Biggar acknowledges that British colonialism contained evils and injustices,
but he judges it to have been much better than its modern critics would have us
Biggar directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University. His aim in writing his recently published book, Colonialism: A MoralReckoning, was to provide a moral evaluation of British colonialism, rather than a history of it.
As indicated in the passage quoted above,
Biggar argues that many of the modern critics of British colonialism have an
unscrupulous indifference to historical truth. He suggests that the controversy
over empire is really about the present, rather than about the past. The real
target of today’s anti-colonialists is “the Anglo-American liberal world order
that has prevailed since 1945”. They denigrate the historical record of “the
West” in order to corrode faith in it. He writes:
“What is at
stake is not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday, but the self-perception
and self-confidence of the British today, and the way they conduct themselves
in the world tomorrow.”
who has regard for human rights, rule of law, and democracy should encourage British
people to continue to be forthright in their advocacy of these ideals.
focus of criticism
why modern critics of British colonialism are unfair in claiming that it was
characterised by racism. He highlights three main examples:
emphasize British links to the slave trade in the 17th and 18th
centuries, but overlook the leading role that the British government played in
ending slavery in the 19th century.
emphasize instances of appalling racial prejudice but ignore policies that
were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of the members of all
critics slanderously equate the actions of British colonial authorities with
those of the Nazis by claiming that they were engaged in genocide. They don’t
acknowledge the efforts of colonial authorities to protect native peoples from
harmful encounters with settlers.
of British colonialism
documents many benefits of British colonialism. One of the points he makes is
that it “brought up three of the most prosperous and liberal states now on
earth – Canada, Australia, and New Zealand”. My friends in the United States can
take comfort from the fact that the American revolution served to educate the
British about the desirability of allowing those former colonies to govern
generally, British colonialism promoted free trade, created peace in the
colonies, developed public infrastructure, made foreign investment attractive, disseminated
modern agricultural methods, disseminated medical knowledge, and “provided a
civil service and judiciary that was generally and extraordinarily incorrupt”.
focus here on the quality of the civil service and judiciary.
classical liberal, I am inclined to the view that less governance is better
than more, and that governance imposed by foreigners is particularly obnoxious.
Could it have been possible for the quality of governance offered by the
British to have been better than the alternatives on offer during the colonial
likely to have been the case in many instances. Biggar notes that many local
rulers in India wanted the British to secure power to obtain advantage over
their rivals - they preferred British rule to indigenous alternatives including
ongoing local wars. It is not obvious that any real-world alternatives to
British colonialism in Australia and New Zealand (e.g. colonization by another European
power) would have provided greater protection to indigenous peoples. In the
absence of British colonialism in Africa, it is likely that the slave trade
would have persisted to a greater extent, aided by the expansion of militant Islam,
and internecine wars that were an ongoing source of slaves.
It is not difficult
to understand why people working for British colonial administrations in the 19th
and 20th centuries developed a reputation for being largely incorruptible.
It is even possible for me – a person who subscribes to the private interest
theory of regulation - to understand that when organisations develop a culture that
is strongly opposed to corrupt behaviour, individual members tend to obtain a
great deal of satisfaction – a sense of mission - from upholding that culture.
the closing decade of the eighteenth century, Lord Cornwallis’ insistence that
officials in the East India Company should live on their salaries, give up
private trading and resist bribes ‘helped to create a civil service that became
widely regarded as incorruptible and just, one that even Indian nationalist
newspapers would later regard as ‘absolutely above suspicion’ and ‘the high
water mark of morality in the public service of the country’, and as beyond
being ‘bribed to do anything.”
devotes quite a few pages of his book to quoting subjects of colonial rule who were
full of praise for British colonial rulers. He also notes that in the 1950s
several million Chinese voted with their feet to leave the communist Chinese
mainland and live under British colonial rule in Hong Kong.
The modern critics
of British colonialism have no reason to be concerned that it is about to make
a comeback. Their reason for seeking to denigrate it is to undermine the ongoing
efforts of people in Britain, and some of its former colonies, to promote the
ideals of a liberal world order. Nigel Biggar’s book makes an excellent
contribution to public discussion of the issues by pointing out that many of
the critics have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth.