Ethics and empire: an open letter from Oxford scholars

Ethics and empire: an open letter from Oxford scholars


• A group of Oxford academics has written the below letter following the debate surrounding an article in The Times entitled “Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history” by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford.


We are scholars who work on histories of empire and colonialism and their after-effects, broadly understood. We teach our students to think seriously and critically about those histories and their contemporary legacies. We write to express our opposition to the public stance recently taken on these questions by Nigel Biggar, also an academic at Oxford, and the agenda pursued in his recently announced project entitled “Ethics and Empire”.

Professor Biggar has every right to hold and to express whatever views he chooses or finds compelling, and to conduct whatever research he chooses in the way he feels appropriate. But his views on this question, which have been widely publicised at the Oxford Union, as well as in national newspapers, risk being misconstrued as representative of Oxford scholarship. For many of us, and more importantly for our students, they also reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past. We therefore feel obliged to express our firm rejection of them.

Biggar’s media interventions have been spurred in defence of a discredited polemical opinion piece by American political scientist Bruce Gilley. This advocated a “recolonisation” of parts of the world by Western powers as a solution to misgovernment in the global south. His own call for British “pride to temper shame” in the assessment of empire is similarly intended to fortify support for overseas military interventions today. Such prescriptions not only rest on very bad history, they are breathtakingly politically naive.

We do believe that historical scholarship should inform public debate and contemporary politics. But it cannot do so through simple-minded equations between “pride” and swaggering global confidence, or between “shame” and meek withdrawal.

Nor can it pretend to offer serious history when it proposes such arguments as that the British empire’s abolition of the slave trade stands simply as a positive entry in a balance-book against (for example) the Amritsar massacre or the Tasmanian genocide. Abolition does not somehow erase the British empire’s own practice of slavery and the benefits it continued to reap from the slave trade long after it ended – such as railway investments in the UK or cotton imports from the US South. Nor can historians accept the simple claim that imperialism “brought order” without examining what that actually meant for those subject to it. Aimé Césaire’s morally powerful Discours sur le colonialisme dispatched such absurd “balance-sheet” arguments as long ago as 1950. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that they should be resurrected for a history of ethics in 2017.


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