Truth in History

Reckoning with Canada’s Colonial Past: In Conversation with Nigel Biggar

Peter Shawn Taylor
April 6, 2023
Late in life, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe was asked if his view of colonialism had changed in the half-century since he wrote Things Fall Apart, his famous first novel critical of British rule. “The legacy of colonialism is not a simple one,” he replied, “but one of great complexity with contradictions – good things as well as bad.” Today our understanding of that complexity is rapidly being obliterated as governments, universities and museums race to “decolonize” their institutions and make colonialism synonymous with racism, violence and exploitation. In his controversial new book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, British ethicist Nigel Biggar seeks to revive the notion that the British Empire contained “good things as well as bad.” The Scottish-born Biggar recently connected with Peter Shawn Taylor to discuss the morality of empire, Canada’s own colonial legacy and how it feels to be named an “honorary” Courageous Canadian.
Truth in History

Reckoning with Canada’s Colonial Past: In Conversation with Nigel Biggar

Peter Shawn Taylor
April 6, 2023
Late in life, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe was asked if his view of colonialism had changed in the half-century since he wrote Things Fall Apart, his famous first novel critical of British rule. “The legacy of colonialism is not a simple one,” he replied, “but one of great complexity with contradictions – good things as well as bad.” Today our understanding of that complexity is rapidly being obliterated as governments, universities and museums race to “decolonize” their institutions and make colonialism synonymous with racism, violence and exploitation. In his controversial new book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, British ethicist Nigel Biggar seeks to revive the notion that the British Empire contained “good things as well as bad.” The Scottish-born Biggar recently connected with Peter Shawn Taylor to discuss the morality of empire, Canada’s own colonial legacy and how it feels to be named an “honorary” Courageous Canadian.
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Technically, Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, and director of the school’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. But these days he’s likely better known throughout Britain as that bloke who claims the British Empire wasn’t as bad as all that.

Biggar’s heterodox views on his country’s imperial record first came to public prominence during his defence of a statue of arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes on Oxford’s campus in 2016. The #RhodesMustFall campaign demanded its removal on the grounds that Rhodes – founder of the DeBeers diamond empire, prime minister of South Africa’s Cape Colony and benefactor of the renowned Rhodes Scholarships – was a racist murderer on par with Adolf Hitler. Biggar retorted that history is full of complexities and nuance. “We ought to tolerate the public celebration of morally ambiguous heroes,” he wrote, rubbishing the idea that Rhodes was analogous to Hitler – the colour-blind nature of his famous scholarship program being sufficient proof of that. In bringing historical facts to bear on the issue, Biggar pointedly noted that a crucial quotation used to pin racism on Rhodes was actually fabricated by his detractors. The Rhodes statue still stands at Oxford.

A year later, in a provocative column in The Times entitled, “Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history” Biggar argued that Britons ought to consider adding a dash of pride to any feelings of shame about their past. He counted public order, good governance and putting an end to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade among colonialism’s greatest achievements, while admitting to its low points as well. Biggar’s balanced approach immediately brought him in conflict with the prevailing doctrine of “decolonization,” which considers European colonialism to have always and everywhere been an unmitigated evil. An open letter from outraged colleagues at Oxford decried his position as “nonsense” and “breathtakingly politically naïve.”

Bringing truth to bear: Oxford University theologian and ethicist Nigel Biggar first rose to public prominence during the 2016 #RhodesMustFall campaign that demanded the removal of a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes from the school’s campus. (Source of photo: AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Biggar’s efforts at promoting an alternative view of imperial history nonetheless earned the attention of publisher Bloomsbury, which offered him a book contract in 2018. But after he delivered a manuscript and was told it was a work of “major importance,” the publisher informed him via email that public feelings were “not currently favourable” for his controversial views and cancelled the book.

Stifling debate by cancelling or refusing to acknowledge heretical views has become worrisomely common throughout the academic world, especially in regards to colonial studies. An earlier peer-reviewed article by Portland State University’s Bruce Gilley, entitled “The Case for Colonialism,” which Biggar has cited as an inspiration for his own work, was later withdrawn following threats of violence against the journal’s editor.

