The Merits of the British Empire

“I study the course of events in India very closely; and what do I see? Why, that you are doing everything you possibly can to teach the inhabitants their own strength. You establish schools; you educate the people; they read your language, many of them even your newspapers; and the leading men know what is going on in Europe just as well as you yourselves. But the day will come when some agitators will set these thinking masses in motion; and then what force have you to oppose to them? If ever here was a nation determined to commit suicide it is England. She holds India, as she herself allows, by the force of arms, and yet she is doing everything in her power to induce the conquered country to throw off the yoke.”

There was a great deal of reason undoubtedly in what he had urged. However, there is one argument in favour of further education in India, which is, that the better educated the natives of India become, the greater probability of their seeing that their own interests are far more likely to be cared for under a British than a Russian rule. But this still leaves open the question of whether they might not prefer to govern themselves, which undoubtedly will some day be the case.

(Fred Burnaby, A Ride to Khiva, 1877)

We live in an age in which assumptions determine much of what we do. These assumptions need not be based on any desire for truth, but simply for expedience (which is commonly known as “ideology”). For example, there is the easy assumption that genders cannot exist, and this has become a “truth” in western society, a truth given vehemence by the weight of authority and the law.

And when our society casts an eye backwards, history is to be understood through the lens of so many assumptions that it is often difficult to stay abreast. To make things easier, to be on the safe side, just assume that anything that Europeans ever did in the past was not only wrong, but morally reprehensible and outright cruel, because “whiteness” is inherently violent. Our present age is much given to empty moralizing in order to fabricate caricatures—but that’s another topic entirely.

And no topic is more morally fraught than colonialism, which as any worthy denizen of the university scene knows is to be roundly condemned. To say anything that might be deemed a defense thereof is instantly called out as “racism” or “white supremacism.” Having a past carefully construed a certain way is crucial to the powerbrokers of our world, and this fabrication can never have flaws, errors, or lies. To say otherwise is a betrayal of humanity itself, ergo akin to Nazism.

Nigel Biggar’s latest book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, therefore, goes straight for the jugular—it addresses the question of morality and colonialism: “What I have written is not a history of the British Empire but a moral assessment of it.” In other words, the British Empire was not an evil cancer let loose upon the world, nor was it organized banditry, robbing the hapless of their wealth—but a great force for good, which heaved much of what has now descended into being the “third world” into modernity. In effect, when the British left their colonies, they left them quite a lot better than they found them. This fact cannot be denied, though objections be raised by pointing to this or that injustice. Why is India, for example, today the largest democracy? In fact, who created what is today known as “India?” But let’s not get waylaid by the famous Monty Python skit, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

Because Mr. Biggar is giving us a “moral reckoning” rather than a historical summary of colonialism, what he ends up doing is to return impartiality to the study of history, which is in much need of rescue, having entirely dashed itself on the rocks, so intent has it been listening to the Siren-song of “political activism”: “What is wrong, however, is when moral and political motives refuse to allow themselves to be tempered or corrected by data and reason. For then, the motives distort and mislead; and when they distort and mislead repeatedly and wilfully, they lie.” Perhaps, the whole idea is to use history for political ends—where entire populations can be given permanent “victim,” ergo morally superior, status, while relegating another population to the role of “oppressor,” who can then be held up for cathartic abuse by the victim-class. Thus, we slouch our way to virtue, for the past is filled with all the sins that we have repented from—they were slavers, we are givers of reparations to populations we have labeled the eternal victims of history.

Because the book is a moral assessment of the British Empire, Mr. Biggar wisely avoids a chronological structure of the beginning, middle and end. Instead, each chapter unpacks a moral question to which historical data is adduced. This method directly addresses the “moral” habit of mind that is now commonplace when dealing with the past, in that we are continually asked to judge the past, usually in order to reify our own moral superiority to it. But more sinisterly—in order to govern how we must behave, think and live.

Each chapter also deals with the various arguments that anti-colonialist thought uses in order to deny the achievements of the British Empire. Thus, the first chapter deals with motivation, in which the idea of “conquest” is mapped out, in a reasoned and balanced manner. Just as with the growth of the Roman Empire, the British one also became what it did as a “consequence of international rivalry and war, and the associated need to gain a competitive advantage.” It wasn’t so much conquest as cooperation. For example, the majority of India was not British, for there were a total 461 princely states that were independent (most of them later regretted that they joined the “India” or “Pakistan” that came afterwards—and many of the problems now besetting both these post-colonial countries are products of this misunderstanding of cooperation: for example, Gilgit, Baltistan, Kashmir). In effect, Indian and Pakistani hegemony was exerted upon these once-independent princely states, with the result that now there is much resentment, strife, and rivalry, which is far from having been resolved. Most princely states did not want to join India or Pakistan, but were forced to.

All this means that the building of nationhood is not some fairy-dust that comes ready at hand the moment the blinkers of colonialism are removed. Rather, the nations that emerged from the British Empire, for example, could never truly get their act together. Why is that? Could it be that the greater project of Empire was stymied by the consequences of the Second World War?

