Religion & Liberty Online

Was the British Empire Evil?

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It’s a given among most academics today that Britain’s empire and economic success was the result of the depredation of native cultures and gross exploitation. But what if it’s not true?

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There is a comedy sketch from British television, now made immortal by the internet, in which a Nazi soldier, waiting for Russian troops to advance on his army’s position, uneasily examines the skull insignias on his uniform and wonders if they might, in fact, be the baddies.

Today it is ordinary Westerners who find themselves wondering, after all, if they are the bad ones. A flood of revisionist scholarship presents European colonialism and empire as an unmitigated evil and an exceptional crime. Worse still, the arguments run, today’s Western wealth, in both America and Europe, is built on the proceeds of that crime. Nor have imperialism’s racist assumptions gone away: they are foundational to modern Western societies and still permeate every corner of our lives. Revolutionary change is presented as the only decent answer.

Older generations approach all this with a wary scepticism. We remember being taught something very different: the nobility of the West’s imperfect but ongoing quest for a society of freedom and opportunity for all. For those now coming of age, however, tales of Western plunder and exploitation may be all they have ever known. Professors like Sir Hilary Beckles, who claims Britain’s wealth and power were “founded upon a crime against humanity,” have become authorities. The guilt-stricken intensity of the woke is best understood as the horrified reaction of a generation that has been taught to accept Western depravity as unquestionable and is now desperate for absolution.

Enter Professor Nigel Biggar, asking a disarmingly simple question: Is it true? His new book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, assesses the case against the British Empire. Rather than a narrative history, Biggar proceeds thematically, tackling each of the major accusations that are made in turn. These include Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade as against its leadership of the anti-slavery movement; whether its economic policies were exploitative; and whether its use of violence was excessive.

Biggar’s approach is calm and measured, preferring factual historical enquiry to the “nuance-vaporising ideological apparatus” of more fashionable takes. It is also not merely a historical investigation but a moral one. As such it asks hard questions about responsibility and foreknowledge, refusing to accept that every terrible outcome is proof that someone is to blame. A theologian and ethicist by training, Biggar is well placed to help the reader confront the difficulties that emerge when we stop hunting for reasons to condemn and try to judge honestly.

The result, it should be said, is no celebration of empire as an unmitigated good. Biggar lays many evils at the feet of British colonialism, produced by a mix of culpable wrongdoing, unjust actions, and unintended harm. These include:

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.

This grim list is, as Biggar states, lamentable. Not all the evils were deliberate, but where there is culpability, they merit moral condemnation.

Yet Biggar’s analysis also tears apart many popular cartoons of imperialism. It was never a uniform or coherent “project.” Nor was it sustained by constant and overwhelming violence, as Frantz Fanon claimed in the 1960s and more recent scholars like Caroline Elkins continue to maintain. The British Empire, Biggar finds, relied on “widespread acquiescence, participation and cooperation of native peoples.” That cooperation was frequently earned by the establishment of security and the rule of law, and it was maintained by the honesty and integrity of officials.

Incidents of racist contempt were part of the imperial picture, but so too was a fascination and respect for the cultures of the colonized. In India, Sanskritic civilization was saved from oblivion thanks to Western administrators like Warren Hastings, who said, “In truth, I love India a little more than my own country.”

The philologist William Jones, who with Hastings’ enthusiastic support founded the Calcutta Asiatic Society, helped give Hindu nationhood its material basis. That is not an isolated irony but an emblem of the wider historical reality. The liberal ideas that underpinned the British Empire were used to justify its paternalism, but they also handed ammunition to independence movements. Free trade disrupted India’s traditional spinning and weaving industries while driving a market expansion that actually increased traditional production. By the late 1800s, Indian entrepreneurs working within the imperial system had imported the new industrial techniques and built factories of their own. Manchester became the one that was outcompeted.

Biggar also demolishes another pillar of today’s anti-Western histories: imperialism as a kind of economic original sin, with all our wealth built on a foundation of ill-gotten loot. He cites the Swiss historian Rudolf von Albertini, whose extensive studies concluded “colonial economics cannot be understood through concepts such as plunder economics and exploitation.” On the controversial “Williams thesis,” which claims that the profits of slavery made a major capital contribution to Britain’s industrial revolution, Biggar details the scholars who have left the claim “wholly discredited.” By contrast, the British Empire’s naval suppression of the Atlantic slave trade over six decades was “the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history”—and was itself only part of the empire’s anti-slavery campaign, which lasted for a century and a half.

For those who insist on seeing the horrors of slavery as somehow emblematic of Western capitalism, it is also clarifying to encounter a scathing quote on the subject from Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, well before abolitionism had become mainstream. In 1759, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith presented African slaves as possessing greater moral dignity than their masters. He called them “nations of heroes” who were subjected “to the refuse of the gaols of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, not of those which they go to.” Here, as elsewhere, Biggar’s approach recovers the past’s complexity and escapes the unexamined abstractions that structure too much postcolonial scholarship.

In doing so, Biggar strikes a deliberate blow against something far more important than tendentious historical interpretation. “What is at stake,” he writes, “is not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday” but our self-perception and self-confidence today—and our ability to defend our values in the future. He wrote this book, he explains, to protect “the security of the West” itself.

That could sound overblown, but spreading a toxic, distorted narrative that denigrates the West’s record will inevitably corrode confidence in the Western order. That order, for all its faults, is built around principles of individual dignity, economic liberalism, and the rule of law. Unnuanced narratives of imperial evil only help the authoritarians in Moscow and Beijing who are eager to present their methods as a workable alternative. Meanwhile, basic principles of the liberal order like freedom of expression are already losing ground to cancel culture, eroding the values that make democratic politics work. Biggar’s first publisher of this book pulled out for fear of controversy. “Progress,” he notes, “can roll backwards.”

The nations of the West must resist the self-loathing that enables such institutional decay. We are not history’s real baddies. Biggar shows that for all the crimes of the British Empire, “there was nothing morally equivalent to Nazi concentration or death camps, or to the Soviet Gulag.” In contrast, the British Empire stood against Nazi aggression and for international law and order in World War II and evolved into an important part of the postwar anticommunist Western alliance.

As a new kind of Cold War descends, we need to remember the lessons of the last one. The Cold War against the Soviets required not just strong military forces but also the confidence to stand up for the Western tradition. As President Ronald Reagan said in his Westminster address of 1982, “The ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve.”

For too long, the West’s spiritual resolve has been attacked from within by what Biggar, quoting the historian Elie Kedourie, calls “the canker of imaginary guilt.” The arguments of this book cannot hope to cure that blight alone. But by offering an honest account of the British Empire’s record, in all its complexity, Biggar has shown that history uncorrupted by imaginary guilt is still possible. Better yet, his sales figures show it is popular as well. When the market of ideas is kept open, truth remains a winning proposition.

Marc Sidwell

Marc Sidwell is the author and presenter of a new six-part documentary, The West, for the New Culture Forum, available to watch on YouTube.