The Great British Empire Debate

Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery)/Bridgeman Images

George William Joy: General Gordon’s Last Stand, circa 1893

The sun may have long ago set on the British Empire (or on all but a few tattered shreds of it), but it never seems to set on the debate about the merits of empire. The latest controversy began when the Third World Quarterly, an academic journal known for its radical stance, published a paper by Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University in Oregon, called “The Case for Colonialism.” Fifteen of the thirty-four members on the journal’s editorial board resigned in protest, while a petition, with more than 10,000 signatories, called for the paper to be retracted. It was eventually withdrawn after the editor “received serious and credible threats of personal violence.”

Then, in November, Nigel Biggar, regius professor of theology at Oxford University, wrote an article in the London Times defending Gilley. Biggar saw Gilley’s “balanced reappraisal of the colonial past” as “courageous,” and called for “us British to moderate our post-imperial guilt.”

Biggar also revealed that he was launching a five-year academic project, under the auspices of Oxford University’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, called “Ethics and Empire.” The project aims to question the notion prevalent “in most reaches of academic discourse,” that “imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical” and to develop “a Christian ethic of empire.” Fifty-eight Oxford scholars working on “histories of empire and colonialism” wrote an open letter condemning the project as asking “the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes.” A second open letter with nearly two hundred signatures from academics across the globe expressed “alarm that the University of Oxford should invest resources in this project.” Another Oxford historian of empire, Alexander Morrison, denounced these open letters as being “deeply corrosive of normal academic exchange” and encouraging “online mobbing, public shaming and political polarization.”

Like all such debates, this latest controversy comprises many threads. Was colonialism good or bad, and for whom, and in what ways? How should one debate these questions in academia, and in politics? And why has this debate erupted now?

Apologists for colonialism argue that Western powers brought economic development, the rule of law, and liberties to its colonies. According to Gilley, colonialism stressed “the primacy of human lives, universal values, and shared responsibilities” and constituted a “civilizing mission” that “led to improvements in living conditions for most Third World peoples.” For Biggar, it introduced “order” to the non-Western world. And for many British historians, the British Empire was preeminent in achieving all this. As Niall Ferguson put it in his 2003 book Empire, “no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire.… And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.”

It is an argument that confuses economic development and political liberalization, on the one hand, with colonialism, on the other. The British Empire began to take shape during the early seventeenth century, with the English settlement of North America and Caribbean islands, and the creation of corporations, such as the East India Company, to administer colonies and overseas trade. The origins of colonialism lie, in other words, in a time when Britain was still a feudal kingdom, with a parliament but little democracy, and when manufacture was dominated by the handloom rather than the factory.

If Britain could, over the next 250 years, transform itself from a backward, undemocratic state into a modern industrial power, why could not any of the nations it colonized have done so, too? Why assume that it was only colonization that allowed India or Ghana to develop?

One answer might be that the countries that Britain colonized were even more backward than Britain was at the time, and lacked the social and intellectual resources to transform themselves as Britain did. But the reality, at least in some of its colonies, was the opposite. Consider India. At the beginning of eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time Britain left India, it had dropped to less than 4 percent. “The reason was simple,” argues Shashi Tharoor in his book Inglorious Empire. “India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for two hundred years was financed by its depredations in India.” Britain, Tharoor argues, deliberately deindustrialized India, both through the physical destruction of workshops and machinery and the use of tariffs to promote British manufacture and strangle Indian industries.

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An old woman starving in the street during the Bengal Famine, India, 1943

It was not just India from which resources flowed back to Britain, though in different countries it happened in different ways. Britain’s West Indian colonies were at the heart of the “triangular trade” by which goods from Britain were used to purchase slaves from West Africa who were taken to the Caribbean, and from whose labor great riches flowed back to British merchants in Bristol, Liverpool, and London.


