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Book review: Colonialism: A moral reckoning by Nigel Biggar

12 April 2024

This defence of empire doesn’t get its critics, Peniel Rajkumar finds

THE title of the Revd Professor Nigel Biggar’s tendentious Colonialism: A moral reckoning is a misnomer. The category “moral” (about which he seems to make monologic assumptions) is, in this book, entrapped in an epistemological premise — one that reeks of the same racist and supremacist inclinations as characterised colonialism in both its malignant and “benevolent” expressions.

Preposterously, Biggar selects a “moral lens” through which to offer a “moral” (re)view of colonialism — let the irony not be lost — in a way that mimics colonialism itself. Colonialism uses a time-tested tactic of seeking to redeem and reinforce itself by the constant reinvention of self-justifying moral and epistemological tools. Reflection on Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House could have prevented this fundamental mistake.

Astutely weaponising prejudice, Biggar unveils his defence of colonialism in the consideration of eight questions, which provide the themes of his chapters: Was imperial endeavour driven primarily by greed and the lust to dominate? Should we speak of “colonialism and slavery” in the same breath, as if they were the same thing? Was the British Empire essentially racist? How far was it based on the conquest of land? Did it involve genocide? Was it driven fundamentally by the motive of economic exploitation? Since colonial government was not democratic, did that make it illegitimate? and, was the Empire essentially violent, and was its violence pervasively racist and terroristic?

Invariably, the Empire emerges from this scrutiny exonerated and even extolled. For instance, at the end of the first chapter, Biggar lists a set of “innocent” motives that drove the imperial enterprise and concludes: “there is nothing morally wrong with any of these.” He goes on to emphasise that the last motive —“the vocation to lift oppression and establish stable self-government” — is “morally admirable”. This suggests that Biggar has failed to reckon with the plethora of basic discourses on the phenomenon of the “white man’s burden”. Intriguingly, he stumbles not at the most sophisticated aspects of understanding colonialism, but at the most basic.

He tediously rehearses the anxieties that those who feel unsettled by post-colonial and decolonial politics often take refuge in and, when challenged, derive a sense of heroism from; and his approach is more reactive than reasoned. He acknowledges this when he agrees that “we cannot help but make moral judgements and react negatively.”

But one merit of the book, at least, is Biggar’s openness about his anxieties amid the shifting sands of moral opinion on colonialism. “What is at stake”, he acknowledges, “is not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday, but the self-perception and self-confidence of the British today, and the way they conduct themselves in the world of tomorrow. What is also at stake, therefore, is the very integrity of the United Kingdom and the security of the West. That is why I have written this book.”

The author has not understood post-colonialism, and his book’s main problem is its avoidance of engagement with more robust appraisals of colonialism in contemporary times — such as Kehinde Andrews’s The New Age of Empire: How racism and colonialism still rule the world, or Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India.

Andrews would have helped Biggar with chapters two and three, and taught him “just how little we understand racism, which is not about personal prejudice, but rather is a matter of life and death”. Tharoor would have enabled him to bear in mind that “it would not be entirely wise to consign colonialism to the proverbial dustbin of history.”

Reading Biggar’s attempt at a Christian apologetics for colonialism, I cannot but wonder whether adjusting the spacing of the first two words of the subtitle to Amoral might have done more justice to the contents of this morally and historically vacuous book.

The Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar is the USPG’s Global Theologian, and an Hon. Canon of Worcester Cathedral

Colonialism: A moral reckoning
Nigel Biggar
HarperCollins £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

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