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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Ghavri: 'White Man's Burden'

The University of Oxford’s “Ethics and Empire” project asks the wrong questions.

Last year, the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life at the University of Oxford announced a project titled “Ethics and Empire” to convene “a series of workshops to measure apologias and critiques of empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the globe.” The first colloquium took place from July 6 to 7, 2017, as the opening session of the five-year project. The project’s webpage justifies the need for such a project given the “intense public debate” surrounding issues of colonialism and its legacies in Britain and around the world. The project seeks to challenge the consensus it identifies in scholarship of colonialism that imperialism has been nothing but “wicked; and empire is therefore unethical” so “nothing of interest remains to be explored.” The webpage for the project cites the movement to topple statues of British imperialist and white supremacist Cecil Rhodes as evidence for this imagined scholarly orthodoxy that needs to be challenged, arguing that imperialism had often produced good outcomes around the world.

Over the past few months this project has attracted significant public attention in the U.K. and within academia. The convener of and participants in this project can hold whatever views they desire, but the scholarly premise of this project is naïve and unsophisticated. It asks the wrong questions and relies on delegitimized modes of historical analysis out of tune with current scholarship of colonialism. Moreover, this project comes at a time when chauvinistic right-wing nationalism movements seek the return to an alleged great past in which missions claimed to be ethical or civilizing justified imperialism.

University of Oxford professor and convener of “Ethics and Empire” Nigel Biggar “observes that, as a historical phenomenon as distinct from an ideological construct, ‘empire’ has meant all manner of ethical thing.” The webpage for the project goes on to provide a balance-book or cost-benefit framework for empire which contends that the British Empire’s bringing of alleged order and rule of law around the world, abolition and eventual suppression of the Atlantic and African slave-trades or granting of independence to colonies were a positive entry. This positive-entry allegedly provides some amelioration for horrors such as the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919, Bengal Famine of 1943 and the white-supremacist apartheid regimes in South Africa and Zimbabwe, not to mention the long-term industrial-scale exploitation of natural resources, wealth and brown and black bodies as just the tip of the iceberg.

As a young historian of colonial and postcolonial South Asia, I think that such approaches to studying history using top-down discrete terms such as good and bad alongside balance-book or cost-benefit analyses are naïve and simplistic. Indeed, an open-letter from over 50 Oxford scholars rejecting this project cites Aimé Césaire’s “Discours sur le colonialisme,” which discredited these simplistic cost-benefit analyses of colonialism over half a century ago. No serious scholar of colonialism simply views the phenomenon as wicked, as it is not the job of historians to proclaim goodness or wickedness but to reveal and unpack the complex processes shaping the course of history.

History unfolds as the result of the agency of individuals intersecting and collaborating with the collective agency of systems of formal and informal power. Emphasizing eventual good in the form of the abolition of the slave trade or decolonization places all historical initiative on Europe to make progress in the world while minimizing Europe’s role in instigating these exploitative relationships and ignoring the sheer scale of the ongoing benefits reaped by Britain from colonialism and slavery.

Many colonized actors collaborated, supported, interacted with, contested and subverted colonialism, and their historical initiative matters as well. While it was undoubtedly good that the British eventually abolished the slave trade and granted brown and black people independence, that does not erase or justify their history of benefitting from these systems of exploitation and subjugation. Nor does it account for the everyday collaboration, contestation, subversion and transformations in cultures, religions, economies and social orders that occurred under colonial rule across the world.

With the rise of right-wing nationalism comes more pronounced racial and immigration tension amidst chauvinistic and hypermasculine nationalisms seeking a return to greatness. A part of this is a willful ignorance of history in favor of emphasizing all the allegedly good deeds done in the name of the civilizing mission of the British Empire or manifest destiny carried out by the United States while minimalizing the horrors, transformations and legacies of colonial rule.

When 50 Oxford scholars wrote an open-letter rejecting the views informing the convening of the “Ethics and Empire” project as “breathtakingly politically naïve” and “very bad history,” they argued that while “historical scholarship should inform public debate and contemporary politics ... it cannot do so through simple-minded equations between ‘pride’ and swaggering global confidence.”

No serious scholar would argue that imperialism was simply bad. Indeed, the scholars conclude their letter by stating most serious historians “never believed it is sufficient to dismiss imperialism as simply ‘wicked.’ Nor do we believe it can or should be rehabilitated because some of it was ‘good.’” Biggar and the University of Oxford have every right to convene a project they deem academically serious, but I hope they reconsider the premises and questions of the workshop and what they deem to be the historical orthodoxy that needs challenging. There is a rich literature in postcolonial studies and non-Western history moving beyond “good” and “bad” to show the wide spectrum of things colonialism meant for indigenous actors that I doubt Biggar has bothered to consider. This ongoing controversy in the U.K. holds relevance for us in the U.S. given our own public debates over how to remember, memorialize and grapple with our past of settler colonialism and slavery.