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By Nigel Biggar, William Collins 2023. 480 pages £25.

Reviewed by Dr. Chris Sugden
March 2, 2023

'Dozens of universities have drawn up guidelines on how to decolonise courses' (The Times February 18 2023). Professor Biggar's study is very timely. No one will come to it without some pre-formed opinion derived from either ideology or experience. The book, to be read carefully, is a rich resource for studying the topic from any perspective.

Biggar's reason for his work is clear: "many have rushed to judgement and condemn (British) colonialism as a whole for its racist, exploitative, violent 'logic', talking of 'colonialism' and 'slavery' in the same breath. Those...who dissent from this judgement are bound to come up with a better, more complicated, more discriminate one" (p 276).

It is not primarily a history, though very well resourced with historical examples and 132 pages of footnotes. It discusses the ethical categories by which the history of the British Empire might be viewed. His themes are Motives, Slavery, Equality, Land, Cultural assimilation, Free trade, Government and Force. What is meant by the ethical values applied to each one, and what in the field of public policy is practical ethical behaviour in these areas? The book is as much a case-study of worked examples of moral reasoning as anything else.

He details the accusations against 'the British Empire; .. motivated predominantly by greed and the sheer lust to dominate; .. equivalent to slavery; .. essentially racist; ..based on the theft of land; ..guilty of genocide; ...fundamentally about economic exploitation; and that colonial government served British rather than native interests and, being undemocratic, was illegitimate... and ...its violence was essentially racist and terroristic'. ( p 216). Some of the more virulent accusations appear to root their interpretations in a Marxist view of history, and some in a view of personal autonomy that objects to submission to any authority.

But, if the empire initially presided over the slave trade and slavery, 'it renounced both in the name of basic human equality and led endeavours to suppress them for 150 years. it moderated the disruptive impact of Western modernity on very unmodern societies; promoted a worldwide free market that gave native producers and entrepreneurs new economic opportunities; created regional peace by imposing an overarching imperial authority on multiple warring peoples; ..involved representatives of native peoples in the lower levels of government; sought to relieve the plight of the rural poor and protect them against rapacious landlords; provided a civil service and judiciary that was generally and extraordinarily incorrupt; developed public infrastructure ... made foreign investment attractive by reducing risks through establishing political stability and the rule of law; disseminated modern agricultural methods and medicine; stood against German aggression...helping to save the Western and non-Western world for democracy." (p. 284)

Canon Vinay Samuel of India points out that there were National leaders who looked for the positive impact of British Rule. Justice Ranade (1846- 1904), a Brahmin, was Justice of the Bombay High Court in British India much before any independence was in the air. He inspired early Indian freedom fighters like Gokhale and Gandhi. He was a pioneer historian, economist and social reformer. His concern was to reform Hinduism. He said the British empire was God's gift to India to reform Hinduism. He was influenced by Christianity but remained a strong but very self critical Hindu. He had a very thoughtful assessment of the British Rule and yet is considered as a pioneer freedom fighter for Indian independence.

So it could not have been as venal and brutal as some people make out today.

Biggar concludes that 'from the early decades of the nineteenth century its natural, innocent concerns to promote trade and maintain strategic advantage were increasingly supplemented and tempered by Christian humanitarianism, a commitment to public service and a liberal vision of political life'( p.286). "Yes, the British Empire contained evils and injustices, some..very grave and culpable - but so does the history of any long standing state. It was not essentially racist, exploitative or wantonly violent. It showed itself capable of correcting its sins and errors, and learning from them....it became increasingly motivated by Christian humanitarianism and intent upon preparing colonized peoples for liberal self-government...If colonial history gives....cause for lament and shame, it also gives..cause for admiration and pride.' (p 297).

He criticizes the actions of some missionaries who sought to eradicate cultural practices that were not necessarily immoral. Many colonial administrators protected such cultural differences, and he argues that cultural advance in education, technology and governance is not necessarily wrongly judged to be morally superior.

Professor Biggar reviews the six most infamous cases of British military violence. As an advocate of the just war theory he finds them wanting by the criteria of proportionality. 'In all of those cases, the imperial and colonial governments repudiated the abuse and resolved to stop it." (p 272). As a Christian might he be asked where repentance, personal and national comes in? Might he write a further study on the morality of repentance, the fruits worthy of repentance and forgiveness?

He concludes that the movement for reparations should focus on addressing present injustices rather than trying to untangle historic injustices; for where in the reparations movement are calls for reparations from African chiefs who sold other Africans to slave traders or from the descendants of Arab slave traders who sold slaves to the Europeans on the coast, or from the Romans for their invasion of Britain?

Vinay Samuel acknowledges that in the current academic dispute Professor Biggar feels called to assess the evidence fairly but suggests that he ends up being an apologist for empire. In every historical era something positive can be found. The Roman occupation of Britain left roads that were good for hundreds of years. In that case Professor Biggar is no longer representing a perspective that might be expected from a distinguished ethicist of the Christian church. A deeper set of questions should be asked: to what extent did the Christian faith which had prevailed in Britain for 1500 years, and in its Protestant form for more than 400 years, impact Britain's approach to empire?

The fundamental issue is not colonialism as such, Samuel argues, but 'empire-making'. Empires have been the way powerful nations have exerted and expressed their power from Babylon, through the Persians, the Greeks, the Normans and the Vikings. What did the European nations, Catholic and Protestant make of having Empires, of which Britain had the largest of all? Did these Christian empire-makers behave in any way differently from the Muslim empires which were also concerned with one law from one God for all humanity, and protected their citizens, albeit as a second class? Did the Christian faith do anything to shape the conquest seeking and resource-extracting nature of the makers of the British empire? Was the suppression of slavery an ethical impulse or did it have strong commercial motives to prevent competitors undercutting the cost of labour? Was the British Empire 'empire' as usual?

What ethical line runs through the British practice of empire that might distinguish it from others in history? Was it the imposition of law and order, the development of education and gradual democratization, the accountable civil service? Is there a Christian moral basis for apology for any aspect of the British Empire from a 'Christian' nation which its makers should have been aware of?

And what can be learnt from the behaviour of the British Empire as we experience its successors in the United States Empire, Russia's attempt to regain its Empire and the emerging Chinese Empire? More valuable work remains to be done in this field.

Chris Sugden was a presbyter in the Church of South India from 1978-83

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