The historian Robin Blackburn notes that around 1770, total investments in the domestic British economy amounted to £4 million (about £500 million, or $700 million, in modern values). This investment “included the building of roads and canals, of wharves and harbors, of all new equipment needed by farmers and manufacturers, and of all the new ships sold to merchants in a period of one year.” Around the same time, profits from the slave trade and slave labor came to £3.8 million. Not all profit was reinvested but, suggests Blackburn, “slave-generated profits were large enough to have covered a quarter to a third of Britain’s overall investment needs.” Without the slave plantations, it is unlikely that Britain would have been able to industrialize, or to forge an empire, as it did.

What of democracy and liberalism? The Enlightenment helped transform the intellectual and moral culture of Europe in the eighteenth century, and laid the ground for modern ideas of equality and liberty. “All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies,” as the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm put it, “are implicit in it, and indeed come out of it.”

But if the European Enlightenment was crucial to the development of progressive social ideals, European colonialism as a practice denied those ideals to the majority of people. It maintained slavery, suppressed democracy, and was rooted in a racialized view of the world. It was not colonialism but anticolonial movements that truly developed Enlightenment ideals. From the Haitian revolution of 1791, the first successful slave revolt in history, to the Quit India movement, to the liberation struggles of Southern Africa, the opponents of empire demanded that equality and liberty applied to them, too.

As the Martinique-born Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, “All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought.” The problem was that “Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission which fell to them.” So, it was left to the anticolonial struggles to “start a new history of Man.”

But, respond defenders of empire, the “new history” created by anticolonial struggles has been disastrous. There is no gainsaying that, in the decades following independence, many former colonies descended into chaos and worse. The reasons are manifold, and partly lie, as Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire shows, in the policies enacted by the colonial powers themselves before independence and in the economic and political conditions imposed by Western powers after. The horrors of the postcolonial world seem, however, to have created an amnesia about the horrors of colonialism. Gilley, for instance, commenting on the current disorder in the Democratic Republic of Congo, suggests that “Maybe the Belgians should come back.”

Belgian colonialism instituted an almost unimaginable reign of barbarism and terror. King Leopold II laid claim over the “Congo Free State” as part of the European “Scramble for Africa” at the end of the nineteenth century. He was, he insisted, acting on humanitarian motives—to abolish the slave trade. In reality, Belgium waged a war of enslavement. Congo was transformed into a mass labor camp, in which the most brutal of punishments were inflicted for the most trivial of offenses. If villagers did not meet their rubber quota, their children’s hands and feet were sometimes chopped off. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, the population of the Congo fell by a half—an estimated ten million people lost their lives to Leopold’s brutal regime. It was, observes the writer and historian Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost, “a death toll of Holocaust dimensions.”

Supporters of the British Empire argue that its rule was far more benign than the terror of the Belgian Congo. That is not to place the moral bar very high. But here, too, there is considerable historical amnesia. From Tasmania, where a whole people were virtually wiped out for resisting British rule in the “Black War” of the 1820s and 1830s; to Jamaica, where the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 led to a six-week rampage by British troops, during which more than four hundred people were killed and almost the same number summarily hanged; to Ireland and a history of bloody terror from Oliver Cromwell’s savage war of conquest in the seventeenth century to what the Irish historian Thomas Bartlett called the “universal rape, plunder and murder” wrought by British troops after the 1798 Irish rebellion, to the brutal acts of revenge exacted during the Irish War of Independence by the Black and Tans, a British-controlled paramilitary police force, in the 1920s; to India, where some three million died in the Bengal famine of 1942–1943, caused by the British decision to export rice, for use in the war theaters and for consumption in Britain, from a state that usually imported rice, and at a time of great local shortage—the experience of the “order” of the British Empire was cruel and ferocious. Even Niall Ferguson, in his paean to the British Empire, acknowledges that “when imperial authority was challenged… the British response was brutal.”


