Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning
William Collins, 2023
The controversy over empire is not really a controversy about history at all. It is about the present, not the past. Nigel Biggar
The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. P. Hartley, The Go-Between.
The White population of the USA are wearily used to being beaten with the whip of historical slavery, but in the United Kingdom this weapon is not so effective. Great Britain certainly played a major role in the slave trade, but was most notable in being the first society in history to ban what was a worldwide process. Lacking slavery as a moral scourging-rod, and fortunately for the ethno-masochists who unaccountably direct cultural operations in the UK, they have the British Empire, on which, at one time, the sun famously never set. The Empire has become synonymous with and exemplary of White oppression of non-Whites, and relies on one of the faddish fortune-cookie tropes of cultural Marxism: oppressor and oppressed.
“What I have written is not a history of the British Empire but a moral assessment of it” writes former Professor Nigel Biggar, former Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, in Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, “This stated intent to produce a moral reading of Empire (as the British simply refer to the British Empire) drew me to the book, and I recommend it as a timely redress of today’s skewed use of morality. Professor Biggar is not a historian, as he stresses, but an ethicist, and not one of the modern pop-up versions who insist that the past may be judged by ethical standards which obtain in the present. He states clearly that he is a Christian and, although that is becoming an increasingly risky admission for any British academic, it gives the reader clarity of moral framework regardless of whether they share the author’s beliefs.
He was motivated to write the book as the result of an academic tussle over a university course entitled Ethics and Empire which he taught. It ought to be an unthinkable paradox that a book ultimately praised by leading British historians was almost cancelled before publication, but it is unsurprising in today’s intellectual climate, which is a climate we really ought to be worrying about.
The problem Biggar wishes to unpick is one of moral equivalence extended not culturally but temporally. Retrospective moral standards have two problems of application. Firstly, and simplistically, the validity of applying contemporary moral standards to past events is at best heuristic in the extreme—i.e., a very uncertain way of discovering the truth. Secondly, even if it were unproblematically common practice to apply synchronic standards to diachronic events and epochs, what kind of arbitrational procedure could state unequivocally that the moral standards that today obtain are appropriate to judge anyone at any time? Are the British today better or worse people than their Anglo-Saxon forebears? It is difficult to make sense of the question, let alone attempt to answer it.
This is not the place for more than a cursory overview of morality. After Nietzsche, and his key insight that moral codes are de facto rather than de jure, the idea of moral yardsticks is what the young people call problematic. In Paris, it is still possible to see meter-long lines engraved or painted onto the walls of old market buildings. This was for linen traders to mark off their cloth, and represented an agreed standard. Sadly, no such artisanal nicety exists for morals. Morality (along with metaphysics) was what philosophy was left with when science took the reins, and the phrase “moral philosophy” cannot have the surety of science.
The book contains a treasure trove for the historical layman to unpack, and the effort is more than worth it. Colonialism is shown not as some dark design, but a chess-like response to the imperialistic moves of other powerful European nations:
“The Tudor foundation of colonies in North America was also driven by the desire to secure England against the dominant power of imperial Spain”.
This rather goes against Mr. Biggar’s underlying theme, that there was “no motivation for Empire”, but this is playing with nuance. Empire was not an initiative or project, but a stealthy international game of Risk. Empire is shown not as “sheer acquisitiveness” but the imposition of order where “the brutal alternative would have been rule by irresponsible European adventurers”.
Colonialism also has a very serviceable potted history of the British Empire with just enough detail to inform without a weight of facts and figures in attendance. The Empire came at me piecemeal — as I suspect it did for many British people — as separate events not necessarily available as an overview, and Biggar joins dots that the British have never been taught to see. Empire itself is composed of discrete events gathered under a rubric. Great Britain (primarily England) invested more capital abroad than any other nation on earth, and that it also invested moral values is hardly surprising. Some of the subsequent culture clashes became famous.
The story of Sir Charles Napier and the Indian funeral pyre is undoubtedly known to you, but the paradox of empire is nowhere better portrayed in miniature. Sir Charles considered the Hindu ritual of sati, whereby a widowed woman would join her dead husband on his funeral pyre, quite possibly reluctantly. Build your pyre, said Sir Charles, and I will have my men build adjacent gallows on which we will hang any man involved in this act. Thus, you will observe your customs, and we will observe ours.
And that is the paradox both of empire and of morality. Morality is just fine in the household, but it is not easy to take it elsewhere. This moral response by Napier is seen by many contemporary academics as an example of “othering”, a strange epistemological sleight-of-hand intended to expose a natural cross-cultural event as classic racism.
