The morality of empire
The Slave Trade by François-Auguste Biard (1840)
NIGEL BIGGAR, PROFESSOR Emeritus of Ethics at Oxford University, a gentle, retiring, scholarly person, has found himself the target of academic “decolonisers” for his attempts to explore the moral nature of empires generally, and the British Empire in particular. It all began with a university project to study “Ethics and Empire”, which Biggar launched in 2017. It proved unexpectedly to be a red rag to a bull. Biggar and his project became the target for petitions by leftwing academics at Oxford and the world over, demanding that the university shut it down. The very idea that empires might have ethics was anathema to this academic mob.
Fortunately, both Oxford University and Biggar stood their ground. His project has held several annual colloquia over the years, bringing together academics from different disciplines and of very different political persuasions from around the world. One of its byproducts is this remarkably encyclopaedic book (Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, William Collins), which addresses the ethical nature of empires from regions as diverse as North America to Africa and Australasia and our own subcontinent.
As Biggar claims at the outset, the leftwing campaign to cancel ventures like his has been driven far less by historical accuracy than by current political power struggles, in a crusade by the “decolonisers” to take over academia and cancel all those who dissent. An early casualty was historian John Darwin, initially co-director of the project with Biggar, who abruptly resigned amid the academic furore.
Biggar explains at the outset that this book is not an attempt to rewrite history. It aims at a judicious, ethical evaluation of the British Empire in particular, based on the best available evidence and arguments from both its critics and defenders. Given his own clerical background in the Anglican Church, his judgments are based on the essentially Christian values of universal human rights and individual freedom and responsibility. But they are always tempered by a pragmatic moral reckoning of the practical options available to decision-makers at any actual historical moment. His ultimate guiding principle is the greatest good of the greatest number, especially of those colonised and ruled by the British Empire.
What follows is a lively narrative, based on suitably diverse primary and secondary sources, amply referenced in 148 pages of endnotes, which should answer even his harshest critics. The story begins with the imperial ambitions of many small kingdoms, driven to expand their borders mainly by the need for greater security from invasion. The outcome in 8th-century Britain was Anglo-Saxon Wessex, threatened by both Scots from the north and Vikings from the south, expanding into an All-England kingdom, later driven to conquer unruly Wales and Ireland, and finally to its union with Stuart Scotland.
Slavery was a global phenomenon since ancient times, driven by the enslavement of peoples conquered in war, but sometimes more humane than the alternative of simply massacring them. Trading in slaves began long before its transatlantic form, in the slave markets of the Middle East. Britons themselves were among the casualties
Biggar points out that Britain’s early unification and urge for imperial expansion were no different from that of many medieval and early modern states, driven by similar motives, ranging from Aztec Mexico to Mughal India and Qing-dynasty China. Like it or not, empire-building has been the default mode of governance for most civilisations across the globe as they developed.
It’s strange, therefore, that the moral opprobrium of the “decolonisers” focuses primarily on the British Empire, even leading some to liken its alleged evils to those of the Nazi Holocaust. Biggar quickly dismisses such fanciful comparisons, pointing out that genocide involves the intentional, systematic massacre of a particular population, with the Nazi Holocaust therefore having far more in common with similar massacres under Stalin and Mao. He argues very convincingly that any casualties of the British Empire were, at their worst, accidental or occasional, the result of very temporary and exceptional periods of negligence, inefficiency and, more rarely, revenge.
This book makes its case thematically and methodically, tackling in turn each of the main allegations against Britain’s empire. It begins by locating Britain’s early overseas ventures in the context of its 16th-century Protestant settlement and its urge to counter the imperialism of Catholic Spain. Like other European contemporaries, Britain then joined in the nefarious transatlantic slave trade.
Biggar makes no attempt to minimise the brutality and horrors of slavery, but he does put the transatlantic trade and Britain’s role in it in historical and moral context. Slavery was, of course, a global phenomenon since ancient times, driven by the enslavement of peoples conquered in war, but sometimes more humane than the alternative of simply massacring them. Trading in slaves began long before its transatlantic form, in the slave markets of the Middle East. Britons themselves were among the casualties, with many thousands captured from the coastal villages of Devon by North African pirates and sold into the White slave trade.
The transatlantic trade was fuelled as much by supply from the West African kingdoms which thrived on it as from demand in the White-owned plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. Britain’s own role accounted for a relatively small percentage of the trade, dwarfed by that of the Portuguese, and provided its economy mostly with sugar from the Caribbean. Based on an impressive array of economic indicators, this book argues that the actual economic benefits of the trade to Britain were relatively meagre, accounting for less than 1 per cent of all investment at its peak in 1790.
Biggar’s calculations establish that sugar played a relatively minor part in Britain’s infant Industrial Revolution. Its absence, he jokes, might at worst have involved drinking bitter tea. He also demonstrates that the profits of transatlantic slavery were soon offset by the costs of abolishing it. However alien to our modern sensibilities, owning and selling slaves had been a normal part of most societies until challenged by Britain’s own, homegrown abolitionist movement. The movement was based on the universalist, egalitarian principles to which many evangelical Christian Protestants subscribed. But as Biggar reminds us, at a time when private property was sacrosanct, abolition could only have been achieved with compensation to slave-owners, some of whom were not rich plantation-owners, but indigent old ladies in Cheltenham.
Concerning the Indian Mutiny, Biggar points to the brutality with which mutineers massacred hundreds of British men, women and children. Incidents like these, he acknowledges, fuelled irrational British revenge, with both sides firing prisoners from cannons, a practice the British had learned from the Mughals
Compensation for abolition cost the British taxpayer an eye-watering sum of £10 million (almost £1 billion today). Even more astronomical were the subsequent costs incurred by the British navy in policing abolition across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, compelling repeat offenders like Brazil to stop trading. The total costs amounted to well over the profits Britain ever received from the trade itself.
Closely related to the evils of slavery was the racism that made much of it so widely acceptable. Biggar makes no bones about the brutality and racism of many slave-owners across the world, but he rejects the notion that it was always linked with institutional racism. Slavery, as we know, often allowed manumission of slaves through the ages, some of whom even rose to the summit of power as Ottoman viziers or Delhi sultans. Black African rulers routinely took captives in local wars as slaves and felt no compunction about trading them as commodities with Arab or European slavers. And individual slaves, even on the plantations of America and the Caribbean, sometimes became valued members of their owners’ families.
Ownership apart, the lot of slaves, as Biggar reminds us, was not necessarily that much worse than that of feudal serfs and other bonded labour. Turning to the policies and conduct of British imperial rulers, he accepts that they could be patronising and autocratic towards subject peoples, but he denies that this was institutionally racist. European societies with modern education, medicine, science and liberal political values were objectively superior to more primitive, nomadic, aboriginal versions in their levels of political and economic development. Christian morality, says Biggar, was also fundamentally more progressive than rival faiths in its emphasis on all individuals, including women, being equal in the eyes of God. The result was imperial rulers often acting imperiously with their subjects, most often in what they saw as the latter’s best interests. What made such patronising conduct morally different from institutional racism was the overarching assumption that subject peoples, regardless of race, could rise to equality with their rulers through education, good governance, the rule of law, and eventual recruitment into imperial partnership.
An example of this phenomenon, closely examined here, is the career of the very controversial Cecil Rhodes, whose modest Oxford statue is such a focus for today’s anti-colonial rage. Biggar very convincingly rescues Rhodes from charges ranging from racism to anticipating Hitler with concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer Wars. He cites Rhodes’ often declared support for the liberal franchise of the British-run Cape Province, which allowed a small but growing Black middle class to vote on the same basis as Whites. That was indeed one of the causes of the two wars between the British and the Boer republics, who were so viscerally opposed to electoral rights for Blacks. Rhodes had no personal responsibility for either of these wars or the poor treatment of Boers and their African servants in prisoner-of-war (PoW) camps.
Like most Victorians of his generation, Rhodes regarded Africans as backward and primitive but every bit as human as Whites and capable of being educated into equal rights. He allowed no apartheid in his own diamond mines or in the new White-ruled colony of Rhodesia that he founded. Despite his wars with the local Ndebele tribe, they revered him as an honourable adversary and gathered in their thousands to pay their respects at his funeral. Though he died before awarding the first of his famous Rhodes scholarships, he stipulated that they must be colour-blind. Many Indian and African scholars have benefited from that provision, including some who now lead campaigns against his statues.
RHODES, FOR BIGGAR, is only one of several imperial proconsuls who struggled, sometimes unsuccessfully, to protect native peoples from the predations of White settlers. It was a tradition dating back to the 18th century, when King George III’s declaration protecting Native Americans from further White expansion became a major casus belli for American colonists, though it won much native support for British troops in the civil war that followed. The British extended similar protection to native tribes in what became Canada, with special schools for their children, now deemed abusive by the “decolonisers”, but designed to provide them with modern skills.
Biggar is quick to concede that this paternalist protection for native peoples grew less effective the farther the empire extended from its metropolis. The relatively more advanced native Maori of New Zealand secured an advantageous treaty with White settlers, with effective representation that even allowed a Maori to become acting prime minister. Australian aboriginals, partly because they were nomadic, without bounded lands, were less easy to protect from sporadic settler violence. But what decimated their population, and made them extinct on the island of Tasmania, Biggar convincingly argues, was not any attempt at genocide, but their lack of immunity to diseases that travelled from Europe and Indonesia.
