Colonisation – a lazy stereotype?

(Image from Terence Malick’s The New World, courtesy of New Line Cinema)

A crew of pirates are driven by a storm, they know not whither; at length a boy discovers land from the topmast; they go on shore to rob and plunder; they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for the king; they set up a rotten plank or a stone for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more by force for a sample, return home, and get their pardon. Here commences a new dominion, acquired with a title by divine right. Ships are sent . . . the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free licence given to all acts of inhumanity and lust; the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people.

That represented the not so benign view held by Jonathan Swift, the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, of the fairly brutal way in which mankind spread its wings across the globe. We now call it conquest and colonisation.

Perhaps it was not all quite as barefaced or stark as that but there is no doubt but that the experience of colonisation could be a pretty brutal one. Its legacy is undoubtedly full of the worst excesses our race has on its very blotted record – colonial or otherwise. 

But are we really making too much of it? Or rather, are we mistaking the wood for the trees and in our pursuit of villains are we missing the real evil in our midst? In our excessive preoccupation with this dimension of mankind’s fulfilment of the mandate to multiply and cultivate the earth – whether we identify as post-colonial victims or guilt-ridden colonists – are we failing to deal with the real evils at the root of the miseries we engender?

The great text which for generations now has been seen as the final word on colonisation is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But even here we should perhaps ask ourselves if we have not read it superficially, proceeding to indite colonisation when in fact we should be inditing something much deeper and closer to home – something in our own hearts. Is the great darkness lurking therein the real source of the evils we load on the scapegoat we call colonisation.

“The horror, the horror,” the words which Colonel Kurtz muttered as he died in physical and moral anguish was a kind of act of contrition. But it was personal, not a confession made on behalf of the King of the Belgians. Raging about, and resenting, what we call colonisation may be no more than an excuse for not doing what we should be doing about our personal surrender to our own evil impulses. It is these which collectively turn the colonialism which we rage against, into something evil.

John Darwin, the great historian of empire – a near synonym for colonialism – writes in his Unfinished Empire, of the complex thing that this phenomenon is.

Few subjects in history evoke stronger opinions than the making of empire. Indeed, some historians of empire still feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it. This, and other conceits he writes about reveal, he says, something interesting: that for all the ink spilt on their deeds and misdeeds, empires remain rather mysterious, realms of myth and misconception.

This, he continues, is partly the result of thinking in monoliths. ‘Empire’ is a grand word. But behind its facade (in every place and time) stood a mass of individuals, a network of lobbies, a mountain of hopes: for careers, fortunes, religious salvation or just physical safety. Empires were not made by faceless committees making grand calculations, nor by the ‘irresistible’ pressures of economics or ideology. They had to be made by men (and women) whose actions were shaped by motives and morals no less confused and demanding than those that govern us now. This was certainly true of the British overseas empire. Far from being the mere handiwork of kings and conquistadors, it was largely a private-enterprise empire: the creation of merchants, investors, migrants and missionaries, among many others. 

The reality is that colonialism and empire-growth do not, like other political phenomena with the suffix ‘ism’ attached which we might rage against, derive from an ideology. Such are Communism, Marxism, fascism, republicanism and nationalism. This particular force of nature has existed ever since the day – or night – on which Adam and Eve were sent packing from their garden. It is a force which has accompanied their descendants ever since, as they made their way across the face of this planet. They had to wander and their wandering was colonisation. But the evil deeds which accompanied that wandering were not in the wandering. They were in the minds and hearts of the wanderers, – manifested in greed, envy, avarice, cruelty and more, generated by the loss they suffered through their own foolish surrender to their passions.

Had they and their descendants traversed the world, mingling with each other as they increased and multiplied, in a spirit moved by virtue – justice, charity, generosity – rather than by vice, then this mingling which we now call colonisation would have been a very benign thing. It sometimes was. It more often, much more often, was not.

