Measuring the Elephant: The Morality of the British Empire

“To attempt to judge an empire would be rather like approaching an elephant with a tape measure.” So said that wise old doyenne of African studies at the University of Oxford, Dame Margery Perham, in the BBC Reith Lectures for 1961, which represented her final thoughts on European, and especially British colonialism at the time of the decolonisation of Africa. She was concerned to counter the “cult of anti-colonialism” which was “generally expressed in something like a ritual condemnation of imperialism which seldom shows much discrimination as between past and present, between one imperialism and another, or between the different aspects of their role”. She titled her lectures “The Colonial Reckoning”, and Nigel Biggar has taken this as the inspiration for his own moral reckoning of the British Empire at a time when we have seen a resumption of anti-colonialism, this time in Britain and the Anglosphere.

Biggar, who has recently retired as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life at Oxford, first came to the attention of the public in late 2017 when his online announcement of his “Ethics and Empire” project was met with splutterings of indignation from students, some of his colleagues and a rag-bag of the usual suspects in the world of academe. It was summed up in the shrill and foul-mouthed call to action of Dr (now Professor) Priyamvada Gopal of Cambridge University who tweeted: “OMG. This is serious shit … We need to SHUT THIS DOWN.” Here you have the authentic voice of the anti-colonialist lobby, which is busy trying to prevent all debate at British, and indeed Western, universities, on empire and its effects on the past and present. It has been enshrined in the call by UK Universities, the politburo of British academe, for its members to ensure the “decolonisation” of their course curricula. The commissars have been mobilised to enforce this attitude. There is to be only one party line and that is that the European empires, and the British in particular, were irredeemably corrupt, brutal, violent, not forgetting white supremacist and racist, enterprises which humiliated and oppressed non-white peoples for centuries. Moreover, the Europeans are responsible for the current travails of the “Global South”.

This review appears in June’s Quadrant.
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By offering a one-sided view of empire, the real intent of this anti-colonial campaign is to undermine the confidence of the West in itself and the post-1945 Anglo-American liberal world order. This is a political project barely clothed in tattered academic garb. It is to the credit of Nigel Biggar that he has exposed, in all its shrivelled nakedness, the malevolent and shoddy scholarship behind the main accusations of the anti-colonial lobby against the record of the British Empire. It is an ambitious task. How has he fared in measuring the elephant?

Biggar is at pains to point out that his book “is not a history of the British Empire, but a moral evaluation of it”. Biggar’s Christian ethical background enables him to do this, in contradistinction to those rather stuffy historians who declaim their professional aversion to moral judgment on empire, yet whose works are replete with it.

Biggar addresses the main accusations against the British Empire by posing a set of moral questions. First, was empire driven by greed and the lust to dominate? How far was colonialism equated with slavery? Was the empire racist? Was it based on the conquest of land? Did it entail genocide? Was it all about economic exploitation? Was it illegitimate since it was undemocratic? Was it fundamentally violent, racist and terroristic? He gives a chapter to each question and rounds up with an overall moral evaluation of the British Empire and an indictment of the base nature and motives of the anti-colonialist academic lobby and its implications for the United Kingdom. In doing so he makes good use of his footnotes (all 230 pages of them, or nearly half the book length), which reveal in great and fascinating detail the tortuous and unacademic antics of the enemies of reason.

One of the main charges levelled at the British colonial “project” was that it was systemically corrupt, being driven by greed and the urge by “the lords of human kind” (the title of a 1969 book by the British communist V.G. Kiernan) to dominate “lesser breeds without the law”, in the words of Rudyard Kipling. There are recent popular exponents of this view. Shashi Tharoor, in Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017) accused the East India Company of extracting wealth from the Indian princes by “combining the license to loot everything” with “perfidy, chicanery and cupidity”. William Dalrymple, in The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (2019) regards the British conquest of India as the “supreme act of corporate violence”. Biggar quotes with approval Professor Tirthankar Roy’s withering put-down, in An Economic History of India, 1707–1857 (2021):

Tharoor and Dalrymple are not sufficiently well-informed to bat for the Indian warlords. Claims like theirs peddle sentiments—triumph or righteous outrage—but they are not correctly based on evidence and not reliable as history.