Cancelled no more: Biggar’s controversial new book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning seeks a balanced view of the British Empire and its morality, something his original publisher decided was incompatible with current public feelings. (Source of photo:

Biggar’s cancellation proved only temporary, however. Publisher William Collins subsequently took up the project and Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning was released in the UK in February. As might be expected, reviews have been mixed. And often angry. The Economist tendentiously claimed the British Empire deserved little credit for stopping the slave trade and therefore had nothing to brag about. The Guardian declared that his attempts at emphasizing colonialism’s positive aspects “strain credulity.” Yet Biggar seems to have found an audience eager to learn more about their colonial past, as sales have reportedly been brisk. The book will be released in North America on May 5.

Biggar recently sat down via Zoom with C2C Journal’s Peter Shawn Taylor to discuss his new book and the controversies it has triggered.

C2C Journal: Explain what you mean by a “moral reckoning” for colonialism – and how does that differ from the now-standard historians’ view that it was a shameful era characterized by exploitation, racism and violence?

Nigel Biggar: My first degree from Oxford is in history but professionally I am a theologian and ethicist. An ethicist is in the business of thinking about rights and wrongs and complicated moral issues. As I have previously written about the morality of war, I wanted to bring that ethical expertise to the very complicated historical phenomenon of empire.

And while my critics claim I am not an historian, they are not ethicists. My book is not a chronology. Each chapter deals with a different moral issue: motives, violence, racism, slavery, et cetera. Then I try to bring it to a conclusion with an overall view of the record of British imperialism, morally speaking. There are the evils of the British Empire, and there are its benefits as well.

C2C: So can morality be judged by a balance sheet of good and evil?

NB: I don’t actually believe you can make such a basic utilitarian calculation. There is no way to determine, for example, how many women saved from death on funeral pyres in India can compensate for the innocent Indians killed at Amritsar. [Editor’s note: In 1829 British colonial officials in India banned the ancient Hindu practice of suttee, in which widows were burned alive on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. At Amritsar in 1919, British troops shot at a large crowd of unarmed civilians violating a ban on public gatherings, killing an estimated 379 and wounding over 1,000.] That is an absurd question. All states contain good and bad.

Evils as well as benefits: Biggar acknowledges the horrors of British colonialism, such as the 1919 Amritsar Massacre (top), but points also to its support for basic human rights, such as the 1829 ban on suttee, the ancient Hindu practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands (bottom). (Source of bottom photo: Wellcome Collection gallery, licensed under CC BY 4.0)

C2C: Then how does one come to a conclusion about the morality of an empire?

NB: What we can do is determine what was at the very heart of this thing we call the British Empire. Was it essentially racist? Was it essentially committed to wanton violence? To take Hitler’s Nazis as an example, I think it is quite easy to come to the conclusion that, at its core, the National Socialist movement was massively and essentially racist and committed to wanton violence.

So was the British Empire like that? Was Winston Churchill like Adolf Hitler? Was Cecil Rhodes like Hitler, as many people now claim? Was Canada’s Sir John A. Macdonald genocidal? In considering these charges, I conclude that that you cannot say the British Empire was essentially racist, or essentially committed to wanton violence. What you can say, is that from the early 19th century onwards, there was a strong Christian and humanitarian impulse for the abolition of slavery and the protection of Indigenous peoples. Then there is the fact the British Empire finally exhausted itself fighting the murderous and racist Nazi regime. That should tell you something about the character of the Empire.

In the end, a lot of what is being said in my country and yours about the British Empire – the absolute condemnation of all things colonial – is just wrong. Many people, including many professional historians, take their condemnation of colonialism way beyond what the evidence supports.

C2C: One of your chapters takes a close look at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. Take us through an ethicist’s view of a topic that has come to be considered this country’s greatest sin.

A humanitarian motivation: Canada’s now-reviled Indian Residential School system was designed to educate Indigenous peoples so they could survive a rapidly changing world; in fact, many native tribes lobbied for the inclusion of government-provided schools in their treaties with the Crown.

NB: The motivation for establishing residential schools was basically humanitarian. That is, they were meant to enable pupils to survive in a world that was changing radically. Notwithstanding any abuses and deficiencies that may have come later, we have to deal with the fact that native Canadians were asking for these schools in the beginning. They lobbied for them in treaties. And this was because they recognized that for their people to survive, they needed to adapt. They wanted their young people to learn English or French and how to farm. They recognized that the old ways could not be sustained any longer.

