A fundamental error often made in contemporary discourse regarding historical events is to understand human history in terms of “purity and stain.” There is no room for evaluating the past as morally complex and various historical actors as human beings with imperfect knowledge and mixed motivations. Once a person, institution, or event is anachronistically adjudged as stained by the contemporary moral orthodoxy, it is reduced to moral and historical anathema and no aspect of it can be celebrated nor can any fruit of it be appreciated. European colonial history has fallen victim to this approach to understanding the past, but Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastor Theology at the University of Oxford, has written Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning to provide a more nuanced way to think about the West’s colonial record, specifically that of the British Empire. The book is not a history of the British Empire, per se. Rather, it is arranged thematically and not chronologically and engages many of the most controversial elements of contemporary discussion regarding the Empire including slavery, racism, conquest, nationalism, genocide, exploitation, and violence.
Postcolonial academics approach the British Empire from a far more critical starting point than Biggar does. To defend sweeping and systemic denunciations of the British Empire, Biggar argues, they must demonstrate that the moral stains of the colonial period are fundamental features of the British Empire in toto. To do so they must assume the simplicity of the British Empire, thus why they so often refer to it as a single “project.” Biggar never engages the subject in this way. Rather, he begins by rejecting the possibility of understanding the subject as if it had a single architect or a homogeneous aggregate of moral, political, or economic motives. The motivations that animated the British Empire, he argues, were complex and varied over time and space. The roots of the Empire began in 1066 with the Norman conquest and extend into the present day. They extend from the British Isles to every continent of the world, including Antarctica. Any attempt to extract the essential features of such a vast subject inevitably will be forced to generalize so broadly that their conclusions are meaningless. Critics of Biggar’s work are unsurprisingly those who accept such one-dimensional and simplistic accounts of British colonial history and reject Biggar’s assertion that the subject is complicated and multifaceted and is, therefore, immune from too simplistic and unnuanced evaluations.
Colonialism, however, encountered controversy even before it was published. The book was originally slated to be published by Bloomsbury, which had approached Biggar in 2018. As late as 2020, the publisher was enthusiastic about the manuscript, but in March 2020, Bloomsbury contacted Biggar to say, “We consider that public feeling on the subject does not currently support the publication of the book and will reassess that next year.” It is impossible to know how well the book would have sold without such an unusual path to publication, but it is currently “Number 1” among new releases in its category on Amazon and widely reviewed. So, Bloomsbury opted to buy out Biggar’s contract, accept a financial loss, and hand a commissioned project to a competitor because of “public feeling?” Such a turn of events demonstrates just how important this work is across several fronts.
A survey of reviews for Colonialism suggests that many reviewers miss the point of the work. Reviewers challenge it as history, as polemic, and as apologetic. But, Biggar never identifies it as such nor does the form or substance of the work warrant a conclusion that it is any of these things. It is not an unvarnished and triumphalist treatment of Britain’s imperial past. In fact, Biggar includes in a litany of evils attributable to the British Empire both specific harms and unintended harmful effects. He affirmatively points out that this list includes horrific and lamentable evils such as “brutal slavery; the epidemic spread of devastating disease;…policies of needlessly wholesale cultural suppression;…unjustifiable military aggression;” among others. Yet, in contrast to Biggar’s admissions against British imperialism, few if any postcolonial accounts of the Empire contain any positive accounts of any incidents of charity or benefit at all. I suspect that, at the very least, the people of Hong Kong would much prefer British colonial rule to their current persecution by the Chinese Communist Party, not that there is not much acknowledgment of that among Biggar’s critics.
Taken on its own terms, Biggar’s work accomplishes exactly what the author intends: challenging the anti-colonialist “public feeling” that is a result of a reductionistic, overly simplistic moral assessment of the British Empire. The endnotes account for nearly 200 pages of this responsibly researched and convincingly argued work. Those who refuse to take it seriously simply cannot be taken seriously themselves.
Most concerning about the response to this work and its relatively simple thesis and is the question about the place of civil and reasoned discourse in the public square. Biggar’s book is not a screed in favor of slavery, genocide, or any number of social ills. He implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) accepts the concept of “empire” as a morally neutral political arrangement and surveys the checkered record of the modern world’s largest and most influential empire. Are his presuppositions correct? Are empires by definition immoral? Seems like an interesting question to debate, but most anti-colonialists seem to assert the affirmative (while also condemning all stripes of nationalism, too). What is the critical mass of evils that would render the entire British Empire irretrievably stained and justify plenary condemnation? Biggar suggests that if such a theoretical critical mass exists then the historical record does not support the conclusion that it was ever reached. But reading the anti-colonialists alone seem to suggest that that threshold is anything less than absolute and unambiguous purity.
Colonialism is an important book that engages a timely subject. With the ascendency of a new British monarch from a new generation who is now reigning over the British Commonwealth rather than an empire, debates about the colonial legacy of Great Britain are important in Britain and her former colonies, including the United States. The implications of the debates are significant, too. Questions about economic reparations, national and religious identity, the morality of “western values,” and many more are impacted by this debate. Biggar helpfully contributes by offering a reasoned, measured, well-researched, and intelligent articulation of one of the most frustrating answers to every complex question: “It’s complicated.”