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Colonialism – A Moral Reckoning

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Review of Colonialism – A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar

History is curious - when we look back on it we are constantly struggling to understand context, what it was like, but when we live through it we’re actually not quite sure what is going on and appreciate looking back to see what happened when the dust has settled, as say a review of Nigel Lawson’s life or reading an account of the Falklands war 40 years on. If we had actually been there we can judge more widely whether the account is true and fair. 

Nigel Biggar’s recent book is not a history of colonialism in general (which has been going on since the Assyrians) but mostly of British activity, and this not as a detailed chronology but focussing on particular themes and key events. ‘Colonialism’ like ‘Racism’ has in recent years been used as a term to shame us and Nigel Biggar, a Professor of Ethics at Oxford, sets out to see if this is valid. 

In an Epilogue he also considers the motivations of the ‘shamers’. 

The result of extensive research and evaluation is a history our parents and grandparents would have been familiar with - many of whom would have ‘been there’, or read contemporary reports.  I feel it would have been judged by them as true and fair. 

Trade and discovery

Britain, like other European nations, set out to explore the world and to establish trade.  

The Portuguese discovery of a sea route to India in the late 1490s was motivated by the wealth of the merchants of Venice who were getting rich trading spices acquired from the ‘Indies’ via Alexandria’s Arab merchants. 

Henry the Navigator decided to cut out the middlemen and go the other way round unexplored Africa so sailed south and east. This was difficult given the prevailing winds but after a number of attempts finally reached the tip of Africa then Madagascar and eventually the Indian coast.  

Columbus famously claimed he could get there by going west. His geo-spherical maths was not so good hence the land he fortuitously bumped into being misnamed the ‘Indies’. 

Britain later followed this pattern with companies being set up like the British East India Company to attract capital and manage the considerable travel and trade risks. These companies liaised with local merchants and civic leaders to build storehouses and establish plantations. 

Wider influence

In his book Prof Biggar unpacks the general development of trade and influence from the later 1700s and then goes on to cover specific topics in detail, addressing the charges made against Britain: Slavery to Anti-slavery; Human Equality, Cultural Superiority and Racism; Land Settlers and ‘Conquest’; Cultural Assimilation and ‘Genocide’; Free Trade, Investment and ‘Exploitation’; Government, Legitimacy and Nationalism; Justified Force and ‘Pervasive Violence’. 

The key headline issues are covered: Boer War camps, Mau Mau uprising, Benin Bronzes, Egypt & Israel, Indian Mutiny, Amritsar, Opium War, Canadian indigenous schools, Irish nationalism. 

These are documented clearly and readably, examining the source material and painting a realistic picture of events. There are also extensive notes (a third of the book). Where clear fault and wrongdoing have played a part, Biggar notes these clearly, yet all while bringing much needed context. 

Overall the same sentiment and will behind the abolition of slavery is reflected in British actions throughout the colonial period and its fruit is seen in the good relations implicit in the Commonwealth. So why such an effort to paint all this negatively? 

Why anti-colonialism?

At the start of this project Prof Biggar was attacked by fellow academics for even daring to explore the ethical case. For them it was a foregone conclusion that British colonialism was the result of conquest and was violent and exploitative.  

Much of the criticism is seen to be based on poor research motivated by an activist agenda. It’s notable that recent colonisers like Russia and China did not attract any attention. Other motivations include a lack of intellectual courage, fears about academic advancement, masochistic virtue-signalling (a parody of true humility). 

Overall Prof Biggar concludes:

‘This is not a case of what anti-colonialists condescendingly dismiss as ‘imperial nostalgia’ … Rather it is about discriminate identification with liberal, humanitarian principles and endeavours of the colonial past that deserve to be admired, owned and carried into the future’ (p297)

It seems the ’shamers’ are trying to advance the opposite. 

Christian influence

Professor Biggar is a Christian and there is a sense that this has helped him to seek the truth, present it fairly and challenge false accusations.

There is little mention of missionary work, this is arguably outside the book’s scope, but it is undeniable that the spread of British influence allowed evangelism to take place in sub-Saharan Africa, India, Asia where the Great Commission had not reached before. In all those places it also contributed to the material and emotional well-being of the people. The ‘humanitarian principles’ were both inspired and sustained by Christian faith. 

As noted historian Niall Ferguson says: ‘This book simply cannot be ignored by anyone who wishes to hold a view on the subject’