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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.

To state his argument for this history, Biggar sets up a caricature in place of an antagonist: an allegedly prevailing orthodoxy that “imperialism is wicked”. His project’s declared aim is to uncover a more complex reality, whose “positive aspects” dispassionate scholarship can reveal. This is nonsense. No historian (or, as far as we know, any cultural critic or postcolonial theorist) argues simply that imperialism was “wicked”.

Mugabe’s misrule doesn’t retrospectively justify British colonialism. PA Archive

Good and evil may be meaningful terms of analysis for theologians. They are useless to historians. Nor are historians much moved by arguments that because Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe was a despot, British imperialism or white supremacy under UDI in Rhodesia must surely look better in comparison. That is not a meaningful comparison. Biggar’s argument fails even its own test in the case of Iraq, where in the aftermath of invasion, occupation, civil war and the terror of Daesh that came in their wake, there is no lack of nostalgia for the “order” and “security” of Saddam Hussein.

The “Ethics and Empire” project asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes. However seriously intended, far from offering greater nuance and complexity, Biggar’s approach is too polemical and simplistic to be taken seriously. There is doubtless much to be said about the ethical regimes that have historically been used to justify or critique imperial rule (a story at least as old as Tacitus). But there is no sense in which neutral “historical data”, from any historical context, can simply be used to “measure” the ethical appropriateness of either critiques of or apologia for empire, let alone sustain an “ethic of empire” for today’s world.

Neither we, nor Oxford’s students in modern history will be engaging with the “Ethics and Empire” programme, since it consists of closed, invitation-only seminars. Instead, we want students and the wider public to know that the ideas and aims of that project are not those of most scholars working on these subjects in Oxford, whether in the history faculty or elsewhere. We welcome continued, open, critical engagement in the ongoing reassessment of the histories of empire and their legacies both in Britain and elsewhere in the world. We have 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”.


James McDougall (fellow and tutor in modern history, Trinity College, Oxford, historian of the Middle East and North Africa, modern France and the French colonial empire.)

Hussein Omar (junior research fellow, Pembroke College, Oxford, historian of British-occupied Egypt and Sudan.)

Erin O’Halloran (DPhil candidate, St Antony’s College, Oxford, historian of empire and transnational connections in the Middle East and South Asia.)

Peter Hill (junior research fellow, Christ Church, Oxford, historian of the Arab world in the 19th century.)

Joanna Innes (professor of modern history, Fellow and tutor in modern history, Somerville College, Oxford, historian of Britain since the 18th century.)

Sneha Krishnan (junior research fellow, St John’s College, Oxford, a historical and cultural geographer working on gender and the aftermath of imperialism in South India.)

Rory McCarthy (fellow by examination, Magdalen College, Oxford, working on the politics of the Middle East.)

Miles Larmer (professor of African history, fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, historian of central and southern Africa in the mid-to-late 20th century.)

Marilyn Booth (Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud professor for the study of the contemporary Arab world, fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, working on the history of women’s writing in Arabic, the Arabic novel, and literary translation.)

Mohamed-Salah Omri (professor of Arabic and comparative literature, fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, working on modern Arabic and world literatures.)

Laurent Mignon (associate professor of Turkish, Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, working on modern Turkish literature and intellectual history.)

Michael Joseph (DPhil candidate in history, Pembroke College, Oxford, co-convenor of the Race and Resistance research programme, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, working on British and French imperialism in the 20th century Caribbean.)

Katherine Ibbett (professor of French, fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, working on the French in the early modern Americas.)

Walter Armbrust (associate professor, Faculty of Oriental Studies, Albert Hourani Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, working on popular culture, politics and mass media in Egypt.)

Max Harris (examination fellow in law, All Souls College, Oxford, working on constitutional and human rights law, including indigenous rights.)

Faisal Devji (university reader in modern South Asian history, Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, working on Indian political thought, modern Islam, ethics and violence in a globalised world.)

Chihab El Khachab (junior research fellow, Christ Church, Oxford, working on the anthropology of media and technology in contemporary Egypt.)

Amelia Bonea (postdoctoral researcher, St Anne’s College, Oxford, historian of South Asia and the British empire.)

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (postdoctoral research associate, St Cross College, Oxford, working on modern Iranian intellectual and political history.)

Beth Kume-Holland (predoctoral research fellow, History Faculty, Oxford, historian of imperialism and civil rights in modern America.)

Karma Nabulsi (associate professor of politics and international relations, fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, working on the political thought and history of anti-colonialism.)

Valeria Rueda (career development fellow, Pembroke College, Oxford, economist and economic historian working on sub-Saharan Africa.)

