Don’t tell me what to feel about “our” colonial history

Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology in Oxford, published an editorial in The Times on November 30th entitled: “Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history”. His article asks readers to re-evaluate the legacy of colonialism given that its atrocities “also happened before the Europeans arrived and after they left”, citing in defence a discredited academic article published by Third World Quarterly called “The Case for Colonialism”.

Biggar claims that the article was unjustly criticized and retracted, but he fails to mention the nature of the criticism (see here and here and here) beyond a convenient parallel between what he calls “strident anti-colonialists” and some Indian nationalists who allegedly threatened its author. Biggar thereby chooses to ignore critiques of colonialism made by rigorous historical and anthropological scholarship over the last thirty years at least. Instead, he gives a tendentious view on colonialism as a fantasy of “order” that it rarely if ever was, and especially not for peoples subjugated by colonial rule.

Biggar’s title already makes his assumptions transparent: “Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history”. What is “our” colonial history? Does he mean British citizens of Asian, African, or Afro-Caribbean descent who live in the UK? Do I believe that he is telling me, a Canadian migrant of Egyptian origin who now lives and works in the UK, what I should feel about colonialism? Surely it would offend Biggar’s own sensibility to tell me or other people of colour, in person, what we should feel about “our” colonial history, even though we may live and work on the same land or even in the same institutions.

Biggar’s appeal to “our” colonial history suggests an elitist white-centric view of the British past, where “our” history is whichever one he finds politically convenient and socially agreeable within his Oxford bubble. Biggar’s narrative excludes any history in which an idealized white British public would have to feel the slightest discomfort about imperialism, and especially not the discomfort of learning about the intersecting histories of everyone else but the ruling classes. “We” should know that each colonial massacre is matched by a feel-good moment of British uprightness, so “pride can temper shame” in his own words, as though the Amritsar massacre was offset by the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in a zero-sum game (Biggar’s actual examples).

The substance of Biggar’s argument is that colonialism could not have been all bad because a) colonial rule had popular legitimacy not through “democratic elections but its provision of the goods of security and the rule of law”; and b) bad things have been happening before and after the height of European colonialism. Setting aside his crude use of moral categories like “good” or “bad” to talk about complex historical phenomena, the argument makes the extraordinary generalization that colonized people gave “popular legitimacy” to colonial rule when there is an extensive history of resistance against it, from opposition to Portuguese and Dutch colonists in the Indian Ocean to the Algerian wars against French occupation to Indian struggles against British rule.

Biggar ignores this entire history, perhaps because he cannot imagine that it can be included in “our” history, perhaps because he cannot imagine that those who live and work in Britain can be affiliated with anti-colonial struggles. Instead, he produces a narrative which is either anti-democratic or racist at its core. He argues that “the provision of the goods of security and the rule of law” must be reached at all costs, because without it “nothing good can flourish”. Logically, this entails that he would wholeheartedly support any form of ordered government, even an authoritarian one, anywhere in the world including in Europe.

Yet if European institutions cannot be authoritarian in Biggar’s view, and repressive governments are only meant to lord over non-European countries, his narrative becomes the extension of a long-standing racist trope about the essential “ungovernability” of non-Europeans and their inability to develop democratic institutions on their own. This inability, incidentally, has to do with these countries’ colonial past and the neo-colonial present, however much Biggar suppresses these histories or chooses to ignore them.

If Egypt, say, was under Mubarak’s rule for thirty years until he was toppled in 2011, it is not because Egyptians are otherwise ungovernable or clamouring for colonial rule (more like “bread, freedom, and social justice”). It is because Mubarak’s authoritarian regime was directly supported by the United States and its allies, which are also supporting the current oppressive rule of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This does not absolve Mubarak’s or Sisi’s regime from its crimes. Today’s anti-colonial scholars are just as critical of postcolonial national elites that have done little to alter structures of power often inherited from the colonial past as they are critical of colonial domination. Yet it is intellectually dishonest to pretend like authoritarian regimes in the Middle East could survive without Euro-American geopolitical support, under circumstances that have been shaped by a well-documented history of European colonial rule.

Besides, arguing that colonialism could not have been all too bad because bad things happened “before” and “after” is both misleading and morally callous. It is misleading because it obscures the link between colonial history and Euro-American domination over the contemporary world, as though this history had no repercussions on today’s geopolitics, as though “our” (idealized, white) present had already absolved the colonial past. It is also callous because it ignores the live wounds inflicted by colonial and neo-colonial rule, however much “other people” may have done bad things. Calling the Iraq and Afghanistan wars “adventures”, as Biggar does, is one example of such callousness, because it reduces a bloody neo-colonial war driven by Euro-American political and financial interests to an escapade whose goal was to bring “order” to regimes which, again, had once received extensive support from Euro-American powers.

In a characteristic move, Biggar chooses to turn colonialism into a moral issue affecting the inner feelings of an idealized white British public instead of the more pressing concern of teaching everyone living in Britain about colonialism, its legacy, and its connection to the world in which we live today. Feelings of guilt or pride or shame are entirely irrelevant in this sense, because they are simplistic individualized reactions to social issues that cannot be understood within the narrow confines of an elitist history. After all, our history – mine, that of British Asians and Black British people, that of white Oxford professors – is intimately tied with colonialism, but it is not the whitewashed history imagined by Nigel Biggar.

This essay was originally published by Wildcat Dispatches on December 20th, 2017