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3 March 2023

Nigel Biggar’s whitewashing of empire

The historian is right that Britain’s colonial legacy is morally complex. So why is his defence of it so simplistic?

By Tomiwa Owolade

Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning was initially due to be published by Bloomsbury. It had reached the copy-editing phase in the early months of 2021; a cover had even been designed. But Biggar received an email in March of that year from a senior figure at the publishing house who said they had decided to postpone the book indefinitely. This was because public feeling, at that time, “was not favourable” for a work that took Biggar’s line on the British empire. Bloomsbury offered to release Biggar from his contract and pay out his advance. Another publisher, William Collins, then took the title on.

A range of works in recent years has been published assessing the British empire and its legacy – from Kehinde Andrews’ The New Age of Empire to Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland. Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year. Biggar’s book is different in that he has many positive things to say about British colonialism.

[See also: America’s oldest shame is violence, not racism]

Whatever one thinks of Biggar’s views, Bloomsbury’s decision was wrong: what is the point of being a mainstream publisher if you acquiesce so swiftly to what is morally fashionable rather than cater for a wide readership? Let readers make up their own minds on this highly contentious issue; it is not the role of publishers to dictate what is and is not permissible. As it is, Biggar’s book is worth reading. It is fascinating because there are two authors at work: Biggar the historian and Biggar the polemicist. They are very different.

Colonialism is a response to the picture that many thinkers draw of the British empire – that it was a fundamentally racist, violent and genocidal endeavour with few redeeming features. Biggar, by contrast, wants to tell “a more historically accurate, fairer, more positive story” about the British empire than the one that “the anti-colonialists want us to hear”. What is at stake, he argues, is “not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday, but the self-perception and self-confidence of the British today, and the way they conduct themselves in the world tomorrow”. The book is thus not simply a historical account. It has a moral and political purpose.

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History, however, is of the utmost importance to Biggar’s project. Indeed, one of his main criticisms of anti-colonialists is that they lack historical rigour. The British empire, for instance, was not a singular and homogeneous entity: “Anti-colonialists often talk about ‘the colonial project’, as if an empire such as the British one was a single, unitary enterprise with a coherent essence.” They frame the empire in this way so they can “characterise that supposed essence in terms of domination, despotism, oppression, racism” and so forth. The truth is the empire was a complex force. It was not, Biggar writes, “the fruit of a single motive or cluster of motives, such as the desire to dominate and exploit, or even to improve and civilise. There was no essential motivation behind the British empire.”

Biggar’s analysis here rings true. The motives of those who built the empire, he convincingly notes, were multiple rather than singular: “They differed between trader, migrant, soldier, missionary, entrepreneur, financier, government official and statesman. They sometimes differed between London, Cairo, Cape Town and Calcutta.” So, it is incorrect to argue that the British empire was solely about racism and domination – meaning any comparison between it and Nazi Germany, for instance, is extremely crude.

But there is a significant problem with Biggar’s book. In order to undermine the criticism of certain anti-colonial thinkers he emphasises that the British empire was morally complicated, but elsewhere he makes positive generalisations about this same empire. His Mr Hyde always comes out at the expense of his Dr Jekyll.

In his account of various historical episodes – from the Indian mutiny to the Amritsar massacre, from the Boer War to the crushing of the Mau Mau rebellion – he rightly identifies the empire’s various moral failings, harms and abuses: “brutal slavery; the epidemic spread of devastating disease; economic and social disruption; the unjust displacement of natives by settlers; failures of colonial government to prevent settler abuse and famine; elements of racial alienation and racist contempt; policies of needlessly wholesale cultural suppression; miscarriages of justice; instances of unjustifiable military aggression and the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force; and the failure to admit native talent to the higher echelons of colonial government on terms of equality quickly enough to forestall the build-up of nationalist resentment”.

[See also: The narcissism of anti-racist therapy]

But elsewhere in the book he also claims that anti-slavery was at the heart of the British empire from the 19th century onwards. This is based on Britain having abolished its slave trade in 1807 and slavery in its colonies in 1833, and using the Royal Navy throughout that century to suppress the trafficking of slaves along Africa’s Atlantic coast and across the Indian Ocean. Biggar infers from this that, “The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not essential to the British empire, and whatever racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit.” But this only shows that slavery was not essential to the British empire. It doesn’t illustrate that whatever racism exists in Britain today is irrelevant to the slave trade and slavery within the empire.

Biggar has a very narrow definition of what constitutes racism. He thus argues that Cecil Rhodes was not a racist because Rhodes didn’t believe black people were biologically inferior to whites. Rather, he viewed black people essentially as children who could only develop under the tutelage of a more culturally advanced civilisation. Biggar also approvingly quotes John Stuart Mill, one of the 19th century’s most influential liberal thinkers, who argued that in the context of imperialism: “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.” That Biggar can so blithely argue that those who view colonised people as children or barbarians were anti-racist severely undermines his claim to scrupulous moral objectivity.

There is also a tense defensiveness that mars the book throughout. In 1919 General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire on unarmed protestors in Amritsar, killing hundreds. The British empire soon repudiated Dyer’s actions, but this does not prove it was not essentially racist and violent. And in any case, Dyer loved the Indian soldiers that served under him, don’t you know.

[See also: On the eradication of species]

The tension between Biggar the reductive polemicist and Biggar the nuanced academic is so strong that reading this book is like continually experiencing whiplash. At the end of chapter five, he proclaims: “In North America, Australasia and Africa the policies of the imperial government in London, and consequently those of the colonial governments beneath it, were based on the Christian and Enlightenment conviction of the basic human equality of members of all races, and driven by the humanitarian desire to enable less advantaged – less privileged – peoples to survive, develop and flourish.” And yet later he writes: “The government of the British empire was not highly centralised, in part because, for much of its history, it could not be.” Biggar is himself guilty of what he accuses anti-colonialists of doing: drawing simplistic moral conclusions from what is, by his own account, a complex historical phenomenon.

In one passage, he quotes from the influential Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, who argued in 2012 that, “The legacy of colonialism is not a simple one but one of great complexity, with contradictions – good things as well as bad.” Biggar’s book, sadly, is not faithful to this quote. He is only committed to it when he is defending the empire from detractors who label it as nothing more than an evil endeavour. But he quickly abandons this subtle mode when he is making his own moral assessment of the imperial project.

That the British empire was not essentially racist does not mean it was essentially benevolent – and yet that is the impression one gets from reading many passages in this book. More than anything else, this is a historical failing.

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning
Nigel Biggar
William Collins, 480pp, £20

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[See also: Europe’s false dawn]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid