Imperialism: not THAT bad

Kenan Malik has a review in the Guardian of a book about colonialism – the “hey it wasn’t that bad” kind of book about colonialism.

In 1857, in the wake of the Indian mutiny, a British officer, Lt George Cracklow, described in a letter home what happened to captured rebels. “The prisoners were marched up to the guns… and lashed to the muzzles,” he wrote. “The guns exploded… I could hardly see for the smoke for about 2 seconds when down came something with a thud about 5 yards from me. This was the head and neck of one of the men… On each side of the guns, about 10 yards, lay the arms torn out at the shoulders.”

Nigel Biggar, in his new history of British colonialism, acknowledges the brutality of Britain’s response to the mutiny but argues that the use of violence is “essential” to any state, as is “the deterrence of others through fear”. He adds: “Whatever one thinks of ‘blowing from a gun’ as a method of execution, it was not indiscriminate, insofar as the victim had been judged guilty of some crime.”

Cool cool cool. Torture people to death for jaywalking as long as the people have been judged guilty of jaywalking.

The director of Oxford University’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, Biggar has caused waves in recent years with his call for a moral reappraisal of colonialism. Contemporary historians, he believes, have made us feel too guilty about Britain’s colonial past. We need to recognise not just the bad but also the good of empire. Colonialism is his attempt to create such a moral balance sheet.

If the sentence quoted is typical, he’s going about it the wrong way!

Biggar’s response to the treatment of Indian rebels exemplifies his approach. One might have thought that a professor of theology would have paused before attempting to find moral exculpation for such savage punishment. Biggar’s approach, however, is wherever possible to find good motives behind every colonial act – he portrays racial segregation, for example, as the product not of racism but of the desire “to protect native peoples from harmful encounters with settlers”. And where it proves impossible to locate a nugget of good, he seeks instead to find exonerating circumstances for the bad.

That kind of thing is a useful exercise in legal training, philosophy, and the like, but it has its problems.

Biggar claims that the empire wasn’t racist, and Kenan provides examples illustrating how absurd that is.

The Liberal politician Charles Wentworth Dilke’s claim that “nature seems to intend the English for a race of officers, to direct and guide the cheap labour of eastern peoples” was far closer to the reality of British perceptions than Biggar’s wishful account. As one-time prime minister Archibald Primrose, the 5th Earl of Rosebery, asked: “What is empire but the predominance of race?”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Colonialism is that, for all the claims to be a “moral reckoning”, moral questions are rarely taken seriously. Consider the discussion of Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1834, for which slave owners received total compensation of £20m (about £16bn today).

The slaves, however, received total compensation of £0.

Biggar seems not to recognise as a moral issue the fact that while slave owners received reparations, slaves themselves did not. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary, Biggar imagines that freed slaves continued working on the old plantations not out of economic necessity, having been deprived of all resources, but because of the generosity of former masters in providing housing and food.

That’s exactly how it played out in the US after the Civil War, too.

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