The Jack Tars of the Royal Navy and the abolition of slavery

British anti slaving ship overhauls a slaver

Professor Nigel Biggar, Regius professor of theology at Christ Church, was branded a racist, and bigot by an anti-racist group in Oxford, for daring to question the cultural orthodoxy in academia, with regard to colonialism and the British empire. All he said was that society should take a more nuanced view of the empire, and consider its pros and cons. A perfectly understandable and praiseworthy position.

This isn’t the first time there has been a call to censor any idea which is against the accepted narrative. Professor Bruce Gilley’s paper on colonialism was censored and eventually retracted after the editor of the journal was threatened with physical injury. Historian Niall Ferguson was pilloried by an enraged mob when he challenged Shashi Tharoor’s revisionist history on the exploitation of the Raj.

I have written about it in detail before, for those of you interested, on why Tharoor’s opportunist tome of the British empire is a blot on academia. A thorough counter of those arguments is both unnecessary, repetitive, and outside the scope of this blog post.

But let’s get back to Oxford for the moment. It was refreshing to see Oxford sticking up for Professor Biggar, and it is the right thing to do. So, here, from an Indian researcher based in the UK, and a former subject of the empire, let me say, well done. Don’t give in to bullies of a band of activists with an agenda, masquerading as academics and race relation experts.

Colonialism is of course not a defensible subject, and no one is attempting to do so here. But it is, like any other history, a subject to be treated with a balanced, unbiased approach and historical distance. This idea that colonialism was something uniquely evil is a post-colonial Marxist contribution to history, which became popular around the 1970s. Marxist academics started writing theory laced non-empirical tomes on it, and an entire discipline of post-colonialism went on to dominate Western academe.

If one examines the work of any Western University, and the research that comes out of post-colonial departments, or the people they bring in as guest lecturers there’s a pattern to be observed. They all repeat the same dogmatic arguments of how uniquely evil British empire was. They are also completely untrue.

Not all empires during the colonial era were equally brutal. The Belgian, Dutch and German empires in Africa (Brussels and Berlin, anyone?) were far more brutal than the British, as were the French empires in Asia and North Africa, and that is without even considering the plus points from European empires, like democratic institutions, railways, science, education, the rule of law, technology and creation of equitable social structures.

The British Empire abolished slavery and forced other great powers to do so. Under Viscount Edward Pellew, a joint Anglo-Dutch flotilla shelled the Barbary coastline to stop human trafficking from North African . Sir James Napier helped Indian moderates like Raja Rammohan Roy to abolish the ghastly practice of Sati, or widow burning. The Royal Navy which after Trafalgar, dominated the globe and secured the world’s trade routes from piracy, at the same time committing itself to scientific discoveries, polar expeditions and creating maps of hitherto uncharted seas and oceans, which it distributed to entire humanity, for free, while about the same time half of the world were practicing witchcraft. These are factual statements, and some of these debts remain unpayable.

A comparison of the colonies of the British empire, to those of the Persian, Japanese and Ottoman empires, makes it even more blindingly obvious. Lumping off all empire to a euphemistic story of colonial exploitation is a typical Marxist strategy which absolves the Ottoman, Arab, Persian and even Soviet empires, while focusing on solely the European great powers of the colonial era.

Finally, and more importantly, it is a matter of free speech. Academia isn’t a place for activism. It is a taxpayer-funded place for inquiry and truth-seeking, and the truth isn’t faith, but subject to evidence. To give in to bullies is to ruin this fundamental idea of Enlightenment. It results in propaganda, not objective education. Well done once again, to Oxford for their courage, and following the University of Chicago, defending free speech.

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49 Comments on The Jack Tars of the Royal Navy and the abolition of slavery

  1. Wow! The comments section is long on this topic. The critique on Shashi Tharoor is justified. The intensely irritating grievance peddling which Tharoor does to sell his books relies on the fact that people have extremely short memories. Whether British Empire is good or bad for today’s India is about as relevant as whether Ancient Rome was relevant for Britain – it has no consequence. Every time the matter of colonialism arises – especially British Raj – the question automatically falls back to “was it good or bad for India?” Answer: no one cares. Indians do not expect the British to pay reparations; and neither should Britain harbour thoughts of being welcomed back to Delhi like Curzon. To contribute to the debate of whether British rule was actually good for India, all I would say is it is mixed. Among the good, was the creation of the Archaeological Survey of India, which has played the biggest role in the re-awakening of native Indian culture, which had by then undergone over 500 years of ridicule and suppression under another set of imperialists – the Muslims – at the time the British came on to the scene. The ASI helped in creating a sense among Indians of admiration of their own ancient past, which had been reduced much to mere witchcraft and ritual over the centuries under foreign rule. The greatest contribution of the British in the Indian subcontinent was its unintended removal of the Muslim religio-political yoke. As bad as British colonialism was, Indians esp. Hindus and Sikhs – were not all that unhappy. The segment most aggrieved by the British usurpation of power were the Muslims. Pakistan – birthed in Oxford – serves to remind one of the single most important contribution of Britain to India politically – and one couldn’t be more grateful to the British. The British deserve credit for the animosity between India and her neighbors today like Rome deserves credit for Russian-British animosities – hardly worth mentioning. Would one like for Britain to rule over India again – when it comes down to it, I don’t think many Indians would like the idea thank you. But merely viewing the anti-colonial movement in India as a black and white case of good versus evil is pantomime. It was a complex affair, and the more one looks into it, Indians need to thank the Japanese and the Americans as much as anyone else for getting the British out of India. Were it not for the absolute education handed by the Japs to the British in SE Asia, 1947 would probably never have happened. No imperial power ever goes out on its own bidding. Not the Mughals before the British. Not the British themselves.