Polly O’Hanlon (professor of Indian history and culture, fellow of St Cross College, Oxford, social and intellectual historian of India.)

Christina de Bellaigue (fellow and tutor in modern history, Exeter College, Oxford, historian of 19th century Britain and France.)

Kate Tunstall (fellow and tutor in French, Worcester College, Oxford, co-director of the Oxford Amnesty Lectures, working on the Enlightenment.)

Flair Donglai Shi (DPhil candidate in English, The Queen’s College, Oxford, working on comparative anglophone and sinophone literature and “Yellow Peril” studies.)

Souad Lamrani (doctoral student in political philosophy at the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne, academic visitor and resident at the Maison Française, Oxford, working on migration and racialised borders.)

Elleke Boehmer (professor of world literature in English, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, literary and cultural historian of empire and its aftermath in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.)

Katerina Chatzikidi (DPhil candidate in anthropology, St Antony’s College, Oxford, working on the legacies of slavery and land rights in Brazil.)

Dominic Davies (British Academy postdoctoral fellow, Faculty of English and New College, Oxford, working on colonial and postcolonial literature, urban space and infrastructure.)

Rosinka Chaudhuri (director and professor of cultural studies, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta; Mellon-global South visiting professor, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and St Hugh’s College, Oxford.)

Vanessa Lee (lecturer in French, Oriel College, Oxford, working on French Caribbean women playwrights.)

David Pratten (associate professor in the social anthropology of Africa, fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, social anthropologist of West Africa.)

Robert Gildea (professor of modern history, fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, working on modern France and the legacies of the French and British empires.)

Tessa Roynon (teaching and research fellow, Rothermere American Institute, Oxford, working on twentieth and 21st century African American literature.)

Phyllis Ferguson (member, Oxford Transitional Justice Research; former coordinator of African Studies, University of Oxford, of the Oxford International Human Rights Law Group and of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Timor-Leste.)

Giuseppe Marcocci (associate professor in Iberian history, fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, historian of the colonial empires of Portugal and Spain.)

Patricia Daley (professor of the human geography of Africa, fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, working on forced migration and violence in contemporary Africa.)

Juliana Pistorius (DPhil student, faculty of music and Lincoln College, Oxford, musicologist working on opera and coloniality in South Africa.)

Graham Riach (departmental lecturer in world literature, Faculty of English, Oxford, working on aesthetics in colonial, postcolonial, and world literatures.)

Michelle Kelly (departmental lecturer in world literatures in English, Faculty of English, Oxford, working on postcolonial and world literature.)

Daniel Grimley (professor of music, fellow of Merton College, Oxford, historian of music, colonialism, and landscape.)

Ankhi Mukherjee (professor of English and world literatures, fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, working on psychoanalysis at the intersection of race and class in the context of global cities.)

Maria Misra (associate professor of modern history, Fellow of Keble College, Oxford, historian of India and the British Empire.)

Marc Mulholland (professor of modern history, fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, historian of modern Ireland and political thought.)

David Priestland (professor of modern history, fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, historian of Russia and eastern Europe, communism and market liberalism.)

Sudhir Hazareesingh (associate professor of politics, fellow and tutor in politics, Balliol College, Oxford, historian of French politics and culture.)

Sophie Smith (associate professor of political theory, fellow of University College, Oxford, working on 19th century political thought, Anglo-European political theory and imperialism.)

Jason Stanyek (associate professor of ethnomusicology, Faculty of Music, Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, scholar of African diasporic musics in Brazil and the United States.)

Stephen Tuffnell (associate professor of modern US history, fellow of St Peter’s College, Oxford, historian of US imperialism.)

Akanksha Awal (DPhil student in social anthropology, St John’s College, Oxford, working on postcolonial desire in contemporary India.)

Nayanika Mathur (associate professor in the anthropology of South Asia, Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, working on the anthropology of the state, bureaucracy, law, and politics in contemporary India.)

Kate Sullivan de Estrada (associate professor in the international relations of South Asia, Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, working on Indian diplomatic history.)

Robin Ostle (emeritus research fellow in modern Arabic, St John’s College, Oxford, working on modern Arabic literature.)

Peter D. McDonald (professor of English and related literature, fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, working on literary writing and the modern state since the 19th century.)

Adrian Gregory (associate professor of modern history, fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, historian of Britain since the 19th century, working on war, peace, and religion.)

Josephine Quinn (associate professor, Faculty of Classics, Fellow and tutor in ancient history, Worcester College, Oxford, historian and archaeologist of Greek, Roman and Phoenician antiquity.)

Maria del Pilar Blanco (associate professor in Spanish American literature, fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, cultural and literary historian of science and modernisation in Spanish America.)