under those conditions for the whole of the 19th and 20th centuries really have been better off? I am not so sure.

    1. Thank you for that, most interesting. There are no simple solutions to these problems, I think. The problems can be seen as historic injustices, but the difficulty of assessing the damage, and who was damaged are very complicated and hard to dissociate from special pleading.
      Morally, we have to question who is wronged in something happened 150 (or more) years ago and, if that can be established, what righting of the wrong might be possible. The Church of England has launched a fund for education in the Caribbean recently, as the descendants of slaves are judged to be of lower educational achievement (whether through the impoverishment of families or of nations I am not sure) than those of the never enslaved. But then there are pressing social issues in the UK, some of which also include the descendants of slaves, let alone issues around moderns slavery.
      It all gets more complex the more we examine it. It is not something we can or should walk away from, but then listening only to voices shouting on one side is not helpful either.