A lot of people today have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the past was a very different place. For most people, the 19th century was pretty damn brutal. When we consider the conditions in residential schools today, we are horrified. But what is horrifying are the conditions in which most people of that time had to live. It is true mortality among native kids in these schools was generally higher and conditions were poorer. Sexual abuse was also a problem, but mostly by fellow pupils. I don’t want to sweep any of that under the table. Maybe the Canadian government should have spent more money on residential schools. But to make that case you need to identify what the government of the day should have spent less on. And I haven’t seen that argument made anywhere.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has many lurid tales about kids being seized from their parents. No doubt that, after education became compulsory in the 1920s, some children were distressed at being taken away. But this too has to be understood in light of the fact that the idea all children must have a certain level of education was gaining tremendous traction in Canada, Britain and throughout Europe at this time. So compulsory education for native children must be considered in that regard. And what might people say today if the Government of Canada had refused to educate Indigenous children?

Again, I don’t want to downplay the defects of residential schools. But we need to provide context in order to understand these things in proportion. It must also be considered significant that since the early 1990s, Canadian media have declined to give voice to many natives who want to offer positive expressions of residential schools, as J.R. Miller points out in his authoritative history of the residential school system, Shingwauk’s Vision. According to Miller, the verdict for the schools must be given in “muted and equivocal terms.” The wholesale damnation of residential schools is overwrought and unfair.

C2C: But what of their essential assimilationist perspective? Is the belief that Indigenous children had to become more like white Canadians via residential schools at its heart a racist concept?

NB: No culture has a moral right to be immune to change, or even to survive. We all have to assimilate in some way to a dominant culture. I am a technophobe, but I still have to learn how to deal with certain technologies. So there is nothing in itself wrong with assimilation.

Again, when native Canadians petitioned for residential schools, they did so in the hopes that their children would learn English or French and agricultural practices. That is to say, they wanted their kids to assimilate – at least to a substantial degree. The pressure on native children to jettison their native culture may be criticized as excessive. However, we all know that the best way to learn a foreign language is to be plunged into an environment where no one speaks your own language. So requiring native children to speak only English in schools seems reasonable.

“Wholesale damnation is overwrought and unfair”: Biggar points to Canadian historian J.R. Miller’s authoritative book on residential schools, Shingwauk’s Vision, as evidence they should be judged in “muted and equivocal terms.”

Notwithstanding their failings, the schools were founded on a belief in essential racial equality and a consequent faith in the capacity of native children to learn, adapt and develop. The whole mission of assimilation assumes that native peoples are basically equal, in terms of their potential, to whites. The key Christian notion that all people, regardless of colour or culture, are equal under God is what underpins the whole project. That is not racist.

It is true that biological racism, which holds that white races are inherently superior to all other races and are therefore destined to always rule over “inferior” peoples, was quite popular in the late 19th century. And people with racial prejudice can be found in imperial or colonial governments. But such a position is antithetical to the Christian view of the world and many other people held quite the opposite view.

Anti-racist: According to Biggar, the assimilative purpose of residential schools stood in opposition to the biological racist notion that whites were superior to other races; the schools, he says, were founded on “the key Christian notion that all people, regardless of colour or culture, are equal under God.” (Source of photo: Algoma University/Edmund Metatawabin Collection)

In his analysis of debates in the House of Commons from 1880 to 1925, Canadian academic Glen Williams [professor emeritus of political science at Carleton University] looked at racism in Parliament and his observation was that every time an MP stood up to express the biologically racist view that white Canadians were forever destined to be superior to native Canadians, others would immediately stand up and say that was un-British and un-Christian.

C2C: Canada, we are often told, is a “settler” country. Is displacing the original possessors of the land immoral?

NB: The motives for the first white settlers who landed in North America were varied. Some were there to harass Spanish shipping in a contest between great powers. Some were adventurers seeking fortune. Some were poor English, Scottish and Irish farmers seeking a better life. There were Puritans seeking religious refuge. Over time, however, native people were decimated by the diseases all these settlers brought with them. That was tragic and left large parts of the continent empty. And while Europeans were responsible for causing it inadvertently, they cannot be blamed for it.

In many cases in North America, native people were happy to trade their land for things they wanted from the Europeans. Treaties were made. My view of the numbered Treaties in the Canadian West is that the Government of Canada has kept its word. If there is evidence that treaties were not kept, then some reparation may be due. But I would resist the general suggestion that Canada was simply stolen from the native people.

That land was already stolen: While white settlers displaced many Indigenous peoples when they arrived in North America, the land they settled on had often been taken by force from other native groups in earlier dispossessions. Pictured, “When Blackfeet and Sioux Meet” by Charles Russell, depicting a confrontation between rival Indigenous war parties on the Great Plains.

