By Andrew Field

The British Empire has been overly criticised, so much so that some, like the book’s author, view this as a “slanderous caricature that equates British colonialism with slavery and racism”[1]; and thus the embodiment of evil. The leftist cult of anti-colonialism, certainly in Africa, has its origins in the Cold War, in nationalism and decolonisation expediently accelerated in the 1960s.

Biggar, a Christian theologist and ethicist, also a 2021 honours recipient for the CBE “for his services to higher education”, takes a moral and ethical look at the history of Empire in an attempt to balance the ledgers, evolving from his “Ethics and Empire” project at University of Oxford. That project was condemned because it sought to bring out the truth, “a nuanced and historically correct Christian ethic of empire”[2]. He had a lot of positive things to say, perhaps too many, about colonialism.

In some ways, this book is a refreshing take in light of the general trend by academia, historians, and especially politicians to overstate the sins of Empire; being defined by their nouveau, liberal ideas and falsehoods, and sense of humanitarianism, that lack historical rigour. We are swamped with revisionism, such that people have imbibed a sense of guilt and suffer mental self-flagellation for the sins of their forefathers, being ignorant of, or without understanding, the other side of the story. It is almost akin to the American blinkered political culture of race, identity and victimhood.

Biggar suggests, somewhat profoundly, early in his book that “[w]e should forgive our ancestors for not perceiving some moral truths quite as clearly as we do, just as we shall surely need forgiveness from our grandchildren for our own moral dullness.”[3]

The book is not shy to identify the considered evils and unintended harms of British colonialism being lamentable and capable of “moral condemnation”: slavery, economic and social disruption and displacement, failure to prevent settler abuse, racial alienation and contempt, cultural suppression or disproportionate force, to list a few. “None of them amounts to genocide in the proper sense”, the author suggests. Well certainly nothing on the scale of say post-colonial 1972 Burundi; 1994 Rwandan; and 1982 – 1987 Zimbabwean Gukurahundi genocides.

The book concurs that the British Empire had involved itself with the evil of slave trade, but that it had eventually been steadfastly opposed to slavery. Since 1807, Britain was a leading proponent of its abolition across the globe, well beyond its Empire. The British Empire was never unique, or stood alone, in their involvement with this violent and exploitative practice; it is ages old, global, multi-national and not necessarily singularly white on black. Biggar argues that there is no equation between colonialism and slavery, that it was never a fundamental source of Britain’s wealth, nor the source of alleged systemic racism in today’s society.

The author argues and attempts to debunk the false equation of racism and colonialism. This brings to the fore empire builder and statesman, Cecil Rhodes, a man whom we are not unfamiliar with in Southern Africa, frequently and falsely accused of being its Hitler. It is claimed that Rhodes was not in fact inherently racist, having the somewhat liberal view, which tolerated the inclusion of civilised people and the colour blind franchise of the Cape since 1853.

In 1899, when the Cape government sought to introduce legislation that would disenfranchise black people, he protested that he had “always differentiated between raw barbarians and civilised native people”[4].

The author takes apart the oft propensity to misquote Rhodes, as if spoiling for a fight. Indeed, Adekeye Adebajo, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria, a pan-africanist, and the author of several books, humorously to the reviewer’s mind, seems to have taken the bait!

Adebajo is basically maligned for attributing quotes to Rhodes, hearsay via others, from Olive Schreiner’s ‘Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland’, a fiction work! Then for highlighting quotes out of context… a common tool. Adebajo sought to rebut the criticism, in the Sunday Telegraph, ending with the comment, “[h]e (Biggar) should stick to his own field of theology and not wade into tendentious history”[5]. Strange that, because African nationalism and black academia has spent years developing its leftist influenced, revisionist, tendentious, anti-colonial philosophy or causes.

There is discussion on the consequence of decolonisation, perhaps one of the more profound, regionally, being the eventual policy of Apartheid in South Africa, by then a self-governing dominion, gradually introduced by the Afrikaaner Nationalist government from 1948, a policy that rubbed out entirely the rights of blacks until 1994. The Cape Colony and Natal actually had qualified franchises enabling person of colour to vote. Up until 1930 not even women had the franchise to vote in South Africa.