Nor, Biggar finds, was there a British “colonial project”, in the sense that it was “a single, unitary enterprise with a coherent essence”. Here Biggar agrees with his erstwhile Oxford colleague Professor John Darwin, who seems to have dropped out of the “Ethics and Empire” project after coming under pressure to do so from his fellow historians. In Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (2012), Darwin talks of the “improvised and provisional character” of the British Empire, whose “command and control” were “always ramshackle and quite often chaotic”. (It should be noted, however, that Darwin has also written a weighty and rather tedious tome, The Empire Project.)

Biggar has found that there was no one single motive or set of motives driving British imperial expansion. The motives were many and various, depending on people, place and period. And the motives that Biggar has unearthed are straightforward and even laudable, namely: to escape poverty and persecution; to strive for a better life overseas; to strike out on one’s own; to meet the needs of shareholders in a company; to seek adventure; to discover other cultures; to make and keep the peace; to assert martial prestige; to gain military and political advantage against Britain’s rivals and enemies; to relieve oppression and set up stable self-government. There are, of course, examples of greed and unwise behaviour as there are in any human endeavour. But these were not the primary drivers of British imperial expansion, nor did they characterise its essence.

At the Commonwealth heads of government reception in Rwanda last year, King Charles III felt the need to state: “I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my understanding of slavery’s enduring impact.” Accordingly, Buckingham Palace has announced that it will throw open its archives to a research project run by the University of Manchester and allow a Dutch PhD student to rummage through the documents in the search for links between the monarchy and the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In granting this access to the royal collection and archives for this specific time period, the King and his courtiers have played straight into the hands of the anti-colonial lobby. As Biggar explains:

Contemporary agitators in the cause of “decolonisation”, whether campaigning for Rhodes Must Fall or Black Lives Matter, clamour that white Britons need to learn more about their ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade and slavery, because the anti-black racism allegedly endemic in contemporary British society derives from the “white supremacism” used to justify the enslavement of blacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. White Britons in the third decade of the twenty-first century, so it is claimed, view blacks now essentially as white slavers and planters did in the early eighteenth century. Racist colonialism is what connects them, and it needs to be exposed, confessed and repudiated through cultural decolonisation.

As a result of an assiduous lobbying effort by small cadres of like-minded anti-colonial fanatics, this view is now prevalent among the Establishment, or “The Blob”, from Westminster to Whitehall to the City of London. Above all, it is now being enforced in the educational sector from primary schools to the universities in order to capture the minds of the young. As Biggar points out, the trouble with “the anti-colonialists’ equation of British colonialism with slavery, and their consequent demand for cultural ‘decolonisation’, is that it requires amnesia about everything that has happened since 1787”, and the British project to settle freed loyalist slaves from the American colonies in Sierra Leone. It ignores the fact that the cause of the abolition of slavery was very popular in Britain from the late eighteenth century onwards. It led, first to the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and then the abolition of the institution of slavery itself in the British Empire in 1834. There followed a British diplomatic abolitionist offensive and a very costly effort, in terms of men and treasure, by the Royal Navy to free slaves around the world in the face of opposition from the United States, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, France, the Ottoman empire and, not least, African and Arab slavers. Biggar cites the work of David Eltis, in Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1987) that “in absolute terms the British spent almost as much attempting to suppress the trade in the forty years, 1816–62, as they received in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807.” As for the claim by the Trinidadian Marxist historian Eric Williams, much revered by the British Left, that the profits from the slave trade helped fund the Industrial Revolution, this has been exposed as arrant nonsense by more authoritative historians, including Roger Anstey, David Richardson and David Brion Davis. Biggar stresses that from the early nineteenth century “anti-slavery, not slavery, was at the heart of imperial policy. The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not essential to the British Empire, and whatever racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit”.

Despite its anti-slavery efforts, the question remains whether the British Empire was essentially racist. Biggar admits that there were appalling examples of racial prejudice. These have been seized upon by anti-colonialists to lambast Britain, past and present, for its endemic racism, for which it needs to make amends by decolonising, or even abolishing, itself. What these agitators refuse to admit is that Britons at home and overseas also showed “respect, admiration and genuine, well-informed, costly benevolence” towards those they ruled. Biggar concludes that:

from the opening of the 1800s until its end, the empire’s policies towards slaves and native peoples were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of the members of all races. It cannot fairly be said, therefore, that the empire was essentially racist.