Darwin notes that the underlying assumption, on which almost all else hangs, is that empires are abnormal, a monstrous intrusion in a usually empire-free world. No error could be more basic. Empire — as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others — has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over most of world history: the default mode of state organization. He suggests that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over. He also notes that historians of pre—modern or non-European empires – suggesting that post-colonial trauma and anti-colonial rage are Western phenomena – show few qualms in conceding that, whatever their shortfall in political freedom, they were often culturally creative and materially beneficial.  One of the more subtle explorations of the colonial experience which the art of cinema has offered us in recent years was Terence Malick’s treatment of the Pocahontas story in The New World.

This blind-spot, Darwin also thinks, can lead to a history in stereotypes; to a cut-and-dried narrative in which the interests of rulers and ruled are posed as stark opposites, without the ambiguity and uncertainty which define most human behaviour. It denies to the actors whose thoughts and deeds we trace more than the barest autonomy, since they are trapped in a thought-world that determines their motives and rules their behaviour. It treats the subjects of empire as passive victims of fate, without freedom of action or the cultural space in which to preserve or enhance their own rituals, belief-systems or customary practices. 

We return to Joseph Conrad, by way of Abdulrazak Gurnah who has just won the Nobel Prize for literature, and whose novel Paradise has been read as a re-mapping of Conrad’s 19th century journey to the “heart of darkness”. Paradise is a tale narrated by 12-year-old boy, Yusuf, who lovingly describes gardens and assorted notions of paradise and their corruption as he is pawned between masters and travels to different parts of the interior from the coast. Yusuf concludes that the brutality of German occupiers of that time in East Africa was preferable to the ruthless exploitation by the Arabs. Differences count.

The depth and the extent of the miseries we perpetrate on each other originate in the hearts and minds of the human agents who make history. They only exist in the systems we devise only in so far as they are brought into them by us. The lesson we fail to learn when we blame systems for our misdeeds is that we must change before our systems can change. 

Today we are dealing with a new wave of mass movement of people on the planet, people fighting for survival with the only option at their disposal – migration. This is a new colonisation. In the nineteenth century Darwin gives figures for the mass movements of that era – again of people fighting for their lives.

The first great outflow from Europe to underpopulated parts of the planet was after 1815 at the end of more than twenty years of world war. In 1832, for the first time, Darwin recounts, the number who left in one year exceeded 100,000. In the 1840s and 1850s the terrible calamity of famine in Ireland drove up the figure to astonishing heights: 1.7 million people left between 1841 and I850; a further 1.6 million between 1853 and 1860; and just under 2 million between 1861 and 1870. In each of the years 1853 and 1854, more than 1per cent of the population departed. In the 1850s and 1860s, migrants from Ireland were still the largest body of leavers: after 1870, the English took over. The total fell back a little in the late 1870s, but from 1880 until the end of the century, it usually exceeded 200,000 a year and never fell below 140,000. Then in a huge burst up to 1914, more than 3 million people left the British Isles, just under 400,000 in I913 alone. 

The moral and ethical response every single human being had to make then and has to make today, if involved in any way in this phenomenon, is what will make it good or bad. This is what should enrage us – or sustain our hope in humanity. Stopping people fleeing from a burning building is not an option. Human ingenuity, political skills and decision-making – again with moral implications – were not fit for purpose to save the lives of all those Irish who died in the Great Famine. That same moral failure caused millions more to have to take flight to save their lives. That was one side of the ethical coin. The other side was the question of the response of the immigrants who landed on foreign shores to the indigenous peoples they found there.

Indulging in rage against a facile “ism” solves nothing for humanity. Unless we return again to a vision of ourselves which places responsibility for our actions firmly on our own shoulders, to forming consciences adequate for the task of living with each other as we should, we will continue to inflict misery wherever we go to solve our problems and on whomsoever comes to us looking for help.

We may never reach the Utopian standard of just governance so bitingly satirised by Swift in the passage of Gulliver’s Travels which follows that with which we began. But a community populated by persons who try to be personally true to the moral principles of the Christian faith, will find themselves in a world less in need of such biting satire.

