Professor Nigel Biggar, an ethicist at Oxford, wrote the a treatise on the conduct of the British Empire, a version of the Encyclopaedia Pax Britannica. It is not, he insists, a defense of the good old days but rather a reaction to the self-confidence of “decolonialism”, which casts doubt on the present order by approving the past. In doing so, he argues, it makes history and ethics wrong.
Decolonilists insist that the empire was an oppressive, racist project similar to the Third Reich. Biggar says it “had no significant impact”. Traders attacked; companies followed; the government stepped in to formalize and bring order, cooking up moral motives to justify what was already going on. Once the government started, going back was considered impossible, although many Britons questioned whether it was right or possible.
It could be racism; it also had “reverence, admiration, and real kindness, which has a lot of knowledge, which costs a lot of money.” Cecil Rhodes, whom Biggar has recently gained unwanted fame for defending, apparently regarded the Englishman and the African as the same thing, differing only in the degree of civilization – and did he Was it such a surprising analysis given the obvious technological advances of the West? The arrival of Christianity ended local customs, of course, but it also meant the fight against burning widows in India or Female Genital Mutilation in Africa.
Our ancestors plundered, of course, but they also laid railroads and built schools. Biggar notes: “In Kenya the annual infant mortality among Africans dropped from 300-500 per thousand live births in the 1920s to 145 in the 1950s. Uganda and the Gold Coast accounted for almost half. An Egyptian historian wrote, in 1968, that the British administration brought about “a low tax, an efficient financial system… A real per capita income during the first decade [the 20th] century was higher than at any other time in modern Egyptian history, with the possible exception of the early 1920s.”
The order was enforced. After the 1857 Indian Mutiny, British soldiers forced the rebels to “lick the blood” from the ground, and sewed Muslims into pigskins before hanging them. But “Raj’s heart refused” the murder, and it sparked “great self-loathing at home.” Indeed, decolonization’s focus on imperialism tends to leave out the record of the British who opposed it, creating a two-dimensional picture of our own historical makeup. Frederick Douglass, a black American revolutionary, arrived in England in 1845 and found “from every man the respect of my manhood”, without the hatred he had to contend with at home. . The campaign to end slavery was “very popular”.
The way one views the British Empire probably depends on its relationship with slavery. You can cry that it benefited from it or you can celebrate the fact that it destroyed it (at great cost). Biggar suggests that a moral person can do both, accepting the culture or the limited choices of our ancestors. For example, it is deplorable that slave owners were compensated for the loss of their “property” – but modern reformers found it as depressing as we do, assuming that a little compromise was necessary to avoid coercion and get something good.
The decolonizers emphasize the role of slavery in the economy of the former empires but the latter empire – an event that seemed to be the greatest in the imagination, when we were hunting in Africa and ruling the waves – was motivated in part by efforts to end the trade: “It forced General Charles Gordon to enter the Sudan… It found expression in the regulations of the Imperial British East Africa Company.” In Malaysia and Indonesia, Sir Stamford Raffles “abolished the importation of slaves” and freed the Bencoolen, setting up a school for their children. The fact that I did not know some of these suggests that away from the British culture that nurtures us to be petty imperialists, things have changed in a different way. There are many good things about our civilization that have been forgotten.
Biggar’s book is a carefully thought-out, powerful text that one can imagine readers plundering for notes and quotes to use in dinner parties. One can also spot criticism a mile away.
The author may insist that he is not a government traitor, but by editing so much evidence to reduce it, the article reads like an apology. At the same time, the sound is not as passionate as Vulcan. “Whatever one thought of the ‘gunshot’,” he writes of that terrible method of execution used by the British in India, “it was not indiscriminate, just as the victim had been convicted of a specific crime.” I’d still prefer a handshake.
Biggar is sympathetic as a mild-mannered academic who stumbles through the culture wars like a patch of nettles, yet the book is clearly challenging. Imperialism and colonialism were different things, he writes the introduction, and he chooses to avoid words because he does not do justice to the amorphous nature of this complex phenomenon – but then what does he call his book? Colonization! The professor is spoiling the fight, and I’m afraid he’ll find out.
Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning is published by William Collins at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books