The British Empire is accused of conquering territories by force and therefore transgressing the rights of native peoples to their lands. There are examples of native peoples losing their lands to settlers who thought that, since the lands were unoccupied and uncultivated, they were unowned. Lands were also lost to freebooting settlers as a result of war along turbulent frontiers. But, as Biggar demonstrates:

where British imperial authorities succeeded in asserting their ‘sovereignty’ over territory in North America, Australasia or Africa, native title to land was recognised and its transfer to settlers regulated—in principle and sometimes in practice—for the sake of justice and peace.

So, the transfer of land was by treaty, not by conquest. Sometimes there were different interpretations by the signatories of what had been agreed in the treaties, and some were kept and others broken. But there have been legal remedies, as seen since 1975 with regard to the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand. Even in India, the British conquest was carried out by treaty, from the initial one in 1757 with Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula of Bengal. They can all be found in C.U. Aitchison’s multi-volume A Collection of Treaties, Engagements and Sanads Relating to India and Neighbouring Countries.

There is no doubt that the native peoples of North America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa were disturbed by their encounter with Europeans. This was especially destructive when it came to imported diseases, which ravaged the native populations. But this was due to their lack of immunity. This has happened in the past, the present and will occur in the future where humans come into contact with each other. One has only to think of the ravages of the Black Death or Covid to realise this. Nor were the Britons who served the empire immune to disease. Many died, especially in India, Africa and South-East Asia, before the breakthroughs in tropical medicine in the twentieth century.


It is a mark of the sheer poverty of thinking and expression of the anti-colonial lobby that they should accuse the British Empire of carrying out a genocide of native peoples in Canada and Australia. They have tried to make a direct link from European colonialism to the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe. According to a group of Canadian authors: “Queen Elizabeth, King Ferdinand, Queen Victoria, King Louis and so on were the ‘Adolf Hitler’s’ [sic] of their day. ‘Auschwitz’ was an everyday reality for many people across the world during the years of colonialism and the years that followed.” The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as a set of “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”. What happened to the Beothuk of Newfoundland and the Aboriginal population of Tasmania after British settlement was not genocide. There was no intent by the settlers to wipe out the Aborigines. That they died out was due to inter-tribal warfare and disease. The latter may have been brought to the islands by the settlers but they were not culpable for the deaths, which were inadvertent. What happened was “far more tragedy than atrocity”, according to Biggar.

In fact, the colonial authorities were distressed by the destructive impact of European settlement on native peoples. They could not stop or reverse colonisation, since it might have caused a revolt in Australia as it did in the thirteen American colonies. But they could try and mitigate the effects. One way to do this was racial segregation, which is usually decried today as inhumane and racist. However, its purpose was to shield native peoples from settlers to allow them the time and space to adapt to the modern world. It was intended to be temporary and it aimed at their assimilation into the new society. Some native peoples and their leaders recognised that they needed to adapt in order to survive, and they did so. Others failed to adjust, and perished.

In Canada, education was regarded as the path to survival by both colonial and Indian leaders. Chief Paulus Claus of the Bay of Quinte Mohawk said in 1846, “we cannot be a people unless we conform to the ways of the white man”. He and other native chiefs lobbied Anglican and Methodist missionaries to establish schools which would teach their children English, religion and agricultural skills. Had this not met with some success then, Indian groups would not have continued to press for the setting-up of residential schools well into the twentieth century. Yet this has been misrepresented in Canada as “a conscious racist strategy to exterminate aboriginal peoples”. The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC) in 2015 called it “cultural genocide”. Biggar is at his best in analysing the flaws in this report and how its conclusions were reached after the deliberate suppression of evidence, including refusing to hear the positive recollections of former staff and students at the residential schools.

The nadir was reached with the supposed discovery of unmarked graves in the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in southern British Columbia. This was immediately hyped up by the Canadian and American media into the “discovery” of mass graves, with its sinister association with the Nazis and the Holocaust. This led to a maniacal over-reaction by outraged activists who proceeded to burn down churches and topple statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. According to an expert on the subject, Tom Flanagan:

All the major elements of the story are either false or highly exaggerated. First, no unmarked graves have been discovered at Kamloops or elsewhere. GPR has located hundreds of soil disturbances, but none of these has been excavated, so it is not known whether they are burial sites, let alone children’s graves … Second, there are no “missing children” … the legend of missing children arose from a failure of the TRCC researchers to cross-reference the vast number of historical documents about residential schools and the children who attended them … How could the fake news story of unmarked graves, with its attendant legends of missing children ripped from the arms of their mothers, have gained such wide currency among political and media elites? The short answer is that it fits perfectly into the progressive narrative of white supremacy, of the white majority in Canada oppressing racial minorities … the claims of unmarked graves are a new moneymaker.