But this description, I confess, does by no means affect the British nation, who may be an example to the whole world for their wisdom, care, and justice in planting colonies; their liberal endowments for the advancement of religion and learning; their choice of devout and able pastors to propagate Christianity; their caution in stocking their provinces with people of sober lives and conversations from this the mother kingdom; their strict regard to the distribution of justice, in supplying the civil administration through all their colonies with officers of the greatest abilities, utter strangers to corruption; and, to crown all, by sending the most vigilant and virtuous governors, who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside, and the honour of the king their master.

Is this the condition of academia today?

Standpoint magazine has published an edited version of a lecture given by Nigel Biggar as part of “Academic Freedom Under Threat: What’s to be Done?”, a conference held at Pembroke College, Oxford, in May this year.

Bigger is a historian and a principled one. He is also now a victim of an unthinking, politically correct and powerful clique being allowed to wield power by a cowardly academic majority which has lost its way in a morass of relativism.

At the heart of his story is this:

“Judging by the behaviour of my critics, the result is that we now have a generation of young academics many of whom, not having been taught the virtues, are displaying all the vices”.

For a thousand years universities have been at the heart of our civilization. Can it withstand the forces of barbarism – which are all around us – if this is the condition of academia now? Is it over?

Biggar writes:

First, the story, then the analysis, and finally the proposals.

In early December 2017, my wife and I were at Heathrow airport, waiting to board a flight to Nuremberg, where we were going to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Just before setting off for the departure gate, I couldn’t resist checking my email just one last time. My curiosity was aroused when I saw lying in my inbox a message from the University of Oxford’s Public Relations Directorate. So I clicked on it. What I found was, first of all, notification that my Ethics and Empire project had become the target of an online denunciation by a group of students, followed by reassurance from the university that it had risen to defend my competence to run such a thing. So began a public row that raged for the best part of a month. The eminent imperial historian who had conceived the project with me abruptly resigned. (At the time he twice cited personal reasons. However, unknown to me, he later published an online notice explaining that his resignation had been provoked when the programme for 2018 moved in a direction he found uncongenial. That was most odd, since the only thing discussed about the 2018 programme was its general topic, and the only thing agreed was that it would focus on medieval empires. And all that had been settled five months earlier.) Further online denunciations appeared, this time manned by professional academics, the first comprising 58 colleagues at Oxford, the second, about 200 academics from around the world.

So what had I done to deserve this opprobrium? Three things. In late 2015 and early 2016 I had offered a partial defence of Cecil Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford. Then, second, in late November 2017, I published a piece in The Times, arguing that we British have reason to feel pride as well as shame about our imperial past. Note: pride, as well as shame. And a few days later, third, I published an online account of the Ethics and Empire project. Contrary to what the critics seemed to think, this project is not designed to defend the British Empire, or even empire in general. Rather, it aims to select and analyse critiques or evaluations of empire from ancient China to the modern period, in order to understand and reflect on the ethical terms in which empires have been viewed historically. My personal intention is to use the fruits of this collaborative project to develop a sophisticated and nuanced ethic of empire.

The row about empire has taught me several important things. During the debate on the motion “that Rhodes must fall” in the Oxford Union in early 2016, the concerted applause of the supporters of the proponents gave the impression that 95 per cent of the audience was ranged against me. But then I decided to stop listening and to look instead. And what I saw was that every time the supporters erupted, most members of the audience were actually sitting on their hands, keeping stumm. In the end, the proposition won narrowly—betraying a discrepancy between the overwhelming appearance of dominance, and the very narrow reality.

A second thing I learned was how zealous minorities can sway uncertain majorities. Before Christmas 2015 the Fellows of Oriel College, in response to the noisy student campaign in favour of Rhodes Must Fall, voted to remove a plaque commemorating Rhodes from one of its buildings. They did so, because a small minority of colleagues, mainly historians with no expertise in empire, supported the students’ case and seemed to know what they were talking about, and so the majority, who knew next to nothing about the history but were aware that decent people do not speak up in favour of capitalism or empire, deferred to them. However, when the press unleashed a storm of protest and alumni became seriously and publicly upset, the Fellows of Oriel reversed their decision the following month.

