Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning – A John Anderson Book Review

By: John Anderson

The Black Lives Matter riots and protests as well as the widespread phenomenon of pulling down statues of colonial leaders has made the nature and legacy of European colonialism front and centre of widespread discussion again.

Since the post-WWII decolonisation movement there has been activist, political, and academic industries trading on the essential evil of the historical phenomenon of colonialism, especially modern European – “white” – colonialism. The colonial projects are routinely called essentially evil, genocidal, rapacious, and racist. The notion that the moral nature of modern colonial projects could be more morally nuanced is ruled out tout court. But as Biggar says in Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, “the controversy over empire is not really a controversy about history at all. It is about the present, not the past.” [3]

Modern colonialism, like all complex historical, indeed, human, processes, is arguably not so morally simple. That is, to identify evil in a project like colonialism is not thereby to demonstrate the impossibility that good may be identified in it as well, any more than identifying the good in some complex process, say, the rise of modern technology, is not to rule out the possibility of evil aspects of that same phenomenon (eugenics, Hitler’s use of technology for genocide).

Nigel Biggar, an ethical theologian and philosopher, meticulously goes through the historical legacy of colonialism and uncovers much to be horrified by, but he also discovers that there is much to be glad about as well in terms of both the immediate and long-term impact of colonialism on non-Western countries. From the abolition of horrifically cruel practices, to the introduction of modern medicine, prosperity, and infrastructure, Biggar offers a genuine moral reckoning of colonialism that takes its full impact into account and offers a moral evaluation that is at once revisionist, informed by the best literature, and at the same time deeply sympathetic.

Big Ideas

  • Like many historical processes and activities – technological advance, capitalism, religion – colonialism is complex and impossible to reduce to either good or evil
  • Modern rage over colonialism shows no interest in non-European colonialism, past or present. It is solely concerned with European – “white” – colonialism
  • If we can morally critique our own culture, and accept outsiders’ critiques of our own culture, then we can morally critique other cultures
  • Human beings are equal, but cultures are not
  • Inter-tribal warfare and disease did the most to wipe out aboriginal populations, not British military campaigns
  • Non-Western countries not colonised by the British in the long run generally did more poorly than those that were colonised

Are All Cultures Equal?

“Belief in the basic equality of human beings does not imply that all cultures are equal. A culture that can write is superior in that technical respect to one that cannot. A culture that knows that the earth is round is superior in that intellectual respect to one that does not. A culture that abhors human sacrifice to the gods and female infanticide is superior in that moral respect to one that practices them.” (11) Controversially, Biggar says “No culture has a moral right to be immune from change or even to survive.” [135] This applies to Western cultures as well. While we might lament the decline of traditional ways and the loss of languages owing to colonialism, we must also recognise that many traditions that were horrifically cruel and barbaric were also erased by British colonialism for philanthropic, Christian reasons. For example, the British did what they could to dismantle the cruel caste system in India, that consigned millions to unnecessary poverty and exclusion. It also stamped out the practice of sati – the burning alive of widows on their husband’s funeral pyres. The fact that no critic of colonialism wishes a return to these practices demonstrates that we all are glad that they were stamped out. This demonstrates that the effects of colonialism can be positive.


Slavery is ubiquitous throughout history and almost all races have practised it to some degree. Slavery is not a “white” sin by any stretch of the imagination. “All the ancient Mesopotamian civilisations practised slavery in one form or another, starting with Egypt in the third millennium BC.” [47] The Mediterranean region followed, as well as slavery being practised among the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, as well as being widespread in Africa. [47-8] Indeed, “Slavery and the slave trade…were alive and well in Africa long before Europeans arrived to develop the export market.” [48]

The practice was horrific in most respects. On 1 August 1834 slaves throughout the British Empire were formally emancipated, with payment of compensation to slave owners. [56-7] Although white Europeans practised slavery, it was also white Europeans who abolished it among themselves and then sought to see it stamped out everywhere else, using its navy to block transportation of slave ships. [59] Britain’s attempts to stamp the practice out sometimes cost its army thousands of lives in battles against countries – the Sudan in 1883, for instance – who wished to keep it. [64]

The abolition of the slave trade was economically disruptive and “involved interfering with a long-established and deeply embedded social institution.” [61] In short, it was risky socially and economically. Speaking of slavery, founder of the Methodist Christian movement, John Wesley, wrote: “Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air. And no human law can deprive him of that right, which he derives from the law of nature.” The costs of abolishing slavery indicate much of the driving force to abolish slavery was moral and religious sentiment.