No bodies have yet been found or exhumed at Kamloops or elsewhere.


Biggar makes no bones about how the usual accusations thrown at the economics of British colonialism:

owe more to political dogma than historical or empirical reality. To summarise the economic effects of the British Empire in terms of the exploitation of natural and human resources, the use of slave labour, the destruction of native industry, the draining of profits from the colonial periphery to the imperial centre and the retardation of native economic development is at best historically simplistic, at worst a slander upon the past.

By advocating free trade around the world, under the watchful eye of the Royal Navy guarding the maritime trade routes, the British Empire allowed native producers and consumers to tap into and benefit from this early example of globalisation. The pacification of colonial territories boosted their domestic trade and prosperity. The disturbing effects of the imposition of economic modernity on native peoples by European traders and settlers were partly mitigated by colonial governments through supervisory and regulatory controls. Without stability and the rule of law (English common law) foreign investment would have migrated elsewhere. Three-quarters of foreign capital invested in sub-Saharan Africa went to British colonies between 1870 and 1935. In the nineteenth century the East India Company was responsible for creating the modern economic system in India through one of the most impressive examples of industrialisation outside Europe and by integrating the country into the international trading system. Biggar agrees with David Fieldhouse, the expert on the economics of empire:

virtually every Third World country that has not been devastated by war, civil war or crass governmental incompetence is now richer in real terms than it was before integration [into the international economy]. By other standards there has also been very considerable improvement in life expectancy, health and literacy … there is little evidence to support belief in the general or inevitable immiseration of the Third World as a result of its incorporation into the international division of labour.

The British Empire drove this incorporation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It is common nowadays to castigate the British Empire as being oppressive and exploitative. Even those who think of themselves as conservative by political inclination recite this standard catechism, fed as they are on a steady diet of anti-colonial popular histories, such as The Anarchy by William Dalrymple. When I discussed this book with an elderly lady, the wife of a retired British Army general, at a dinner party two years ago she made the under-the-thumb sign to signify her understanding of British rule in India. I begged to differ and made the same point as Nigel Biggar, that British rule “would not have been possible at all without the widespread acquiescence, participation and cooperation of native peoples”. One has just to look at the disparity in numbers between the ruled and the rulers to realise this. In 1901 154,691 British ruled over 300 million Indians. In 1939 in British tropical Africa, 2339 British ruled over 43 million Africans. This would not have been possible without considerable and widespread co-operation by the indigenous peoples concerned. Some were willing to do so, others were more reluctant. Acceptance was due to a realisation that British officials and soldiers were honest, on the whole, and provided the rule of law and security. There may not have been democracy as we know it today, but the fact that the British were strangers in foreign lands meant that they had to be very sensitive to indigenous feelings and needs.

The data that Biggar provides shows that it was sometimes beyond the limited capabilities of colonial governments to relieve extreme distress, such as famine. With regard to the Irish famine of the late 1840s, which led some of my ancestors to emigrate to the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the Young Ireland activist A.M. Sullivan, who had been involved in relief efforts, opined that it was one of those “calamities which the rules and formulae of ordinary constitutional administration was unable to cope with, and which could be efficiently encountered only by the concentration of plenary powers and resources to some competent ‘despotism’ located in the scene of disaster”. There is a certain irony in an Irish nationalist suggesting the benefits of a British colonial despotism!

