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The British Empire: A Moral Account

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Written by Nigel Biggar

The following talk was given by Nigel Biggar, the University of Oxford’s Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, at the West Cork History Festival 28 July 2021. In it, Professor Biggar assesses the case for declaring the British Empire systematically racist or fascist, and finds it wanting. You can also watch the talk on Youtube.

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At the end of November 2017, I published an article in the London Times, in which I argued that the British have can find reasons for pride, as well as shame, in their imperial past. On the debit side such things as the Atlantic slave-trade, the racism of settlers in the Kenyan Highlands, and the massacre at Amritsar in 1919. But on the credit side, a century-and-a-half of anti-slavery endeavour worldwide, the suppression of human sacrifice in West Africa and of female infanticide in India, and costly support of international law and order by opposing German aggression in the two World Wars. I did not presume to make a final judgement about whether the Empire achieved more good than evil; I merely stated that it contained both. I thought that was an incontrovertible position to take, indeed, rather anodyne. But I was mistaken.

A week later, in early December, my wife and I were at Heathrow airport, waiting to board a flight to Germany. Just before setting off for the departure gate, I could not resist checking my email just one last time. My attention suddenly sharpened when I saw lying in my inbox a message from the University of Oxford’s Public Relations Directorate. I clicked on it. What I found was notification that my views on the British Empire had attracted an online denunciation by a group of students. Within a week, two further online denunciations were published, one of them signed by fifty-eight Oxford colleagues. In their letter, my colleagues accused me of making an “absurd ‘balance-sheet’” approach to assessing the British Empire. This perplexed me, since, as I explained in a riposte published in the Times, I have long been sceptical of cost-benefit calculations. This is because the goods and evils caused are often of such different kinds that they cannot be measured against one another. How much chalk is worth so much cheese? How much racism is worth so much immunisation against disease? How many unjustly killed people are worth the blessings of imperially imposed peace? How much humanitarian anti-slavery would make up for the evils of slavery? To ask these questions is immediately to expose their absurdity. Such varied goods and evils cannot be sensibly reduced to a common currency and then weighed against each other, so that we can conclude that one set contained more good than evil, or vice-versa. So, when my critics attributed to me a ‘balance-sheet’ approach, I was perplexed.

Now, however, I think I understand better what they meant. Given that all kinds of human rule produce a mixture of good and evil—even the Nazis built autobahns in Germany and the Fascists made the trains run on time in Italy—does it follow, therefore, that the moral difference between them is only a matter of degree, and that we cannot judge any to be, all things considered, wrong? No, it does not. We can discern central values or principles that were consistently expressed and concordant goals that were earnestly pursued and realised, more or less. If these values, principles, and goals were gravely evil and immoral, we can then say that the rule was systemically unjust. And if it was not systemically unjust, then we can say that it was systemically just, whether more or less. The most obvious candidate for a systemically unjust regime is that of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s. Dominated by the mind of one man, its view of the world was violently racist and its aggressive, expansionist nationalism unburdened by moral scruple. The death factories devoted to ‘processing’ millions of Jews in the midst of the exigencies of war were not incidental to the regime; they expressed its resolute, crazed heart. The grave, systemic injustice of the Nazi regime was such that no amount of autobahn-building could possibly redeem it.

This is why my critics accused me of an “absurd ‘balance-sheet’ approach” to assessing the British Empire morally. For, as they see it, the Empire was so essentially racist, grossly violent, and culturally repressive that none of its benefits can possibly compensate. Just as the Nazi autobahns cannot make up for Auschwitz, so British imperial bridges and railways cannot make up for systemic racism and gross violence. However, in order to make this argument, the anti-imperialists have to identify the Empire plausibly with Nazism. Hence their claims of colonial ‘genocide’ in 1820s Tasmania and 1890s Matabeleland, of cultural ‘genocide’ in Canada’s residential schools for native Americans, of ‘crimes against humanity’ in 1897 Benin, of ‘concentration camps’ in South Africa in the 1900s and Kenya in the 1950s, that Cecil Rhodes was “South Africa’s Hitler” and, most recently, that Winston Churchill was “far worse than the Nazis”. Moving in the same direction, if more subtly, are those historians who write of the racist, violent ‘logic’ of British colonialism, implying that racist violence consistently characterised its central, driving force.

My considered view is that not one of these attempts to stick the label ‘Nazi’ onto the British Empire works.