Also, let us not pretend that Europeans were the first to displace other peoples in North America. This is fanciful. Native groups were seizing land from each other long before any Europeans arrived. In many cases, the land that European settlers took over by seizure or treaty was land existing natives had already taken from other tribes. In southwest North America, the Comanches obliterated the Apache civilization from the Great Plains and built the region’s largest slave economy. The Iroquois were displaced from the St. Lawrence valley by the Algonquin-speaking Montagnais, but then returned in the 17th century, reconquered it and expanded west as far as present-day Illinois. We need to be realistic about land ownership.

C2C: Your book compares three notable famines in the British Empire and how history has judged the figures held responsible for their governments’ response. These are the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s and Charles Trevelyan, British Secretary of the Treasury; the Bengal Famine of the 1940s and British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill; and the famine on the Canadian Prairies in the early 1880s caused by the near-extinction of the buffalo and Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Take us through your moral reckoning of how Macdonald has fared.

NB: In every case, the authorities sought to relieve the famine. Every case. The argument against Macdonald largely rests on [University of Saskatchewan historian] James Daschuk’s book Clearing the Plains, which claims Macdonald’s famine relief policy was parsimonious because he was a racist. But the evidence doesn’t stack up for that.

It seems clear to me that Macdonald was not a biological racist. He supported the extension of the franchise to native Canadians. He envisioned natives in Parliament. He did say things like, and I quote, “We cannot change the barbarian into a civilized man,” which on its own sounds racist. But you can find him saying quite the opposite things as well. I think what is at play here is not racism, but frustration with the difficulty in getting natives to adapt quickly to modern society. It was taking a long time.

Genocidal or humane? Biggar examines the evidence regarding Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald’s (left) response to the 1880s famine on the Canadian Prairies and concludes that while the relief provision was flawed, the government effort was significant and well-intentioned, and therefore moral. (Sources of photos: (left) Library and Archives Canada; (right) Glenbow Archives NA-790-4)

Ged Martin at Edinburgh University has analyzed the Macdonald government’s expenditure on famine relief and his conclusion is that it was “impressive and humane.” Now, the delivery of that government relief was clearly deficient. The American firm contracted to deliver food on the Prairies was corrupt and government agencies also failed. That is lamentable. But we need to remember that the Canadian state was not very strong and the territory was vast. There were only 1,000 members of the North West Mounted Police for the entire territory west of Ontario and Quebec.

Finally, in my book I present evidence from Patrice Dutil at Ryerson [now Metropolitan Toronto] University who analyzed Daschuk’s data on the number of people who died of starvation on the Canadian Prairies between 1879 and 1883. Dutil concluded it was about 45. [Editor’s note: The Great Irish Famine killed an estimated 1 million people, or 12.5 percent of the country’s population. The estimated death toll of the Bengal Famine ranges from 1 million to 3 million.] I didn’t believe that when I saw it. So I asked Patrice if anyone had challenged his figures. He told me no one had. So when Daschuk is talking about Macdonald’s allegedly parsimonious and racist policies, he’s talking about 45 people dying over a period of four years.

C2C: Stepping back from Canada, a large part of your book focuses on the British Empire’s relationship with slavery, first in promoting it and then in suppressing it. What does that trajectory say about British colonialism?

NB: There’s no denying that from the 1600s to the early 1800s, some British people were involved in trading slaves and running slave plantations. I am not going to defend any of that. I find it abhorrent. But we need to put it in context.

Slavery in one form or another has been a universal part of the human story going back to ancient times. That includes the Americas, where many Indigenous peoples practised slavery. The European involvement in slavery was nothing out of the ordinary. What was extraordinary was the growth in Europe in the second half of the 1700s of the idea that owning other people as property was immoral. In 1791 and 1792 about 20 percent of the adult male population of Britain signed 519 anti-slavery petitions.

A century-and-a-half of penance: Following the 1807 abolition of the slave trade, the British Empire allocated substantial resources, including the powerful Royal Navy, to disrupting the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Pictured, HMS Brisk intercepts the Spanish slave ship Emanuela in 1854.

Two main intellectual streams fuelled the emergence of the movement to abolish the slave trade and slavery. One was the body of Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu and Adam Smith. The other was Christianity. Anti-slavery sentiment flourished widely among the Quakers and the Methodist evangelical wing of the Church of England. Christian humanitarians in the 19th century were the progressives of their day. They believed in the potential for human progress and improvement.

