How bad was the British Empire? That’s the question Nigel Biggar, Emeritus Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, has attempted to answer in his book Colonialism a Moral Reckoning. But in doing so, he has confronted those who don’t just want to tell a one-sided story of an imperial project motivated solely by racism and exploitation, but who want to silence alternative narratives – and who almost succeeded in preventing his book being published.
I was delighted to have the chance to talk to him, not just about his own personal battle with the culture warriors, but about the deeper philosophical issues at play. How do you make a moral assessment of a vast sweep of history, with multiple actors each with their own motivations – one which includes both enthusiastic participation in the slave trade and being instrumental in its abolition? And what happens if we allow shame about the past dictate how we do things today?
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