Like most Victorians of his generation, Rhodes regarded Africans as backward and primitive but every bit as human as Whites and capable of being educated into equal rights. He allowed no apartheid in his own diamond mines or in the new White-ruled colony of Rhodesia that he founded
The other major anti-colonial trope this book demolishes is that the British Empire systematically exploited colonial economies and drained their wealth for the profit of the mother country. Free trade reigned unchallenged as the economic orthodoxy for much of the 19th century, and it inevitably created both winners and losers. India is the classic case here, with imports of cheap, factory-produced yarn squeezing indigenous spinners, but helping weavers and much expanding Indian per capita consumption of cloth.
As our foremost economic historian, Tirthankar Roy, much quoted here, is fond of pointing out, average home remittances from India by the British, the alleged drain, amounted to a tiny 1 per cent of India’s national income, and averaged a mere charge of only 3 per cent, lower than the global interest rate, on the huge inward investment of scarce capital that India received from British investors. Roy has been eloquent on the advantages that India’s own native businesses and industry received from the free movement of goods, capital, skills and personnel across the empire. These founding pillars of our modern economy left us with banks, many joint stock companies, the world’s third largest rail network and the largest textile and steel industries in the developing world.
Both Roy and Biggar agree that much more could have been done to develop Indian agriculture and public goods like health and education, had it not been for the narrow tax base and laissez faire thinking that dominated governance here and also back in Britain. Nevertheless, there was considerable canal-building, extensive inoculation and a pan-Indian network of hospitals, medical and technical colleges, schools and universities. Our great port cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras became centres of global excellence.
Despite the neglect of agriculture, Roy and Biggar agree that the Famine Code that the Raj established in 1880 pretty much eliminated any serious famine in India after 1900, with the 1943 Bengal Famine as a wartime exception that proved the rule. The Malthusian test that Winston Churchill was fond of citing was how India’s population multiplied under British rule from 170 million in 1750 to 425 million in 1947.
Another very important though less tangible benefit of the British Empire has been its promotion of liberal values, the rule of law, a professional civil service and parliamentary institutions across almost all its territories. The White Dominions, as we know, got full independence from 1931, but India was not far behind. Nineteenth-century imperial proconsuls from Mountstuart Elphinstone and John Malcolm down to William Bentinck and Thomas Babington Macaulay had been declaring in public and private that India must and would eventually evolve to democratic equality with Britain. The only disagreement, as in many African colonies, was the pace of reform and how best to protect minorities, whether in countries like Egypt or India, from majoritarian domination.
In India, the groundwork was laid by the world’s finest civil service, who administered remarkably uncorrupt, impartial justice to the most remote villages, to which they travelled on foot or horseback. They were rapidly Indianised through the 20th century and became the steel frame holding the subcontinent together. British Indian cities, meanwhile, acquired municipal self-government, elected by all ratepayers, from 1870, laying the urban foundations of the Indian National Congress, founded by enlightened Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers in 1885.
The next major constitutional step in India came with provincial dyarchy in the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919, with elected Indian ministers taking many provincial portfolios and Indian members elected to an Imperial Legislative Assembly in New Delhi. The princely states, autonomous under viceregal supervision, were also encouraged to liberalise on these lines, and several did under highly distinguished, British-trained diwans.
The Mau-Mau rebellion and its suppression involved atrocities by White settlers and the Kenyan police force they dominated, but equally strenuous efforts by the colonial authorities to restrain the settlers when they could. The conflict was as much between Africans as between Black and White
Sadly absent from Biggar’s account is the still more democratic 1935 Act that was to form the basis of independent India’s 1950 Constitution. The Act created a large electorate of 30 million, including women and all ratepayers and matriculates, about one-sixth of our adult population, not unlike the franchise in mid-19th century Britain itself. The result was full responsible government in all British Indian provinces, six of them led by Congress ministries, with the promise of federal dominion status (virtual independence) once the princes, Congress and Muslims agreed. The outbreak of World War II in 1939, the resignation of Congress ministries and the Quit India Movement launched by Gandhi ended further constitutional advance until after the war.
BIGGAR CONCLUDES BY examining the allegation we often hear from his opponents that the British Empire was founded on systemic violence. He acknowledges that the empire, like almost every state formation before or after, had episodes of violence that might have been avoidable. But he firmly denies that this contradicts its reliance, for the most part, on consent, often explicit, and indirect rule through partnership with native elites. He takes as his examples six notorious episodes: the Opium Wars against China, reprisals for the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the expedition against the Benin kingdom in West Africa, the Anglo-Boer Wars in South Africa, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India, and the suppression of the Mau-Mau Rebellion in Kenya.
The Opium Wars, of which he is most critical, imposed humiliating treaties on China in a cause he does not consider just. But Biggar reminds us that Qing China, which considered all foreigners barbarians, was itself no paragon of virtue, denying basic human rights to its own subjects and riddled with Chinese black marketeers trading in opium. He reminds us that democracy first came to China via its republican leader Sun Yat-sen who acquired British liberal values as a refugee in colonial Hong Kong and later overthrew the Qing dynasty.