In 1807 Britain became among the first states in world history to abolish the institution of slavery. Then the British led the world in suppressing slavery across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to Brazil and North America. At its height, the Royal Navy deployed 13 percent of its total manpower to the West African station to disrupt the export of slaves. You could consider that Britain did a century-and-a-half of penance in devoting resources and people to suppressing slavery worldwide.

C2C: You say you are not an historian but an ethicist. Yet sound ethical judgements on the past must be based on good history. How would you assess the current quality of argumentation regarding the colonial era and the now-popular concept of decolonization?

NB: It is really important for the integrity of any moral judgement of the past to take into account all the facts. People may place different weight on this fact or the other, and quarrel about the interpretation. My complaint, however, is that the historical record has become so distorted that many facts are simply being overlooked. It was clear to me early in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign of 2016 that activists don’t care about the facts. They don’t care about the truth of the past. Their reaction to people like me is not curiosity or skepticism. It’s aggression and abuse.

A cultural disease: Biggar observes that his efforts at bringing greater nuance and balance to the study of colonial history are often met by activists with aggression and abuse rather than honest debate. (Source of stills: OxfordUnion/YouTube)

This is a cultural disease and Canada appears to have a worse case of it than even Britain. It is symptomatic of institutions in our countries – especially the press – that swallow stories that are not supported by evidence; the issue of the so-called but fictive “mass graves” in Kamloops is a good example of that. In this way, media creates an environment in which certain things become un-sayable. That leaves people terrified. And the way things are going in Canada, there’s good reason to be terrified. Just look at the case of Frances Widdowson. The problem is that most people in Canada, as well as Britain, simply don’t know enough about the colonial past to contradict the distortions being propagated.

C2C: You mention aggression and abuse from decolonization activists. What has been the personal impact on you from your work?

NB: Originally it was very difficult. People deserted me in the midst of the controversy and it made me wonder if perhaps I’d gone daft. But I also discovered that a lot of non-white people agreed with me. I know that because they wrote to tell me. Getting a book contract was also a vindication, even if it was cancelled by the original publisher. But then it was picked up by another. Since coming out in February the book has been selling extremely well and has been on the best-seller list for two weeks. I find it encouraging that there is a large public appetite to hear the whole story about colonialism.

C2C: What is at stake in making proper ethical judgements about history? After all, it’s in the past.

NB: What is at stake is not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday, but the self-perception and self-confidence of the West today and tomorrow. If it is true that the historical record of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand is a litany of racism, exploitation and gross violence, then that has to shake your confidence in everything the West has built. Not just in your own country, but in the entire concept of liberal society built up over centuries.

Tear it all down: Ill-founded claims that Canada’s history is steeped in racism and violence threaten the self-confidence of all western society, and the benefits it entails for democracy and equality worldwide. (Sources of photos: (top); (bottom) Leafsfan67, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

This idea that we need to restart from the ground up because the past has been so corrupt is a precondition for wholesale revolution. And my view, as a Burkean Conservative, is that the record of erasing everything and starting from scratch is massively inhumane. Look at 20th century Russia. Or late-18th century France. Prodigious violence, chaos and anarchy soon replaced by tyranny.

We need to believe in important things from our past – like the use of imperial power to abolish slavery worldwide, or to promote the rule of law or participative government – in order to persuade other peoples to adopt them. This can obviously be a difficult thing to do, as our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown. But I think it still matters that we do it. And therefore it matters how we see our past.

If we believe in the West, and believe that we should not become like Communist China, for example, then we must continue to promote democracy and equality. And one’s confidence in these things is increased if we can show that we have also done it in the past. There were millions of people around the world who were enslaved. And the British Empire emancipated them. We can do real good in this world.

C2C: Finally, this interview is part of our “Courageous Canadians” series that focuses on individuals with the courage to speak out against prevailing orthodoxies, often at some personal cost. You are the first non-Canadian to so be featured. Any objections to being declared an “honorary” Courageous Canadian?

NB: I would be flattered. In fact, I was married at Trinity College Chapel in Toronto, where I lived for two years. And you should know that my Scottish ancestors gave their name to Biggar Lake in Algonquin Park, as well as Biggar, Saskatchewan. So it’s an honour.

C2C: Welcome aboard! And thank you for such an interesting discussion.

Peter Shawn Taylor is senior features editor at C2C Journal. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.

This interview has been edited for content and length.

Source of main image:

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