Which brings me to my third insight: the discrepancy between what passes for common sense in universities and what passes for common sense in the general public. In the empire row of December 2017, both the press reaction and the email correspondence I received indicated that the general public was astonished and appalled by the intemperate views and behaviour of my academic critics.

Among the people who wrote to encourage me were some of the grandchildren of the subjects of empire. One British Indian consultant in palliative care wrote to me to say that his grandfather had been among those in the Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar in 1919, when General Dyer’s troops opened fire on an unarmed crowd. Nevertheless, he agreed with me that we British have reason for both shame and pride in our imperial past. What’s more, the Ethics and Empire project includes two British Indians and one British Iranian, all of whom think as I do that “empire” is a variable phenomenon, whose moral qualities deserve thinking about. So when my critics claim to speak with the authority of champions of the victims of empire, or at least their descendants, they really don’t.

Although I was initially unnerved to be object of the scorn of 58 Oxford colleagues, on further reflection I noticed that 58 out of more than 1,600 academic and research staff in the Humanities and Social Sciences is not so considerable. What is more, most of them were not historians and few of them were senior. Further still, not one of them was an ethicist, which might have given them pause, before they presumed to damn a project entitled “Ethics and Empire”, but it did not. The truth is that I was the only professional ethicist in the room.

In general, therefore, what I learned from the empire row was that, in the case of my noisy anti-imperialist critics, the emperors are actually rather naked.


What, then, do I think is the problem? In brief, an alarming lack of moral virtue. Let me explain. I take for granted, and I teach my students, the duty to be scrupulously fair in representing what other people say and write; and if there are ambiguities, also the duty to interpret them charitably in the direction of the strongest possible construction. Only then should one begin to criticize, for only then will one’s critique be maximally cogent. The ability to be fair and charitable to views that one really dislikes or that threaten things you really care about takes patience and courage. The ability to be fair, to give credit where credit is due, and to learn from uncongenial or threatening views takes courageous humility and honesty. So: fairness, charity, patience, courage, humility, and honesty. These are not technical skills; they are moral virtues. And if we academics do not teach them—and model them—to students, then we can expect intemperance, arrogance, ideological deafness, distortion, and defamation. It is my view that university teachers cannot help but promote intellectual virtue or vice, and that we have a civic duty to promote the former. But in over 30 years of teaching in universities I have never once heard a colleague own such responsibility. Indeed, any suggestions on my part that they should own it have usually been met with a mixture of bafflement and suspicion. Judging by the behaviour of my critics, the result is that we now have a generation of young academics many of whom, not having been taught the virtues, are displaying all the vices.

It has been my consistent experience of the critics, first, that they are not interested in what I actually say or write. They seem uninterested in the give and take of reason. Early on I wrote and published three responses to their online denunciations. To date, not one of the over 250 signatories, two of them in this college and a stone’s throw away from my office, have bothered to respond.

Instead they persist in false, unargued attributions. Have I ever said that the white race is biologically superior to other races, and naturally destined to rule the world? No. And yet, according to Dr Priyamvada Gopal of Cambridge University, I am a “racist”, a “supremacist”, and a “bigot”. Have I ever said that I think the British Empire was an unalloyed good? No. And yet, according to Professor Jon Wilson of King’s College London, my view is simply that (and I quote) “Empire is great!” Have I ever asserted that British imperialism generally “introduced order to the non-western world”? No. But that didn’t stop the literary critic Nilanjana Roy from attributing such an idiotic claim to me. My critics’ zeal propels them beyond what seems to me the boundaries of reason. And most of these people have university degrees, many of them have doctorates, and some occupy senior posts in our most prestigious academic institutions.

Instead of reasoned arguments against what I actually say, what my critics have offered are ad hominem attacks upon my person. I am, of course, white, male, getting closer to my sell-by date, and—as a denizen of Christ Church, Oxford—terminally privileged. Therefore, nothing that I say could possibly be worth listening to and whatever comes out of my mouth is, according to Dr Gopal, “vomit”. It is quite true that the limits of my own privileged social experience and position could make me deaf to the voices of the victims of empire. It could do, but it need not. After all, privilege has evidently not stopped the ears of Gopal and Wilson. And besides, as I’ve indicated, the voices of the victims of empire, or of their descendants, don’t all say the same thing. Some of them actually agree with me, not with my critics.