The other famine for which the British have been castigated is that in Bengal between 1942 and 1944, when the British and Indian armies were fighting for their lives to keep the Japanese out of India at a time when Gandhi was calling on the British to quit. It is estimated that between 1.5 and 3 million people died in Bengal. This seems to have been due, not to a shortage of food as has been alleged, but a failure to distribute it. The real problem was the surge in grain prices which made food too costly for the rural poor. This was due to a number of factors: the huge strain on resources as a result of the war effort, including feeding 500,000 Indian refugees from Burma; and the hoarding of stocks by speculators and corrupt officials in the largely Indian-run provincial government in Bengal. The British authorities intervened to fix the price of rice and it was the new viceroy, Field Marshal Wavell, appointed by Churchill in October 1943, who tried to grip the situation. He set up emergency hospitals to deal with those suffering from disease and malnutrition and collected more than a million tons of grain by the end of 1944. Churchill has been heavily criticised for not releasing Allied shipping, at a time when it was needed for the invasion of Italy and Normandy, to transport grain to Bengal. But this misses the essential point, which was that the grain was available in India if it could have been distributed and sold at a reasonable price. That it could not was due to Bengali speculators and the lack of power, under the program of progressive devolution in India, by the central government in New Delhi to impose its will on the Bengal provincial government.

The famines in Ireland and India were not due to racist hatred or neglect, nor did they amount to a holocaust. What undid British colonial rule in both India and Africa in the end was the failure to integrate educated indigenous people into the top layer of government. This encouraged nationalism, a European import, which was often exacerbated by certain examples of heavy-handed British military punitive action or stark failures, such as famine relief. This caused anti-colonial resentment which soon crystallised into founding national myths. As Margery Perham pointed out with regard to Africans after 1945:

[once] they had been fully stirred in racial consciousness and political awareness, prematurely though this may be in their own interests, there was little more that foreign rulers could do for them … With her standards of efficiency and her sense of obligation to minority groups British governments wanted to see the transfer of power carried out by gradual and orderly stages … It was the African leaders who … forced the pace.

Perham concluded that the end of colonial rule in Africa came too early. Biggar agrees, and poses the warning:

If it was true in 1960 that Asian and African peoples had yet to acquire the virtues that make democratic politics work, it is equally true in 2022 that, thanks to “illiberal cancel culture”, British and other Western peoples stand in danger of losing them.

Democracy is not a given in our world. It can wither and die.

The last question Biggar considers is whether, as the anti-colonialist lobby maintains, the British Empire was “pervasively violent, and that its violence was essentially racist and terroristic”. Of the most infamous cases of British imperial military violence, he considers the First Opium War against China in 1839–42 as “totally unjustified”, although one could make a good case for it, given Chinese refusal to trade and its persecution of British and Western traders in Canton and elsewhere along the China coast. One wonders what the response of the current government of the People’s Republic would be to the discrimination and harassment of its trade and nationals as they seek to impose their economic might around the world today. Biggar believes that the Second Boer War of 1899–1902 (the Rand millionaires, or gold bugs, being a favourite target of the British Left from Hobson to Corbyn) and the “brutish” Benin expedition of 1897 were justified, although there was culpable negligence in the administration of the refugee camps in South Africa in which some 18,000 to 26,000 Boers and 7000 to 12,000 Africans died, mainly from disease. He finds that there were examples of indiscriminate and disproportionate violence used by the British during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 and the early stage of the Mau-Mau rising in Kenya in the 1950s. But he points out that when the British and colonial governments discovered the abuse they took steps to stop it. These examples were not evidence of a “consistent, characteristically racist, colonial ‘logic’”. It is simply wrong, therefore, to make a comparison with the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe in the Second World War. In fact, many of the peoples of the British Empire fought with the mother country to defeat Germany and Japan. In India alone 2,581,726 enlisted, whereas only 43,000 fought for the Japanese and 3000 for the Germans. They may not have been fighting to preserve British rule, but they were fighting for what the British had constructed in India, and which the Indians would inherit.

How has Biggar fared in measuring the elephant of the British Empire, as Perham termed it? He admits that it is a great challenge to make an overall moral judgment. But it has to be done, if only to answer the misleading charges made by the anti-colonialists. He does this by drawing up a debit and credit account. On the debit side of the ledger he lists:

brutal slavery; the epidemic spread of devastating disease; economic and social disruption; the unjust displacement of natives by settlers; failures by colonial government to prevent settler abuse and famine; elements of racial alienation and racist contempt; policies of needlessly wholesale cultural suppression; miscarriages of justice; instances of unjustifiable military aggression and the indiscriminate use of force; and the failure to admit native talent to the higher echelons of colonial government on terms of equality quickly enough to forestall the build-up of nationalist resentment.