  2. Harry, my grandfather fought for the crown, and I’m proud of that. In this middle part of my life my reading is mostly English history, as I said, for the nobility of its object. Unlike what’s been alleged I am not upset about any colonial matters; that’s all past undoing. My position is: the human soul is not benefited by lies, and politics is tougher when it is more truthful. The English empire was not all evil (this if where the conversation started), but that’s not to say it was all good. It had the extractive, irresponsible character of any empire. Now that that’s settled, let’s move on.

  3. I say this:
    Lamenting history, and feeling squeamish about, and/or condemning, some details of history that are icky and awful, and wanting history to be different from what it was is generally very, very silly.
    On a specific: British, English really, colonialism and just plain English presence wherever they went has been overwhelmingly positive for life on Earth. No other country has bestowed greater boons, nett, on lands it visited or occupied.
    And I must reveal that I am not English born, and I spent my formative years in jurisdictions in which anti-English sentiment ran very high.

    • AB: There’s an American website, “The Daily Beast” which refuses to publish any comments below the fold. You might enjoy spending time there. The DB is too liberal in its political coverage for my taste, but has quite a few interesting, well researched articles on other issues.

  4. May I express appreciation of SM’s article. I have long felt that colonialism was not “a good thing”, but also understood that the British Empire of law and order was “less bad” than any of the other empires. Agreed there were bad and bossy colonialists, but there were also good ones who really tried hard to leave their overseas places of duty better than they found them, and many died at their posts. Many mistakes were made, and we can now easily see that Winston Churchill’s resistance to Indian independence in the inter-war period was one of them. However, it was he who, as a general principle, questioned whether people were more entitled to self-government than to good government. And we must be realistic, and honest, in assessing whether some of the post-colonial self-governments have been even as good as the previous British colonial governments, let alone better. Academia should exhibit that realism and honesty.

    • A father has dominion over the child – here is a case where good government is better than self government. What about where the master has dominion over the slave? The master may be very good indeed, nevertheless the master serves his own interest through the slave, whereas the father serves the interest of the child. SM suggests that the English in India was a case of a father to a son, that’s why I call it paternalism. But this can’t be true: England and India had no common history (the alien-ness of India is a running theme in any number of contemporary novels) hence there were no grounds for a natural obligation. I think it is indisputably a case of a master to a slave. The master was good and the slave was a willing student, but the relation was clear, and some positive consequences do not effect that basic fact. It is a soft-focus memory that recollects something different. (The discussion is roughly from Aristotle’s Politics, Book I.)

      • First, I didn’t suggest that.

        Second, there was no modern ‘India’, as we know it, before the British. The Indian landmass as we know, itself was united in just two instances in history, under the Maurya Empire, and the Mughal Empire. Rest of its five thousand years of history, it is as diverse and divided as different European dutchies. Modern India, with its democratic character, rule of common law, language, territorial borders, government system, military culture, penal and procedural codes, and civil service, all are a creation of the British Raj.

        It is factually ridiculous to even claim otherwise.

        • It is true. I have never met a Dutchie who was not highly diverse, and in the worst possible way. Andrew Marvell had something to say here.

          But what’s suspect is the implication that India had no unity before the Raj. The country was unified under an ancient banner (Sanskriti) and not cobbled together of unlike & unrelated pieces. That it didn’t manifest modern statehood before the modern world came thundering in is not a decisive fact. I haven’t denied that the country learned much through the Raj. What I denied is that the Raj existed to teach India what it learned.

          • Jeepers G Singhmar. Are you thinking in terms of: The Raj should have existed to educate India? Perhaps not. But your point does remind me of a certain chap of Chinese parentage now living the celebrity life in an Anglospehre country who says he cannot admire the white British soldiers who fought and died on Western Front 1914-1918 because they almost certainly were not fighting for the acceptance and rights of himself, a non-white, to immigrate to the Anglosphere and be treated handsomely. True. Monumentally self-centered immaturity, in my view. But True.