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British police, known as Black and Tans, searching a suspected Irish republican, Ireland, 1923

Perhaps the most egregious claim of the apologists is that the British Empire should be lauded because it helped end slavery; this was “one of the undoubted benefits of colonialism,” as Gilley puts it. Imagine an arsonist who burns down a building, killing many of its inhabitants. When the people inside try to flee, he forces them back. Eventually, after many hours of this, he decides to help the people, both inside and outside the building, who are trying to put the fire out. Would we say of this arsonist, “Yes, he may have burned the building down and killed dozens of people, but what really matters is that he threw some water over the fire at the end?” That is akin to the argument of the apologists for empire.

In 1807, Britain passed a law banning the slave trade. But for three centuries, that trade had been dominated by Britain; three centuries of savage enslavement, pitiless brutality, and casual mass murder. Twelve million Africans are thought to have been transported to the Americas, half of them in the peak years of the Atlantic slave trade between 1690 and 1807. In those peak years, about half of these slaves were taken on British ships. Historians estimate that at least one in ten, and possibly one in five slaves, died on the Middle Passage, the journey from Africa to the New World. This suggests that half a million Africans may have lost their lives while being transported on British ships.

“It is important to remember,” the historian David Olusoga observes in his recent book Black and British: A Forgotten History, “how few voices were raised against slavery in Britain until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The Church of England was largely silent on the issue, as were most of the politicians.” This was inevitable, he adds, because “too much money, too many livelihoods and too much political power were invested; millions of British people lived lives that were intimately connected to the economics of slavery and the sugar business.”

It was not the British Empire that began the struggle against enslavement, but slaves themselves, and radicals in Europe. When slaves rose up, the British response was savage, and not just in British colonies. In Haiti, after the revolutionaries defeated the French, Britain sent more than 20,000 men to try to retake the island as a British colony. They, too, were humiliatingly defeated by the army of former slaves.

The reasons that led Britain to eventually ban the slave trade in 1807 are still debated by historians. There are many threads to the story: the growing social influence of both working-class radicalism and Christian moral evangelism; the decline in the political power of West Indian planters; the entrenchment of Enlightenment ideals of equality; the changing economics of plantation production; the strategic advantage that Britain now had in being able to police its imperial rivals, such as France and Spain, which were still involved in the slave trade.

Whatever the causes of the ban, the historian of slavery James Walvin has observed, “the discussion about British morality and sensibility in 1807 has served to obscure what went before. And what went before was not only important to Britain, but it was brutal on a scale which, even now, is scarcely credible.”

As Marika Sherwood shows in her book After Abolition, Britain continued to profit from the slave trade even after 1807. Britain, she writes, “not only continued to build slaving vessels, but it financed the trade, insured it, crewed some of it and probably even created the many national flags carried by the vessels to avoid condemnation.” Slavery flourished unhindered. It took another three decades before Britain ended slavery itself with the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act; and even then, not throughout the empire. Not until the twentieth century was slavery legally abolished in colonies such as Burma, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.

Even where the Abolition of Slavery Act did end slavery, it did not end slave-like conditions. Slave owners were handsomely compensated for the loss of their “property.” Some £20 million (about £16 billion, or $22 billion, in today’s values) was set aside by the British government to recompense 46,000 slave owners. Not only did the slaves themselves receive no reparation, but, under the Act, they were compelled to provide forty-five hours of unpaid labor each week for their former masters, for a further four to six years after their supposed liberation. “In effect,” writes David Olusoga, “the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.”

The suggestion that the British Empire was good because it ended slavery reflects historical amnesia of the most decadent kind. And yet, as the historian Katie Donington puts it, “the ‘moral capital’ of abolitionism” has continually provided “a means of redeeming Britain’s troubling colonial past.”