Biggar concludes that:

All these evils are lamentable, and where culpable, they merit moral condemnation. None of them, however, amounts to genocide in the proper sense of the concerted, intentional killing of all the members of a people, the paradigm of which was the Nazi policy of implementing a “Final Solution” to the “problem” of the Jews. In the history of the British Empire there was nothing morally equivalent to the Nazi concentration or death camps, or to the Soviet Gulag.

Over the latter horror the anti-colonialists are conspicuously silent, for political reasons. It is a case of “No enemies on the Left”.

On the credit side of the ledger, the slave trade and slavery were renounced and then led to a great effort to suppress them out of a belief in the essential equality of human beings. The empire also:

moderated the disruptive impact of Western modernity upon very unmodern societies; promoted a worldwide free market that gave native producers and entrepreneurs new economic opportunities; created regional peace by imposing an overarching imperial authority on multiple, warring peoples; perforce involved representatives of native peoples in the lower levels of government; sought to relieve the plight of the rural poor and protect them against rapacious landlords; provided a civil service and judiciary that was generally and extraordinarily incorrupt; developed public infrastructure, albeit usually through private investment; made foreign investment attractive by reducing the risks through establishing political stability and the rule of law; disseminated modern agricultural methods and medicine; stood against German aggression—first military, then Nazi—and for international law and order in two world wars, helping to save both the Western and non-Western world for liberal democracy; brought up three of the most prosperous liberal states on earth—Canada, Australia and New Zealand; gave birth to two more—the United States and Israel; evolved into a loose, consensual, multi-racial international organisation, the (British) Commonwealth of Nations, which some states that never belonged to the British Empire have opted to join—Mozambique (1995) and Rwanda (2009); inspired by the ideal of the Commonwealth, helped to plan and realise first the League of Nations and then the United Nations; through the Commonwealth applied moral pressure on South Africa to abandon its policy of apartheid; through the wartime anti-fascist alliance of 1939–45, evolved into an important part of the post-war Western alliance against Soviet and Chinese communism; and still has a significant afterlife in the Western military alliance of NATO, the intelligence alliance of the “Five Eyes”, and economic development agencies such as the UK’s British International Investment and Department for International Development [now part of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office].

Not a bad record. But how can one weigh the goods against the evils that the empire caused, intentionally or not? As Biggar concludes: “They are incommensurable.” He thinks it is impossible to argue the case for reparations, as is the case against. It is absurd to think that a utilitarian monetary calculation can be made, as advocated by contemporary anti-colonialists. Whatever the truth about racism in contemporary Britain—and the finding of the UK Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in March 2021 was that the country was not “structurally racist”—any roots do not lie in the British Empire. The empire was not in essence racist, exploitative or senselessly violent. It learnt to correct its sins of commission or omission. Biggar repeats the warning of my old supervisor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Elie Kedourie, that we should not allow “the canker of imaginary guilt” to undermine the self-confidence of the British, the Australians, the Canadians and the New Zealanders “in their role as important pillars of the liberal international order”. In order to achieve this, a moral balance needs to be restored to the argument over the British Empire, before it is too late. It is to his credit that Biggar has set out the path ahead.

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning
by Nigel Biggar

William Collins, 2023, 428 pages, $34.99

Saul Kelly is Reader in International History at King’s College, London. His latest books include Desert Dispute (2020) and Captain Gill’s Walking Stick: The True Story of the Sinai Murders (2019).

Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism was also discussed by Matthew White in the May issue.


2 thoughts on “Measuring the Elephant: The Morality of the British Empire

  • Sindri says:

    It’s remarkable that even to express the self-evidently reasonable view that the British as colonialists weren’t uniformly and irredeemably evil should be so controversial and make you the target of furious public attack.
    Whataboutery never adds anything to the argument at hand and should be avoided, but one can’t help comparing the British project, with all its faults, with the mind-numbingly awful neglect and misgovernment of, say, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Belgians in Africa, the Portuguese in Timor or the Danes in Iceland, to name just a few.

  • Daffy says:

    I wonder if it occurred to Dr (now Professor) Priyamvada Gopal of Cambridge University that she has her academic status, post and even access to Cambridge U as a direct result of English ‘colonialism’. I guess she’d happily substitute suttee as a tradition for all that, just to spite the British (not being thanophilic, just making a point).

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