First of all, let’s take the issue of racism. A very large fly in the ointment of the argument that the Empire was essentially racist is that fact that it was the first major power in the history of the world to abolish the slave-trade and slavery in the name of a Christian conviction of the fundamental equality of all human races under God. In the last quarter of the 18th century, anti-slavery sentiment flourished widely among English Dissenters or Non-Conformists—especially the Quakers—and the Methodist or Evangelical wing of the Church of England. John Wesley, Anglican priest and founder of Methodism, prefaced his Thoughts upon Slavery (1774) with a quotation of the tenth verse of the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis: “And the Lord said—What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground”. The context is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the implication is clear: African and Englishman, slave and master, are brothers, common children of the same God. This was the racially egalitarian view that triumphed in 1807 when the British parliament voted to abolish the trade in slaves throughout the Empire, and again in 1833, when it voted to abolish the institution of slavery altogether.

What is more, from 1807 and throughout the second half of its existence until the 1960s, the Empire was committed to suppressing the trade and the institution across the world—from Brazil, across Africa, to India and Malaysia. In the 1820s and ‘30s, the Slave Trade Department was the largest unit in the Foreign Office. At one point in mid-century, the Royal Navy was deploying over 13 per cent of its total manpower in suppressing the trade in slaves between west Africa and the Americas. According to the economic historian, David Eltis, the British spent almost as much suppressing the Atlantic trade in the forty-seven years from 1816-62 as they earned in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807. And according to the international relations scholars, Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape, Britain’s effort to suppress the Atlantic trade (alone) in 1807-67 was “the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history”.

Let me clear. I am not arguing that the British Empire did not contain elements of ugly racist contempt for native peoples. It certainly did, but more at the colonial periphery than at the imperial centre, and more among settlers and planters than among colonial officials. Nonetheless, the worldwide suppression of slavery was a major policy of the imperial centre, which was sustained for a century-and-a-half and was premised on the principle of fundamental human equality. Moreover, that principle found further central expression, when, at the end of the First World War, the Imperial War Graves Commission committed itself to the equal treatment of all the Empire’s fallen troops in the commemoration of their sacrifice, whatever the colour of their skin. As Sir Frederick Kenyon wrote in his seminal 1918 report, War Graves—how the cemeteries abroad will be designed, “no less honour should be paid to the last resting places of Indian and other non-Christian members of the Empire than to those of our British soldiers”. Eight years later, the Commission’s founder, Sir Fabian Ware, reaffirmed this view, writing that “all the soldiers of the Empire should be treated alike”. This principle was consistently realised in Europe—as can easily be confirmed by a visit to the Menin Gate in Ypres, where the names of Indians with no known grave join British ones in cascading down the walls, or to the cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer, where the burials of members of the Chinese Labour Corps are marked by individual headstones, just like those of British (and Irish) soldiers elsewhere.


Next, let’s consider the issue of genocide. My view is that we should reserve the word for referring to the intentional, lethal extermination of a whole people. My reasons are threefold. First, to early 21st century ears the word connotes the Nazi ‘holocaust’. That, for us, is the paradigm of genocide: a state’s intentional, systematic, mass-murderous elimination of a people. Second, the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines ‘genocide’ as comprising a set of “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” (Article II). And third, if we do not use the word strictly, but relax it to encompass the inadvertent causing of a people’s extinction through disease, then we elide an important moral distinction. Accidental homicide is not equivalent, morally, to murder.

Using a strict definition of genocide, I know of no instance of it in the history of the British Empire. The most infamous alleged case was that of the eradication of the aboriginal Tasmanians during the 1830s and ‘40s, which the famous Australian art critic, Robert Hughes, described as the “only true genocide in English colonial history”. Yet what happened in Tasmania in general was not a case of genocide, even if individual settlers and convicts did sometimes kill with racist motive and exterminationist intent. The colonial authorities consistently strove to protect the natives. Nevertheless, during the first three decades of settlement, the aboriginal population of Tasmania declined for a variety of reasons, including inter-tribal warfare and, above all, disease. Even if the British immigrants brought the disease, and so indirectly caused aboriginal deaths through it, they did so inadvertently and they cannot be blamed for it. And insofar as the native people died of smallpox, it may have been introduced by Indonesian fishermen, not Europeans at all. The virtual, if not actual, annihilation of the Tasmanian aboriginals was far more tragedy than it was atrocity.