Given the current war on Christianity, cultural in Europe and actual in some Muslim-majority countries, those seeking to dethrone what is still referred to as Britain’s national religion might note that it was Christian movements that contributed much to slavery’s abolition. I suppose we shouldn’t feel gleeful when we read ideas that would make Leftists today liable to some kind of cardio-vascular event, but it is difficult not to. Biggar has a supporting cast of historians who have not obeyed orders, and therefore put forward ideas that would appall a certain type of commentator. David Ritchie was a late nineteenth-century moral philosopher quoted by Biggar as saying quite plainly that slavery was: “…a necessary step in the progress of humanity… [since it] mitigated the horrors of primitive warfare”. And:
Empire is seen as a gradual evolution rather than a political program, and its beneficial effects are the first casualties of contemporary, anti-White critical theory. In one of many famous scenes from the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Reg, the leader of the Judean People’s Front, a resistance movement fighting the Romans, asks his followers, “What have the Romans have ever done for us?” The implication is that the imperialists have done nothing, but his comrades enumerate a great inventory of benefits brought by the Roman Imperium. Reg repeats the extensive list and admits its validity before ending the debate by asking what the Romans have done for the locals apart from law and order, sanitation, medicine, aqueducts, improved diet, etc. Nothing! This mirrors the attitude of the global Left to the British Empire, which did absolutely nothing for backward peoples apart from all the things it did do.
Look at the power of empires, which can be read off in their various legacies. An example is the power of language. Discounting Brazil and anomalous provinces such as Quebec, almost everyone between Alert, Nunavut (the northernmost inhabited point in Canada) and Cape Froward (the southernmost point in Chile) speaks languages which are not native and not even named for the countries where they are spoken. No one speaks a language called “American” or “Bolivian”. They speak English or Spanish. That said, I am sure readers towards the southern border (if it can still be called that) have heard the instruction “Press 1 for Spanish, 2 for English”. This order is the same across Latin America, and Britain would do well to learn how languages disappear by erosion, and empires arrive by other means.
The notion that empire was one-way traffic between colonizer and colonized is also debunked. We hear a lot about the Maoris today, the aboriginal tribal people of New Zealand (still a part of the British Commonwealth) whose traditions have been partly made famous by the Haka dance performed by the NZ Rugby Union team before international matches. The dance is aggressive and confrontational, particularly when playing British teams, but Maoris were not always as pushy to their colonizers: “Maori chiefs twice sent letters to King William IV, asking the British Crown to protect them from interference by settlers”.
This is a plea with a firm moral base, and the reaction of the British to requests and requirements from other nations and international events shows a tough moral stance in demanding circumstances.
Biggar certainly paints a picture that shames current political morality, if such a thing can be said to exist, as he finds that, under British rule: “[G]overnance was not so decrepit, bribery not so rampant, favouritism not so common, corruption and plunder of public funds not so pervasive, injustice not so blatant, and bureaucracy not so partisan as it is today”.
Progress is deceptive if it is seen purely in technocratic terms.
As Professor Biggar says in conversation, no one, either historian or activist, seems particularly exercised by history’s non-White Empires, be they Arabic or Zulu. So why should the White man be singled out, particularly when his empires were demonstrably superior to other attempts by the less-abled? Essentially, the British were victims of success, and now that the sun has set on Empire, the jackals of Critical Race Theory are moving in. The British Empire is synonymous with racism for the “woke” Left, and cannot be admitted to have a single redeeming feature. Britain’s punishment for this great and unforgiven gift is flowing across its borders on a daily basis. The Empire really is striking back.
Professor Biggar takes on his opponents, recognizing the main weapon of the post-modern academic is to attempt to debase the White global legacy. Anti-White argument is invariably ex cathedra, arriving at a conclusion without the preliminary steps of proof. Dan Hicks is a Professor of contemporary archeology at Oxford University. Professor Biggar shows up the modern academic “technique” of creating a lexicon which, although it appears to be profound and progressive, is really just anti-White name-calling:
Hicks’ thinking is structured by a number of abstractions: ‘corporate extractive capitalism’, ‘militarism’, ‘racism’, and ‘proto-fascism’. All of these are used to characterize ‘colonialism’ and are morally laden in a pejorative manner. None are explained or justified. They are taken as axiomatic.
This recent, emotive style of academic discourse is equivalent to the old philosophical “Boo/Hooray theory”, by which language is reducible to simple approval or disapproval of the subject under discussion.
How will the ethicists of the future assess our sorry epoch? It is devoutly to be wished that they apply the same approach as Mr. Biggar. Modern myths are springing up with increasing frequency as anti-White academia strengthens its grip on the narrative of history, one in which the roles of saints and sinners have been cast. Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning has as its central support something unpalatable to the new breed; that Empire was not an invasion.
In essence, Empire was the natural response of an island nation surrounded by physical and economic aggressors:
“The desire of self-defence and therefore advantage in international competition or war was often the leading imperial motive of those who ruled Britain, whether from the throne or from Parliament”.
It is not straightforward to recognize who currently rules Britain, but they would do well to understand the true course and legacy of the British Empire. This book should be on the shelves of Westminster, the Mother of all Parliaments, as well as in the office of anyone who teaches the history of the British Empire.