Such critics appeal, not to reason, but to authority—the authority of an alleged consensus. This manifests itself in claims that things I have asserted—such as a balance in favour of the benefits of empire—have been long “discredited” among right-thinking people. Well, quite apart from the fact that I have never asserted such a thing, I am not impressed by sheer appeals to authority. (And here’s another irony: I say that as a religious believer, indeed, as an Anglican priest!) While I respect the prima facie authority of a consensus of experts, it has been known to get it wrong.


So much for the problem and its components. What has my recent experience taught me about the solution? First of all, the support that I have received from the very top of my own university has been enormously important. From the very beginning the university authorities have defended my right to pursue whatever daft research on the ethics of empire I choose to, provided it’s not obviously illegal.

However, rhetorical support from the top is not a sufficient solution, because it doesn’t necessarily prevent subtle but substantial problems further down the institutional hierarchy. It doesn’t stop colleagues applying illiberal political criteria to the admission of students or to the appointment of senior members. Nor does it stop vulnerable, junior, untenured colleagues from having to ask that their names be kept off the list of participants at meetings like this one—not this one, as it happens, but like this one—lest senior colleagues find out and damage their career prospects. I first raised these issues in the in-house Oxford Magazine early last year, hoping that it might stimulate frank discussion among us. But so far, to my knowledge, what I wrote has been met with complete silence. So if support for academic freedom from the top is the first part of a solution, open discussion of these issues further down the totem pole is the second.

The third is access to independent streams of funding. In 2016 my historian collaborator on the Ethics and Empire project and I submitted an application for 50 per cent funding to an internal university research fund. Despite our considerable experience in submitting and evaluating applications, this was turned down because it was supposed to lack “diversity” and because those involved were all drawn from elite universities. That would have been the end of the project, were it not for the fact that, as director of the McDonald Centre, I have at my disposal an independent stream of funding. So if dissident thought is to flourish in universities it needs to have access to funding that is beyond the control of university committees who apply criteria such as “diversity”, which are politically biased, morally dubious, and beyond question.

Finally, perhaps most crucially, academics have to be persuaded to take responsibility for promoting in students (and future citizens) the virtues of fairness, charity, patience, courage, humility and honesty. The importance of this is demonstrated by the story of Damian McBride. In 1999 McBride became the “spin doctor” of Gordon Brown, then Chancellor in the UK Government. He continued to play that role for the next 10 years and into Brown’s tenure as prime minister. His unscrupulous (by his own admission) ruthlessness in serving his master earned McBride the nicknames “Mad Dog” and “McPoison”. In 2009, overreaching himself, he precipitated a scandal that propelled him out of Downing Street and into public disgrace.

Four years later, a chastened McBride published his own account of how his life had come to such a pass. The title of the book summed it up: Power Trip. Chapter Two, entitled “Warning Signs”, begins, “I wasn’t always a nasty bastard, but you could argue the signs were there”. One of the signs came to light during his student career at Peterhouse in Cambridge. Frequently the source of physical violence, and indirectly responsible for setting fire to one of the college’s 13th-century buildings, McBride succeeded in pulling the wool over the dons’ eyes with a combination of avoidance, obfuscation and diversion. As he sums it up: “I left university hooked on the intricacies of power and policy-making, with a talent for avoiding the truth . . . , a win-or-die competitive streak, a penchant for negative, thuggish tactics, and a reckless disregard for the consequences of my actions.”

If university teachers do not take responsibility for promoting virtuous intellect, adolescent students will receive the general impression that real adults don’t care about such things. So when they leave the womb of their alma mater for the Big Wide World—or when they stay safely within it, growing from student into professor—they will embark, not at all upon a moral adventure, but on a power trip.