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Measuring the Elephant: The Morality of the British Empire - The Australian Quadrant - 27.06.23

by Saul Kelly


“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”.


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.


For the full thirteen page article in pdf, please click here:

Measuring the Elephant - The Morality of the British Empire - by Saul Kelly for the Austra
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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).




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