Colonialism’s Complicated Legacy

Anyone who would undertake to rehabilitate colonialism in our day and age would seem to be tackling an utterly quixotic task, as well as practically begging to be “canceled” in polite intellectual society. Yet that is what Nigel Biggar—an eminent scholar of moral theology at Oxford University and author of books on human rights and just war theory—attempts in Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. Perhaps “rehabilitation” is too strong a word, since Biggar by no means ignores or excuses the evils of colonialism. As his subtitle suggests, however, he aims at a “reckoning.” Biggar offers a sober assessment of the British Empire: not only of its injustices, but also of the morally valuable achievements that should be credited to its account.

Empire, Biggar reminds us, has been a historically common form of government. It has appeared around the globe, in widely diverse cultural and political contexts: from the Persians and Athenians, to the Chinese and Romans, to the Zulus and Incas, to the Ottomans and Habsburgs. It can involve the subjugation of alien peoples but also provide a framework within which different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups live in relative peace and harmony. If it sometimes relies on conquest and enslavement, it can also promote peace and commerce. While some colonized peoples have struggled to break free from their colonial masters, others have welcomed protection from neighboring powers that might otherwise oppress them.

An effort so at odds with the zeitgeist demands rigor and thoroughness from its author. Biggar delivers. His assessment of British imperialism addresses a number of topics: its relation to slavery (and also the movement to end slavery); the extent to which it was or was not penetrated by racism; accusations that it involved genocide; charges that it economically exploited its subject peoples; whether it governed in the interests of its subjects or suppressed their rights to self-government; and whether it was characterized by pervasive violence. Biggar takes up the criticisms most commonly leveled at the British Empire, attempting to determine where those criticisms are justified and where they are not.

The book’s longest chapter examines, often in considerable detail, six of the most famous incidents that are often said to illustrate the British Empire’s essentially violent nature. One is the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In this instance, the East India Company faced a mutiny that began over grievances among professional soldiers and then spread into a wider rebellion, inspired by unemployment, fears that Christianity might be imposed, and perceptions of racial arrogance among the British. Yet the rebellion was not universal, and it divided the Indians themselves. It “was as much a civil war as a war against the British. … Supporters of the rebellion were mainly Hindus, sometimes Muslims; Sikhs and Pathans generally remained loyal to the company.” The rebels committed two “indiscriminate massacres” of British men, women, and children. When British reinforcements arrived, their fierce desire for revenge was initially held in check by their commander; later, however, his replacement “let loose the dogs of vengeance” with “merciless, indiscriminate reprisals, with villages being burned to the ground.” Drawing upon the language of just war theory, Biggar condemns this as “the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of violence.” At the same time, he argues that the incident does not prove that the empire was essentially violent at its heart, for the government promptly repudiated the violence, which was widely criticized and led to “major changes in government policy.” Queen Victoria herself transferred governance in India from the East India Corporation to a minister of the crown.

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