But such a question is never honestly, let alone fully, answered; and the usual strategy is deflection by anti-colonialists. The funny thing about these anti-colonialists… they often tend to be people who have benefitted the most from colonialism. But let’s just put that down to the many ironies of history, shall we?

Another favorite topic is slavery, which existed in the world long before the British and is flourishing today, with little or no objection from anyone in power, especially from people who have strong opinions about slavery in the past. This is a very curious abuse of history, where crimes of today are ignored, while much breast-beating is done for crimes, real or imagined, of the past. Be that as it may, it is always emphatically stated that the slave-trade and the use of slaves was a cash-cow for the British Empire, a monolith entirely demolished by serious history, as Mr. Biggar explains. But then it was also the British who actively worked to destroy this ancient institution of captive labor, with men like Adam Smith, but mostly because of Christian charity: “The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not essential to the British Empire, and whatever racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit… The British Empire cannot be equated with slavery, since, during the second half of the empire’s life, imperial policy was consistently committed to abolishing it.”

Racism, of course, is a staple in any anti-colonialist argument. But there is much confusion, given that the stress today is on skin color and not on race as such. This is not surprising, given how difficult it is to pin-down what “race” ultimately means; whereas skin-color is a no-brainer. Thus, today the concern is with “shadism” rather than racism. But the attitude of the British Empire is best summed up by Sir Cecil Rhodes, a man anti-colonialist love to hate: “I do not believe that they are different from ourselves… a man, white or black who has sufficient education to write his name, has some property, or works. In fact, is not a loafer.” Rhodes was interested in the qualities and conditions of civilization, available to all of humanity, and which had nothing to do with shadism. Instead, the greater accumulation of data leads to a more disturbing conclusion—that it is our present age which is obsessed with skin-color, wherein the greater the melanin, the greater the innate virtue; the lesser the melanin, the greater the innate evil. Such is the new “Natural Law” of Western officialdom, which has entirely replaced the original, Christian understanding of Natural Law, grounded in dignity: that mankind is made in the image of God. Now, skin color determines the man. Melanin, yet another progressive pixy-dust, dissipates evil.

Mr. Biggar proceeds assiduously examining the various objections of the anti-colonialists and undoing them by patient laying out of data. Thus, the old stand-by arguments in which the grand themes of genocide, exploitation, greed, conquest, violence are delivered as “evidence” for the “crimes” of the British Empire are all weighed in the scale of reason and found either wanting, or to be exaggerated or simple fabrications: “To describe British colonial government as simply or generally oppressive and exploitative, as is commonly done, may satisfy certain ideological prejudices but it obscures the complicated historical truth. Colonial rule would not have been possible at all without the widespread acquiescence, participation and cooperation of native peoples.”

The examples that Mr. Biggar provides are essential to his method of tackling anti-colonialist themes—but this method also does something that is crucial, given the posture that the West has now assumed, of equating anything “white” with everything evil, especially “white” males. The strength of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning therefore is its fearless honesty. Like all true human endeavors, the British Empire was not a concerted effort to build a utopia for “white.” Rather, it was a system of deep cooperation between British and native interests and aspiration, chief among them being the pursuit of peace: “…peaceful politics usually requires compromise, and some compromises are morally justified, even obligatory.”

This pursuit peace flies in the face of what is now being attempted in the West, where through sheer political will a shadist utopia is indeed being constructed, which is gradually, but relentlessly, yielding a dystopia, marked by fear and loathing of humanity which does not bear the government-approved shade of skin, and in which humanity is assigend labels of either oppressor or victim. And never the twain shall meet. Such is the world that anti-colonialists seek to build as an answer to colonialism?

Mr. Biggar’s book is also a wake-up call to those of that live in the West, where violence can be justified by convenient references to the past; one in which humanity lives in a never-ending agon of one shade of people against another. Long forgotten is the idea that history provides each one of us a moral responsibility to be our brothers’ keeper. Not in some mealy-mouthed way, but in a genuine care for one another in the context of community. Finally, it was the necessity of this care that marked the British Empire, however loudly the anti-colonialists may decry this conclusion.

The book ends with very crucial question: “And yet exaggeration of colonialism’s sins is often not at all reluctant, but wilful, even gleeful. Far from being resisted, it is embraced. The anti-colonialists want the worst to be true, and so they meet any suggestion to the contrary not with the eyes of curiosity, but the fist of aggression. But why? What is going on here, psychologically, even spiritually?”

Although Mr. Biggar proceeds to provide an answer, it is necessarily an incomplete one—and it is as it should be, because it is a question that more and more needs to be asked again and again—why this gleeful hatred? Why hatred as morality?

Mr. Biggar has written a fascinating, spirited and triumphant book. His data and arguments cannot easily be put aside. If honesty is the true quest of doing history, then anti-colonialist arguments have been rather deftly gutted by this book and can no longer be taken seriously. That is, if truth still matters.

C.B. Forde is a full-time farmer and part-time reader, yes, even of books recommeneded to him by his wife.

Featured: John Eardley Wilmot, by Benjamin West; painted in 1812.