Third, and finally, there is the matter of cultural repression. With due respect to Edward Said, it is certainly not true that the only reason British imperialists took an interest in native cultures was thereby to augment their domination. As David Gilmour has written: “No serious survey of the scholars of the Indian Civil Service could conclude that they were a body of men who employed their skills to define an Indian ‘Other’ and create a body of knowledge for the purpose of furthering colonial rule… most were like the German orientalists, who had no colonialist agenda of their own, men motivated by pure curiosity and a desire to learn…. Some might even admire what they studied, the character of the Buddha, the vernacular literatures, the empires of Asoka and Akbar, the architecture of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. What imperialist use could be made of Fleet’s work on the inscriptions of the Gupta kings or Howell’s translation of the Mahsud ballads or Burnell’s catalogues of the Sanskrit manuscripts in the Palace of Tanjore? How, one wonders, are such works ‘imbricated with political power’? How do they fit in with Edward Said’s theory that ‘all academic knowledge about India … is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact’ of British domination?”. Indeed, far from dominating, according to Nirad Chaudhuri, the British Orientalists saved. For, in rescuing classical Sanskritic civilization from oblivion, people like Warren Hastings and Sir William Jones “rendered a service to Indian and Asiatic nationalism which no native could ever have given. At one stroke it put the Indian nationalist on a par with his English ruler”. It gave him the material out of which to build “the historical myth” of a Hindu civilization that was superior to Europe’s.

Certainly, in addition to elements of bona fide curiosity and admiration, the Empire did contain elements of cultural repression, born of political fear or racist contempt. I think here of the repression of Gaelic culture in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Nonetheless, this needs to be distinguished—in a way that talk of cultural ‘genocide’ does not—from well intentioned policies of native assimilation. When the people of one culture meets another and dominates it overwhelmingly in number and power, only three outcomes are possible: either the dominant people annihilates the dominated one, or the latter adapts and assimilates, or the two peoples separate. British colonial settlement did sometimes inadvertently cause the annihilation of a native people, as in the case of the Beothuk of Newfoundland. The third option, separation—of which Afrikaner apartheid or ‘separateness’ was a version—was never British imperial policy. Whether in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa, that policy was basically assimilation, even when provisional separation was countenanced. The egalitarian view that native people were essentially equal to Britons, possessed of the potential to become equally civilised, predominated in the imperial metropolis, even when settlers on the colonial periphery doubted it.

Policies of assimilation usually involved such things as the creation of land-reserves, the provision of native schools, the conversion of collective ownership into private property, and the promotion of agriculture. The consignment of native Americans or Maori to reserves did involve provisional separation, of course, but only to shield them from being overwhelmed by too rapid change, while they learned to adapt. The goal of assimilation was the full integration of natives into European society as equal citizens. Accordingly, in Cape Colony black Africans were granted the vote on the same terms as whites as early as 1853. In New Zealand all adult Maori males were granted it in 1867. And their native counterparts in Eastern Canada were granted it in 1885.

By its very nature cultural assimilation involves change. It involves letting go of at least some of the old and taking hold of at least some of the new. One of the benefits of imperial rule in Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa was the ending of endemic inter-tribal warfare. The ending of war is good, but it does entail the redundancy of warriors. Young aboriginal, Maori, and Bantu men had to learn a new way of life, because the old one was gone from them. And on the western prairies of Canada, the sudden collapse of the bison population in the 1880s meant that the economic basis for traditional native life vanished. Members of the ‘First Nations’ of Canada had to change in order to survive, and they knew it. Which is why their chiefs insisted on the provision of schools when they were negotiating the so-called Numbered Treaties between 1871 and 1921. And well into the 20th century they were lobbying for more of the (currently reviled) residential schools, where their children would be immersed in English language and an agricultural way of life.

Now, the assimilation sufficient for survival and flourishing in the new future need not have involved the wholesale jettisoning of the past. It could have been discriminate; too often it was not. Some white teachers of native children were indiscriminately disapproving of their traditional culture to a racist extent. That was wrong and lamentable. But the main point still stands: the policies of assimilation were intended to rescue the natives from a past that was irrecoverable, so that they might flourish in a future that was unavoidable. And that they might do so as equal citizens.


In sum, I do not accept that the British Empire was usually contemptuous and dismissive of native cultures. Postcolonial theory may assume that, but the typical postcolonialist is a student of literature, not history, and the assumption owes more to dogma than to data. Nor do I accept that the British Empire was essentially racist, or that it ever presided over genocide. Far from approximating Nazism, it spent itself in defying it.

Professor Biggar’s talk was followed by a question and answer session, which can be viewed here.

Nigel Biggar, CBE,

Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford


West Cork History Festival

28 July 2021  

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Nigel Biggar