The History Wars – internecine academic fights over historical interpretation – have existed for as long as humans have been chronicling events. The most famous recent version of this recurring battle, the Historikerstreit, came in late 1980s Germany and roiled the world of German letters. It involved two divergent interpretations of the Nazi period’s place in German history, but it also reflected arguments over contemporary West German politics. Disputes over the singularity of the Holocaust, the culpability of German society for Nazi atrocities, and the teleological unfolding of German history blended with arguments on German nationalism, potential future reunification, and social and historical guilt. The fracas was erudite, high-brow, and philosophical. Its influence is still felt today, during similar debates over Germany’s role in the world and how historical memory should inform it.
Not all historical disputes are as serious-minded and carefully-argued as the Historikerstreit. In fact, the current version taking over the Anglosphere is much less sober and much more antagonistic than its German predecessor. Instead of a debate over issues of interpretation and context, we are in the midst of a full-bore attack on Anglo-American history as such. This new History War crosses the Atlantic: American history is under siege by revisionist views of the founding, while British history is routinely lambasted as terroristic, genocidal, and morally indefensible. Mobs have destroyed statues, historic names have been changed under activist pressure, and frenzied protests surround any prominent figure who dares espouse a nuanced view of the past. The revisionist idea that Anglo-American history is profoundly evil is now regnant in the academy, the media, and the political left.
It is in this context that Nigel Biggar, renowned ethicist and Regius Professor of Moral & Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, has released his latest book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. Inspired to weigh the moral record of British imperialism by the strident efforts to paint it as uniquely immoral, Biggar compiled a complete dossier on the most common revisionist claims, putting them – and the Empire they decry – to the ethical test. A Sunday Times bestseller in the United Kingdom, the book serves as a strong counteroffensive in the Imperial History Wars, working through the myriad moral arguments modern anti-colonialists make against the British Empire and assessing their veracity.
The organization of the book lends itself well to this complicated task. Colonialism is segmented into eight main chapters, each on a distinct critique of the British Empire. There are chapters on imperial motives, slavery, racism, land, cultural assimilation, economics, governance, and the use of force. Since each chapter deals with an overarching issue, the book bounces around chronologically. This could be challenging to follow, but Biggar’s writing is so clear that it works. The author presents the simplistic anti-colonial case, assesses its claims by referencing primary source documents and the testimony of other historians, and enters an informed judgment based on the evidence. The seriousness with which Biggar treats this task is quite contrary to the approach of his opponents: “One surprising thing I have seen is that many of my critics are really not interested in the complicated, morally ambiguous truth about the past.” When reading Colonialism in comparison to the work of its detractors, this is self-evident.
Unlike those critics, Biggar is curious about the complexities of Empire and has a strong moral framework for judging it. In a book which makes moral assessments about colonialism, having such a consistently applied, clearly-stated ethical rubric is necessary. One may agree or disagree with the framework Biggar chooses, but his holding to it allows the reader to fairly assess whether he has proven his claims – and, more importantly, whether the anti-colonialists prove theirs. The book relentlessly hits on the crux of the matter: that context and intentions are vital for making historical moral judgments. Context is key, as is the question of comparison; this is evident in the chapter on economics, which correctly evaluates colonial outcomes against contemporary alternatives, not idealistic utopias. When this is done, anti-colonialist claims collapse.
With respect to intentionality, a factor that imperial critics often deliberately obscure, Biggar provides transparency. Anti-colonialist activists assume – without evidence – the intentions of colonial administrators were uniformly evil and irredeemably bigoted. When the historical record is examined, the reality is far more complex. Biggar shows the aims of these imperial figures were often benign, even when implementation was flawed. A case study involves the controversies over famine relief: administrators sought to ameliorate suffering and rectified early failures. Famine was a fact of life for all of human history, and global relief campaigns were far more difficult to accomplish in the era before air travel. Still, imperial policy tried to reduce famine through irrigation, incentivized farming, and targeted relief efforts – the intentions were good, even if the results were lacking.
One excellent chapter breaks down the Empire’s use of force and whether it was morally justifiable. As with earlier sections, the moral frame being used – in this case the Christian theory of ‘just war’ – is detailed and defended. Contrary to critics who view any and all imperial uses of force as unjustifiable, Biggar lives in reality, where state violence, or the threat thereof, is necessary for the perpetuation of governance. He delves into several highly-criticized events over the history of the British Empire, from the Opium Wars to the Mau Mau Uprising, and weighs the moral claims made about them. The analysis is fair-minded, direct, and thorough. What matters most to Biggar is whether the force used is consistent with a distinct rule of law or whether it is arbitrary and capricious. In this respect, the Empire stands strong, especially when compared to its contemporary substitutes.