The arguments for the moral good of colonialism are, then, threadbare. Many academics are, however, concerned by demands for the retraction of Gilley’s paper, or for Oxford University to reassess Biggar’s Ethics and Empire project. A letter signed by a number of leading scholars, most of whom politically and intellectually disagree with Gilley and Biggar, expressed alarm at the “censorious attitudes and campaigns directed at Third World Quarterly.” The signatories saw it as part of a wider problem: that of “a rising tide of intolerance on campuses and in the academic profession, with certain scholars and students seeking to close down perspectives with which they disagree, rather than debating them openly.”

Critics of Gilley and Biggar protest that they are not calling “for the curtailing of the writer’s freedom of speech” but simply want to maintain academic “standards.” The question of academic rigor is important; nevertheless, the distinction between maintaining standards and demanding the suppression of what are regarded as morally or politically unacceptable opinions is a fine one. “Our default reaction to cases like this,” argues Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and the editor of Daily Nous, a popular philosophy blog, “should not be ‘retract!’ but rather, ‘rebut!’” If Gilley’s article is full of mistakes, he observes, “then the job of the experts is to point this out and help us learn from them, so people are less likely to make them again.”

The “rebut rather than retract” advice is particularly important because the issue of colonialism is a matter not just for academia but for the wider political culture. According to opinion polling, some 43 percent of Britons think that the British Empire was a “good thing” and 44 percent that British colonialism is “something to be proud of” (compared to 19 percent who think the empire was bad, and 21 percent who believe that colonialism is a matter for “regret”). Other polls have shown even greater support for British colonialism. The public support for colonialism reflects, at least in part, the lack of a full and proper debate on the issue. Against this background, the arguments of Gilley and Biggar may best be seen as an opportunity to have that debate, and to change public opinion, rather than dismiss their claims as “shoddy” and “distorted,” even though they are.

Why has the debate erupted now? For many, the obvious answer seems to be Brexit. The desire to leave the European Union, critics insist, is little more than a form of nostalgia for a Britain that has gone, and for an empire that is no more. The “need for nostalgia” argument is, however, a recurring theme throughout postcolonial British history. “The continuing decline… and the meanness of spirit” of Thatcherite Britain, Salman Rushdie wrote in 1984, led many to yearn “nostalgically” for the days of empire, and to a “recrudescence of imperialist ideology and the popularity of Raj fictions,” such as the TV adaptations of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown and M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. Nearly forty years on, the Indian news website The Wire, in a review of Bengal Shadows, a new documentary about the Bengal famine, writes similarly of “a Brexit-scarred Britain… increasingly showing signs of a growing nostalgia for its colonial past.”

There is certainly a strand of imperial nostalgia that has never quite disappeared in the national consciousness, and that keeps resurfacing, especially at times, as now, when Britain is searching for a sense of identity. It is one strand of the Brexit discussion, but hardly one that dominates the debate.

Today’s apologists for colonialism are driven as much by present needs as by past glories. In his Times article, Nigel Biggar referenced not empire nostalgia, but the lessons of empire for contemporary Western foreign intervention. “If we believe what strident anti-colonialists tell us,” he argued, “it will confirm us in the belief that the best way we can serve the world is by leaving it well alone.” A more “balanced view of empire,” on the other hand, would allow us to “think with care about how to intervene abroad successfully” and ensure that “we won’t simply abandon the world to its own devices.” What the British Empire tells us about Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan was not that the interventions were wrong but that “successful intervention requires more, earlier.”

Similarly, Gilley uses his claims about colonialism to argue for the “abandonment of the myth of self-governing capacity.” He calls for Western institutions, international bodies, and multinational corporations to help create “good governance.” It is, in other words, a call for overriding democracy and installing technocratic forms of rule.

Foreign intervention and technocratic governance: these are very contemporary issues, and ones with which liberals wrestle as much as reactionaries. Liberals may despise empire nostalgia, but many promote arguments about intervention and governance that have their roots in an imperial worldview. We should not imagine that apologists for empire are simply living in the past. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates. That makes it even more important that their ideas and arguments are challenged openly and robustly.

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