Historians' Watch

Imperial History Wars

The history of the British empire has never been free from controversy. Historiographical battles have addressed motivations for imperial expansion, reasons for decolonisation, and the extent to which ordinary British people participated in – or even knew about – the empire overseas. This is, of course, perfectly usual; the historical profession exists as a series of interlocking debates and, as new generations of scholars approach evidence in new ways and ask new questions, they also challenge on older interpretations and more traditional ideas. The recent controversy over British imperial history, however, has had a different flavour. Rather than an argument about methodology, sources, or the interpretation of historical events, the debate has instead engaged with ethical questions that get to the very heart of the history of British imperialism.

Photo credit: Rhodes Must Fall Oxford

There has long been a schism within historical writing on British imperialism around the evaluation of imperialism’s qualities or justifications. Niall Ferguson’s Empire, published in 2003, argued that empire had, on balance, been ‘a good thing’. It was critiqued by many historians of empire, including Andrew Porter and Linda Colley, for lacking complexity and nuance by making a positive moral judgement about imperialism based on ideas about idealism and creativity and ignoring darker topics of power, violence, and exploitation. Largely shrugging off these criticisms, Ferguson doubled-down on his approach to imperial history with his 2011 book Civilisation, which detailed the ‘killer apps’ (competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic) that had allowed the West to conquer ‘the rest’. Indeed, Ferguson has few qualms about assuming the mantle of an overtly pro-Empire scholar. Last year, he responded to a YouGov poll, showing that more than half of British people polled believed that they should be proud of the British empire, with the simple Twitter message: ‘I won’.

Just months after Ferguson’s self-proclaimed victory, Bruce Gilley – an associate professor of political science at Portland State University – published a piece in Third World Quarterly entitled ‘The Case for Colonialism’. In it, Gilley called for the ‘orthodoxy’ that gave Western colonialism ‘a bad name’ to be questioned and instead argued that it had been ‘both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate’. The piece was met with a furious reaction among the imperial history community; fifteen members of the editorial board of Third World Quarterly resigned and a petition asking for a retraction from the journal garnered over 7,000 signatures. The article has since been removed from the journal website: not because of its controversial content, but because its publication apparently led to ‘serious and credible threats of violence’ against the editor. The journal remains unrepentant about publishing the piece, and seems unwilling to engage with the substantive critiques of the methodology and argument put forward by numerous historians and other academics. Indeed, by removing the piece entirely, they have effectively precluded any further critical engagement.

The outrage over Gilley’s piece must be understood within a wider political context in which imperial history is increasingly rehabilitated by people who seek to glorify Britain’s imperial past for political ends. During the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, many Leave campaigners articulated their desire to escape from the apparent tyranny of a European bureaucratic empire within the context of a lost, and apparently sadly missed, British imperial past. In the context of an increasingly xenophobic and racist political discourse in Britain – in which opponents of Brexit are attacked as ‘citizens of nowhere’,  ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘saboteurs’, the number of violent racist attacks have risen, and the Home Office moves the policing of borders into schools and A and E departments – historians’ anxieties around glorification of imperial conquest and denial of the violences and oppressions of empire can be better understood. Both to the Oxford Rhodes Must Fall campaign and the Cambridge campaign for literature teaching to be ‘decolonised’ were met by a hostile media reaction, with campaigners subjected to personalised attacks in newspapers. University staff and students are increasingly finding themselves under fire when it is perceived that they are critical – or even questioning – of Britain’s imperial history; invariably decried as destructive (with particular anxieties about ‘disrespecting’ history by removing statues, for example) or as limiting debate. Nonetheless, intellectually challenging discussions are currently taking place amongst staff and students at many British universities about ‘decolonising’ curriculums and the validity of historical commemoration, which represent a deeper engagement with the past than preservation through inaction.

The controversy over British imperial history reached its zenith with the launch of Nigel Biggar’s ‘Ethics of Empire’ project at the University of Oxford. The project aims (which have shifted slightly since it was first announced) are threefold:

  1. to ‘trawl the history of ethical critiques of ‘empire’’
  2. to ‘test the critiques against the historical facts of empire’
  3. through this, to develop a modern ‘Christian ethic of empire’ to support ‘a morally sophisticated negotiation of contemporary issues such as military intervention for humanitarian purposes in culturally foreign states, the cohesion of multicultural societies, and settling imperial pasts’

There is little discussion of the problems engendered by intentionally framing contemporary humanitarianism through imperial histories and no justification of the necessity or historicity of a Christian ethic of empire. In an editorial for The Times in November 2017, headlined ‘Don’t Feel Guilty About Our Colonial History’, Biggar defended Gilley’s earlier ‘courageous’ intervention, argued that the history of the British empire was ‘morally mixed’ and concluded with a call for the British to ‘moderate’ their ‘post-imperial guilt’.

Imperial Federation, Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire (1886)

Imperial historians were baffled and angered by the announcement of Biggar’s project. An open letter, signed by 58 historians at the University of Oxford, set out some key objections to the project. It was, they argued, ill-conceived, rooted in ignorance of the existing field, and deeply problematic in its stated attempt to develop an ‘ethics’ of empire that could then be applied in the modern world. In short, it asked ‘the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purpose’. This letter was interpreted by some as an attack on Biggar’s freedom of speech; a Daily Mail article referred to the letter as an act of ‘collective online bullying’ and described Biggar as ‘latest in a long line of eminent academics to be shamed online for expressing their views’. Biggar is keen to portray himself as a victim of censorship and brave martyr set upon by political-correctness-gone-mad imperial historians who are unwilling to countenance alternative viewpoints. The Daily Mail continued its campaign naming and shaming a cabal of ‘loud mouthed, Tory-loathing, anti-Israel academics’ who propagate an ‘ugly totalitarianism’ of safe spaces and trigger warnings. But this narrative fails to hold water for multiple reasons. Biggar has been able to share his views across a variety of media platforms including national newspapers and his project is still going ahead, despite the serious methodological and intellectual issues that have been raised. Historians who object to Biggar’s research are entitled to share their critiques of his ideas and his practice, and – given the political context – do so at risk of personal attack from an often-hostile media, which is quick to interpret any critique of British history as a criticism of Britain today.

A historians’ work is not usually primarily concerned with making moral judgements about the past. Historical research tends to be more nuanced than this; historians seek to understand why things happened, why people made the choices that they did, and the consequences of big and small decisions, rather than drawing up a balance sheet of heroes and villains. But it is equally naïve to suggest that historians must approach all topics from a position of studied moral neutrality. If historians of the British empire tend to write about imperialism by focusing on instances of violence and oppression, that is because it is difficult to escape those themes when analysing a structure built on conquest and maintained through the subjugation of colonial populations. Calls to ‘moderate’ Britain’s national post-colonial guilt ignore the fact that many popular presentations of imperial history still focus heavily on telling a story about British adventure and civilising missions overseas, while ignoring the victims of imperialism and the negative long-term consequences of empire that continue to shape our world. In this context, it is disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that proponents of pro-empire views of empire are persecuted and brave warriors for free speech. Historians must continue to think critically about imperial history and to work at communicating the intricacies of these debates to a wider audience.

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