Biggar shines perhaps brightest when Colonialism debunks various myths about the Empire which have been promulgated as fact by the anti-colonial left. One such falsehood is of a centralized, London-directed British Empire; this could not be further from the truth. In reality, the Empire was decentralized and the influence of the metropole in the colonies was often quite weak. Biggar explains this reality and usefully focuses on the on-the-ground administrators over the purported decision-makers in London. This reorientation of the imperial story enlightens the reader about the actual powers in the colonies. The light-touch approach of the Empire after the loss of the American colonies in 1783 – in part due to overly-intrusive governance – forced colonial authorities to work with locals, not simply rule them. The interplay between governor and governed created native partnerships that proved highly useful upon decolonization, as they laid the groundwork for competent independent authority.
Biggar also takes on a chronic issue in the Imperial History Wars: the tendency for anti-colonial advocates to wildly exaggerate claims of British perfidy while downplaying the barbarity of native cultures. This hypocritical relativism is anathema to a considered review of the Empire’s morality, and Biggar rightly skewers it.
Critics accuse the British of killing millions by choice or neglect, but these claims are decontextualized at best and invented at worst. In an egregious case of the latter, scholar James Daschuk argues that Canada perpetrated a “genocide” on native people via its deliberate mismanagement of an 1880s famine. Contrary to these explosive assertions, Biggar details the actual famine-suppression efforts and seeks to put the episode into perspective, writing: “the number of native deaths attributable to starvation on the Canadian plains from 1879-1883 was somewhere in the region of forty-five. No, that is not a typographical error.” The other side of the coin, the purposeful indulgence of native atrocities, is deftly handled in Colonialism, particularly in a discussion of the Benin Expedition of 1897. Activists falsely claim that Britain’s intervention was murderous and unprovoked, while excusing the manifest evils of the Benin regime, including widespread, gruesome human sacrifice. Biggar focuses his fire on Oxford archaeologist Dan Hicks and his book The Brutish Museums, which typifies the “ethical schizophrenia” of the anti-colonial mind. In just ten pages, Hicks’s work is thoroughly and masterfully dismantled both philosophically and historically.
The chapters on racism, slavery, and cultural genocide tackle the most commonly-proffered anti-colonial arguments. When discussing the history of British abolitionism, Biggar sums up the failure of anti-colonial arguments perfectly: “The basic problem with the anti-colonialists’ equation of British colonialism with slavery, and their consequent demand for cultural ‘decolonisation’, is that it requires amnesia about everything that has happened since 1787.” Likewise, a tidbit later in the book is a powerful, factual riposte to cries that the Empire was imbued with racism: “in New Zealand the vote was extended to all Māori adult males in 1867, twelve years ahead of being given to their European counterparts, when the property qualification was abolished.” Colonialism is replete with memorable lines that distill essential moral truths, including in the discussion of so-called ‘cultural genocide’, when Biggar posits that “No culture has a moral right to be immune to change or even to survive. … That may be sad, but it was not unjust.”
But Colonialism is not merely a discussion of history and ethics; it has a great deal to say about the current age as well. The historical distortions promoted by anti-colonialists are in service to a contemporary political project, one which is illiberal and anti-Western. Their critiques are based entirely on the desires of the present, not the verities of the past. It is this broader project that Colonialism seeks to expose and attack, a task which the book excels at. The recasting of British history from a source of pride to an infinite well of shame requires society to forget the reality of its past, and it is this forgetting that anti-colonial activists wish to inculcate across the Anglosphere. Biggar cuts to the core of this problem, writing:
If the anti-colonialist narrative were true, Britain should abandon its post-1945 role as a main supporter of the US-dominated liberal world order and settle down instead to emulating penitent, virtually pacifist Germany. But, as this book has shown, the anti-colonialist narrative is not true.
He is correct here; the anti-colonialist narrative is not true. But it is seductive. Cultural self-confidence is what drove the British Empire to abolish slavery, fight and win two world wars, liberalize the international order, and bring prosperity and the rule of law to billions. It is what propelled the United States to defeat the Nazis and Imperial Japanese, take on the Soviet juggernaut and prevail, and maintain and expand the British-built liberal world order. The Anglosphere needs a confidence boost if it is to overcome the challenges of the 21st century. In that respect, Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism is a welcome shot in the arm.