It seems strange though that the author does not address the prolific incidence of post-colonial genocides, wars, coup d’états, and insurrections that destroyed much of the good that colonialism had attempted to build. Many consider the rise in coup d’états and wars in the wake of decolonisation caused the plummeting of good governance in the rankings, tangible declines in democracy, militarisation, and the proclivity to restructure constitutions to sustain personal power.

Biggar’s work has enraged many academics and frightened some publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing, a London based publishing house, who initially contracted Biggar to write the book, reneged despite having read and edited the book; suggesting the “author’s research had been exhaustive, the argument being conveyed were with care and precision, that it was such an important book”. Yet, they did not have the courage to publish it. Astonishingly, that was simply an unmitigated cancellation and de-platforming of a scholar with a different view.

Their criticism of Biggar’s book was that they considered that public feeling on the subject does not currently support the publication of the book! Clearly, the script did not accord to prevailing orthodoxies about gender, race and colonial history. The book’s author is of the opinion that the denial was a “contribution to the expansion of authoritarianism and the shrinking of moral and political diversity.” He adds, “[p]olitical correctness holds a vice-like hold on what people can write and think through cancellation”. The publisher’s fear backfired pleasantly, when another publisher took up the mantle, propelling Biggar’s book to the Sunday Times best seller list at one stage.

The book is and encyclopaedic reading, extremely well researched, evidenced by the fact that a quarter of the book is dedicated to source notes, a lengthy bibliography and comprehensive index. The author’s findings suggest that despite sometimes brutalist and exploitative sins, the Empire also exerted a civilising influence, developed governance and infrastructure, enabled trade and society. But most are describing the book as an immoral and flawed defence of British imperialism. It is a highly recommended read for the polemicists, and both historians  and politicians; and one might come away thinking the one of several bad things about colonialism was actually decolonisation!

  • Author: Nigel Biggar, CBE
  • Publisher: William Collins
  • Place Published: London
  • ISBN No: 978-0-00-851163-0
  • Genre: [[colonial history]] [[morals and ethics]]
  • Pages: 480
  • Indexed: Yes

[1] Biggar, Nigel: “The publishing industry is killing free speech and spreading lies – by cancelling authors like me”, Mail on Line 4 February 2023

[2] Lai, Charlotte: “Don in publisher row over “cancelled” colonialism book”, Chewell 4 February 2023

[3] Biggar, Nigel: “Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning”; page 9

[4] See: Biggar, Nigel: Cecil Rhodes and the abuse of History 12 August 2021

[5] Adebajo, Adekeye:Writing in the Sunday Telegraph 16 May 2021

By Editor

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar”
  1. I haven’t read the book and I rely upon Andrew Fields review. The author is wide of the mark in his assessment of the British Empire. The review inter alia did not touch on the basic foundational considerations and raison d’etre that gave rise to the Empire; the institutions that enabled it to survive and thrive until it was halted; the institutions and strategies that conspired to end the British Empire; the institutions that came about to replace the necessity for a British Empire. I could go on. The British Armies conduct and perfidy during the second Boer War cannot be ignored. There are other issues that cannot be left out of any review of British Colonialism. It is a rich subject.

  2. When the author misrepresents Hitler it is time to stop reading.
    No mention of the Boer wars when the British Empire robbed SA to pay for WWI

  3. Finally…………..a balanced review and perspective on what is a very interesting, and largely objective, treatise on colonialism by Britain. When first looking to buy this book and checking out any reviews on it, it quickly became apparent that the woke brigade and apologists were out in force; which convinced me it was definitely the book to buy and read.

    1. I think accusing the British Empire of robbing South Africa (more explicitly the Transvaal) to pay for WW1 is crediting the British government with too much foresight. The Anglo-Boer Wars took place 1899-1902, more than a decade before the out break of WW1 in Autumn 1914. As I remember it, there were rich deposits of gold in the area which is now the Johannesburg conurbation and the Dutch farmers did not want to mine the gold. The British saw this as a shocking waste of resources that could be used to build up the country – and certain people did get rich.

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