Colonial “conquest” and “genocide”

Prior to European colonisation aboriginal peoples practised warfare and displacement among themselves. As one historian says, “conquest, absorption, displacement, and even extermination were routine phenomena.” For example, in the south-west of North America, “the Comanches launched ‘an explosive campaign’, which in three generations obliterated Apache civilisation from the Great Plains….” Further north in the second half of the sixteenth century, th Alogonquian-speaking Montagnais displaced the Iroquois from the St Lawrence valley (the latter returning eventually to displace the former). [101] Speaking of the Tasmanian aboriginals, historian Geoffrey Blainey estimates that the annual death rate from warfare was 1 for every 270 in the population, a rate “probably not exceeded in any nation of Europe during any of the last three centuries.” [137]

Probably the best explanation for the mass deaths of Aboriginal peoples is not from being slaughtered by European colonists but from the devastating impact of European diseases brought to their shores. It was germs, not guns, that did the most to eviscerate many native populations. In New Zealand. For example, from 1769 to 1837 the Maori population dropped from around 110,000 to 70,000 because of deaths from inter-tribal warfare and European disease. [109] According to Biggar, “The deadliest killer of Australian aboriginals is reckoned to have been smallpox”, some of which was probably transported by Indonesian traders. [122, 137]

Biggar does not deny that many atrocities against aboriginal peoples at the hands of European colonisers occurred, but he also points out that there were genuine attempts to recognise the rights of aboriginal peoples. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by 540 Maori chiefs, which legistated Maori ownership over their lands, forests, and fisheries in return for British sovereignty. In 1852 Maori men were included in the democratic franchise. [111-12] In Australia the European governors were instructed to pursue friendly relations with the aboriginals, and the aboriginals possessed from the beginning of European settlement, the rights of any subjects of the crown. [113-14] A treaty with Australian aboriginal peoples akin to that in New Zealand was, however, impossible owing to the semi-nomadic nature of aboriginal culture, as well as the multitude of tribal languages and lack of coordination among tribes. Still, as Australian colonies became democracies, the same voting rights offered to white men were also extended, in law, at least, to aboriginal men. In South Africa’s Cape Colony black Africans were given the same voting rights as white in 1853. [127]

For the most part, the term “genocide” is used metaphorically when it comes to the British Empire’s interaction with aboriginal peoples; “cultural genocide”; not so much the deliberate extermination of people, but the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into British culture and the English language. The British were not oblivious to the harsh impact their presence often had on aboriginal peoples, and yet they sincerely believed that the best recompense, even the greatest gift, they could offer in return for land was European civilisation. [144-45]

Economic exploitation

Theft of land, exploitative use of resources, and exploitative labour arrangements are common accusations made against Britain. Biggar, relying on much scholarship, shows that, notwithstanding the morality of colonisation, those peoples who were colonized did much better in the long run than those who were not. [165] This is because colonisers often brought modern infrastructure, growth economies, education, more stable political institutions, and the rule of law. Biggar says, “The view of ‘pessimistic’ neo-Marxism that colonialism was essentially about the predatory extraction of colonial surplus owes more to economic dogma than historical or empirical dogma….” [167]

The example of Britain’s greatest colonial asset, India, is instructive. Indian nationalists such as Mahatma Gandhi, B. R. Ambedkar, and Rabindraneth Tagore “all held that Indian society, not the British Empire, was mainly responsible for India’s poverty.” [169] Under the British 25% of all land became irrigated, compared to only 5% previously. The British also built more railways in India than the US, France, Germany and other European colonists built in all their colonies. By 1947 India had 45,000 miles of railway; China did not even have close to 20,000 miles. [171] Today India has risen to be a major global economy with a massive middle class. It must also be pointed out that the British also set about dismantling the Indian caste system, allowing so-called “Untouchables” to work and enjoy a standard of living historically unprecedented. [183] Many Africans had positive reflections on British rule as well. Novelist Chinua Achebe wrote “The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care….British colonies were, more or less, expertly run….One was not consumed by fear of abduction or armed robbery.” [199]


There is much more ground covered in Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning than this review can chart, and readers will find a mine rich in facts, statistics, and analysis. Biggar does attempt to be even-handed in his commentary on British colonial history. Speaking of the Tasmanian aboriginals, he accepts that “even if the British were not culpable, they were responsible” for their demise. [145] Some will find this distinction implausible, but Biggar’s thesis is that the events leading to the decline of indigenous peoples were often out of the control of colonial governments – internecine warfare, disease, free settler’s actions.

Someone may ask, and fairly, whether all that befell indigenous peoples would have happened had the British not simply kept to their own shores. The answer must be that eventually some other colonizing people would come instead. Furthermore, we must not be naïve to how merciless life could be in pre- European Africa and Asia. Finally, perhaps it is also time to acknowledge the positive contribution of Western civilisation to indigenous peoples in terms of knowledge, mortality, and prosperity. Biggar’s thesis is that colonialsm is at least as much tragedy as it was deliberate or avoidable malice, and thus the morally monochromatic narrative of colonialism being nothing more than evil after evil must be abandoned for an alternative vision that does not exclude evil, but centralizes tragedy, beneficence, but also hope that the foundations laid by the British can be built upon for future peace and prosperity.

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About the Author: John Anderson served as Deputy Prime Minister of Australia from 1999 to 2005. A committed Christian, he now hosts a podcast interviewing thought leaders on politics, culture, academia and faith.