An Immoral Defence of the British Empire

Nigel Biggar's 'Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning' contains no reckoning at all.

There was a time in the 17th and 18th centuries when conquerors from the West went out to convert pagans and acquire territories with the Bible in one hand and a sword or a gun in the other. Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning is an example of a commander of the British Empire going out into the world as a herald of a vanished empire with his knowledge of the Bible as his armour and his keyboard/pen as his weapon. Biggar has the letters CBE following his name, he has a PhD in Christian theology from the University of Chicago and is the Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford.

The subtitle of this book is misleading because there is no reckoning here. It is a defence of the British Empire. For Biggar, the British Empire, to use the words of W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman in that classic, 1066 and All That, was “a good thing”.

Nigel Biggar
Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning
William Collins, 2023

Portions of Biggar’s remarkable balance sheet of the empire deserve to be quoted if only to strain the reader’s credulity. The British Empire, according to the gospel of Biggar “was not essentially racist, exploitative or wantonly violent. It showed itself capable of correcting its sins and errors, and learning from them. And, over time, it became increasingly motivated by Christian humanitarianism and intent upon preparing colonized peoples for liberal self-government”. These virtues of empire – a “cause for admiration and pride” for those who, like Biggar, “identify with Britain” – more than make up for the “sins” of empire. What were those sins, according to the gospel writer of the British empire?

Let me quote Biggar again. The “evils” of empire included “brutal slavery; the epidemic spread of devastating disease; economic and social disruption; the unjust displacement of natives by settlers; failures of colonial government to prevent settler abuse and famine; elements of racial alienation and racist contempt; policies of needlessly wholesale cultural suppression; miscarriages of justice; instances of unjustifiable military aggression and the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force; and the failure to admit native talent to the higher echelons of colonial government on terms of equality quickly enough to forestall the build-up of nationalist resentment”.

As any reader will notice, the two sections quoted run completely contrary to each other. If the first quotation is valid, the second cannot be valid let alone the former compensating or making up for the other. Moreover, a close reading of the text reveals that almost each of the “evils” enumerated by Biggar are actually justified by him in the relevant parts of the book. The other thing to note that is that economic exploitation of the colonies by Britain does not merit a mention in Biggar’s list of “sins”. He offers no explanation of how, to take an example, India – often described by the British rulers, as the brightest jewel in the British crown – became by 1900 one of the poorest countries in the world. Economic exploitation does not feature in Biggar’s list because he does not believe there was any economic exploitation of the colonies and certainly not of India.

Also read: How Colonial Racism Built and Maintains Unjust Global Order

There are a couple ingenuous sleights-of-hand that Biggar uses which deserve to be exposed. After making his own list of the “evils” of empire, Biggar comments, “In the history of the British Empire, there was nothing morally equivalent to Nazi concentration or death camps, or to the Soviet Gulag.” Biggar has obviously not heard of the Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands which the British constructed as their equivalent of a concentration camp. Ignorance aside, Biggar compares the British Empire to the two most oppressive regimes of the 20th century and on that basis justifies the cruelties and oppressions embedded in the British empire. What could be morally more reprehensible?

Further, Biggar, as a part of his justificatory framework, makes the argument that what are considered (even by him) the more contemptible features of the British Empire were all replicated in the “history of any long-standing state”. Ergo the British Empire should not be singled out for condemnation.

Let us move from these general considerations to some specific points that Biggar tries to make. As an advocate holding a brief for the British Empire, Biggar, to make it convenient for his readers, enumerates the eight questions he wants to address:

(1) was the imperial endeavor driven primarily by greed and the lust to dominate;
(2) should we speak of colonialism and slavery in the same breath, as if they were the same thing;
(3) was the British Empire essentially racist;
(4) how far was it based on the conquest of land;
(5) did it involve genocide;
(6) was it driven fundamentally by the motive of economic exploitation;
(7) since colonial government was not democratic, did that make it illegitimate; and
(8) was the empire essentially violent and was its violence pervasively racist and terroristic.

I have deliberately italicised some words that are used by Biggar when he is setting up his agenda. As is obvious, these words and their implications are both ambiguous and subjective. What one person considers fundamental/essential/pervasive to a historical phenomenon may not necessarily chime with another person’s notions of the same terms. There are no prizes for guessing Biggar’s answers to these questions.

Nigel Biggar. Photo: University of Oxford website

Biggar argues, quite predictably, that there was nothing like the colonial project. In his view, the British empire was not “a single, unitary enterprise with a coherent essence”. To make a caricature of the arguments made by critics of the British Empire, he adds, “No one woke up one sunny morning in London and said, ‘Let’s go and conquer the world’.” Which serious historian has ever made such a suggestion? Biggar asserts that “There was no essential motivation behind the British Empire.” The implication of this assertion is that the colonies were acquired and the British Empire established through a series of accidents. This is worse than flogging a dead horse since the argument goes back to John Seeley, who wrote in the 19th century that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absentmindedness. No motives, no plans, no strategies – a vast global empire emerged through a concatenation of circumstances. There is an important point of historical method lurking in the assertions made by Seeley and his latter day epigoni.

The logic of empire is located at a different analytical level than in the motives and intentions of the many paladins of the British empire. It is one thing to delve into the manifold secrets of the minds of governors-general and politicians and then to discover that none of them actually wrote down that they wanted to conquer, dominate and exploit large parts of the world. But this cannot lead to the conclusion that the British Empire had no pattern, logic or compulsions. The latter are questions related to structure, not to subjective motivations. This point needs to be reiterated because there is a pronounced tendency among historians like Biggar and his ilk to deliberately ignore the structural logic of empire – a logic which binds together in a single interconnected process the development of capitalism and prosperity in Britain with the political control, the economic exploitation and the impoverishment of the colonies. It is this structural logic and interconnected process that some historians have called the colonial project.

Also read: Goa Remained a Portuguese Colony when India Became Independent

The prejudice embedded in this book is obvious. Again, that prejudice is an old and tedious one – the British set out to civilise the colonies, train them for self-government. What is shocking, however, is the ignorance and the refusal to read what writers and scholars have written about British rule. I concern myself here with only India; I am sure scholars from other parts of the world will notice omissions from their fields of specialisation. Biggar writes without reference to R.C. Dutt, A.K. Bagchi, Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Eric Stokes, Brijen Gupta, Holden Furber, Bernard Cohn, Elizabeth Whitcombe, Asiya Siddiqui… the list is endless. And all those named are major historians. Biggar’s book fails the most elementary test of scholarship.

To use Dorothy Parker’s memorable dismissal of a novel: “This is not a book that should be tossed aside lightly, it should be thrown out with great force.” This is an immoral book. But it might earn for Nigel Biggar, CBE, a knighthood: ersatz plumes for a false scholar.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of History at Ashoka University.

Edited by Jahnavi Sen.