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The moral case for the British Empire

Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace (2006)

There’s nothing more “pious or conventional”, says Jonathan Sumption in Literary Review, than the idea that empires – especially Britain’s – are “unutterably and irredeemably” wicked. Yet as the former Oxford professor Nigel Biggar points out in a new book, for three centuries “honourable men and women” served the British empire with pride, and were admired by their contemporaries, “including many of its subjects”. What many struggle to grasp today is that back then nobody thought of imperial conquest as a “historical aberration”. It was simply “part of the natural order” of a world lacking stable borders and an overarching scheme of international law. For millennia, marching around in search of resources was how humans “spread knowledge and technical competence” – processes which “benefit all mankind”.

Biggar acknowledges that colonialism “severely disrupted existing patterns of indigenous life”, but points out that in some cases this involved eliminating “barbarous” practices like slavery and cannibalism. While the British certainly played a major role in the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, for example, they also brought about slavery’s end when English sentiment turned against it. After a long campaign by evangelical Christians, the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834, “decades ahead of the rest of Europe and the US”.

Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar is available to buy here.