Concerning the Indian Mutiny, Biggar points to the brutality with which mutineers massacred hundreds of British men, women and children in locations ranging from Meerut and Delhi to Cawnpore (present Kanpur). Incidents like these, he acknowledges, fuelled irrational British revenge, with both sides firing prisoners from cannons, a practice the British had learned from the Mughals. Though even-handed in condemning atrocities on both sides, Biggar points out that the normal rule of law quickly returned under the governor general, dubbed Clemency Canning, under strict instructions from Queen Victoria herself.
Biggar is at his most eloquent about the empire’s resort to just war in his very detailed account of its invasion of Benin in 1897, based on contemporary British and African accounts. Benin, he reminds us, was ruled by an unusually brutal regime, which practised ritual human sacrifices on an unparalleled scale and had built its wealth on extensive slave trading, dating back centuries. It was common practice there for hundreds of slaves, including women and children, to be buried alive with their owners. British authorities, long appalled by these massacres, were driven to intervene when an unarmed British embassy to the kingdom was slaughtered en route. According to Biggar’s evidence, the British punitive expedition, though horrified by the blood-soaked evidence it saw, used no more than proportionate force to defeat the enemy. The famous Benin bronzes, many now in Western collections, were taken as war booty, then permitted in international law.
The Anglo-Boer Wars were triggered by errors on both sides, but a major stumbling block was the reluctance of the Boers to join a Union of South Africa in which Blacks had the vote. According to this account, the British, aided by Black Africans, used proportionate force. Their scorched earth tactics were calculated to defeat guerrilla warfare, and their PoW camps, though ravaged by disease, death and mismanagement, were never intended to be punitive, let alone being the precursor of later Nazi death camps. Although the Boers later voluntarily joined a federal South Africa, they never accepted a Black franchise and abolished it completely with Apartheid in 1960.
Jallianwala Bagh, 1919, coincided ironically with liberal reforms. Biggar reminds us that the context was a breakdown of law and order across the Punjab, and especially in Amritsar, with five British civilians brutally clubbed to death. Many Europeans feared the eruption of a second 1857, and Reginald Dyer saw himself as their defender. Seeing a crowd of 25,000 assembled, contrary to the curfew he had ordered, Dyer with his Indian firing squad massively overreacted, failed to issue any warning and opened fire, continuing till the crowd had dispersed as best they could via one narrow exit. Best estimates are of approximately 500 killed and a couple of thousand wounded.
Dyer’s action was roundly condemned by the viceroy in Delhi, the cabinet in London and the British House of Commons in a debate led by Winston Churchill. Dyer was accordingly discharged from the army, though his action was not deemed worthy of court martial. Biggar joins the condemnation, but judiciously reminds us that Dyer was Indian-born and bred, popular with his Indian sepoys and had shown no previous signs of racial prejudice. Indeed, he much preferred the company of Indians to that of upper-class British civilians.
Biggar’s final case-study, the Mau-Mau Rebellion of the 1950s and its suppression, had elements of all the above episodes. It involved atrocities by White settlers and the Kenyan police force they dominated, but equally strenuous efforts by the colonial authorities to restrain the settlers when they could. The conflict was as much between Africans as between Black and White. As large a proportion of the Kikuyu tribe fought alongside the British as in the uprising. The Mau-Mau were guilty of violence every bit as brutal as the Whites’, most of it directed at fellow Blacks. Again, the moral rights and wrongs were complex, with divided loyalties on both sides.
A work as encyclopaedic as this is bound to have some omissions, whether deliberate or otherwise. The main one for me was the absence of Macaulay, the leading historian of Britain’s own domestic democratic evolution and so crucial in defining its liberal imperialism, both in India and across the empire. Most of us will be familiar with Macaulay’s educational and legal reforms in Calcutta. Less noticed here in India is his role as secretary of war in the cabinet of interventionist Lord Palmerston, in which capacity he supervised, for better or worse, the conduct of the First Opium and First Afghan Wars. His vision of Western-educated, English-speaking, indigenous elites, who could act as intermediaries with the wider masses was, of course, the template for the indirect rule so characteristic across the British Empire.
Nigel Biggar ends with a succinct final reply to his detractors. To those who accuse him of compiling a simplistic imperial balance sheet of costs and benefits, he points out that neither can be morally commensurate with each other and therefore capable of being compared in those terms. Outcomes of either sort are usually historically and ethically complex. The best we can do is to make balanced moral judgments of aims and intentions, even if their execution is often flawed or the consequences sometimes unintended. As for the charge of imperial nostalgia, Biggar’s reply is loud and clear. There can be no nostalgia, nor should there be, since the British Empire, so long past, never can or will return.