        • SM, it is a tired premise. The modern nation state itself is a European idea and most modern countries are organized on Westphalian lines. India owe the British gratitude for democracy like the US owe the French gratitude for the same. For her Constitution, India did borrow from the likes of Canada, Switzerland, the US and Australia, in addition to Britain. Where your argument seems to hurt a nominal Indian patriot is the notion that India was not culturally homogeneous before the arrival of Europeans. Now that is patently untrue. How do we know? Read up on any of the ancient Indian classics and you will references to Bharatvarsha, or Bharat Khand etc. India was a distinct cultural unit long before man knew about Europe. India was a cultural commons divided into diverse polities. Even today, India is not a unitary state – that is against her nature. She is a federal polity, reflecting her federal ethos. Were India an artificial concoction, she would not have lasted 70 years as one country. The other polity in the Indian Subcontinent – that of political Islam – lasted for less than 15 years (1956-1971) before breaking up. Now that was an artificial concoction and a failed experiment. That other artificial concoction – the EU – too, seems to be on its way out; not 30 years into its life. On that scale of things, modern India has done well. Credit to her and her people.

        • SM, to give you a more proper response, lets examine what keeps India together today. It’s not common law, it’s not democracy, it’s not one language, it’s not the civil service, it’s not the penal code, it’s not even the military (even though they have a larger part). These things help in running the country (poorly!) but they are not what keep a country together. The same things exactly were bequeathed our neighbor to the west and east – Pakistan – and the whole edifice lasted 15 years before breaking up. A country can be a prisoner of nations, which means its people can be not free despite the existence of all you mention. But with the exception of one major minority, most Indians have no further territorial ambition. Yes, bickering takes place, but within the bounds of the freedom a raucous democracy can allow. That would not happen unless there was some sense of underlying commonality among the people. To really test your argument, one would have to guess – had India and China been ruled by the British, would they have stayed as one country post British withdrawal?

    • May I ask why you have moved from one “armpit” of the former British Empire to another of its “armpits”? It can’t be from an affinity with, or love of, the British.

  5. “…here in the Empire’s longest finger of Canada.”

    I’m trying to guess: The longest “finger” of Canada is probably the Gaspé Peninsula, which I know because I was born on the other side of it. Were you born in Gaspé, Mr Singhmar? Our Minister of National Defence was born in Punjab.

    • Greek had a genitive-of-explanation, similar to our appositional-of. So for example ‘the two of us’, ‘the City of Montreal’, ‘monster of a bore’ – and ‘longest finger of Canada’.

      Harjit Sajjan, our Minister of National Defence, is a Sikh of classical cut, though his father was a violent zealot. Our 3rd party’s freshly-pressed leader Jagmeet Singh may be as heavily costumed, but was not born in India, and therefore arrives at being insufferably progressive-puritanical. Note his holy airs of selling spiritual wares to unworthy buyers, like the Maharishi. Note his revolutionary beard, like Che Guevara. Note his patrician-populares condescension, like Barrack Obama.

  6. I can tell you for a fact dictionary reading has not flowed through as a recognized amusement here in the Empire’s longest finger of Canada.

  7. …and which has been on my Amazon wish list ever since. As Mr Howse says: “‘Hobson-Jobson’ is that rare delight – a dictionary that can be read for pleasure.”
    ___Everything I know about In’ja, I learned from watching “Gunga Din” and “Carry On Up The Khyber”; but there’s this book concerning Anglo-Indian etymology, which I first read about on Christopher Howse’s old blog:
    Bit off topic, sorry.

  8. Good to see fresh blood (diverse to boot!) gaining a foothold on this dusty, but loveable, blogspot. Very balanced punditry. But when Mr Maitra states: “Colonialism is *of course* not a defensible subject…”, I question what is “of course” about it? With the sole exception of Iceland, which was uninhabited when the Vikings first occupied it, has not every country in recorded history been invaded and conquered by outsiders, including India and all European ones?
    …and here I am: breaking another resolution – to stay away from social media.

    • For the timid history is a gallery where to observe suffering and build up a nasty courage. For the rapacious history is a licensing shop for excuses. For schoolmen history is a pleasant summer breeze fanning the embers of a nap. “Thou hast nor youth nor age, but as it were an after dinner sleep, dreaming of both.”

  9. Those nations which stuck more rigidly to their British colonial inheritance of government and law are the most successful and stable societies in their respective regions of the World.
    Think Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Israel, South Africa…not to mention the United States and Canada…

    • Indeed, South Africa – an exemplar of what a British inheritance can mean in the right hands. Even better than the examples offered by Zimbabwe and Kenya.

      • johnhenry, I’m not sure that the murderous, racist marxism of modern South Africa is something Britain can be proud of. As for India, our legacy is two irreconcilably hostile states who are now eager to fire nuclear weapons at each other.

        The British Empire was, like most things in history, a mixture of good and bad, but the way we abandoned the Indian subcontinent to a cold civil war was disgraceful.

        • RJR, I think it true that the leaders of what became India and what became Pakistan wanted the British out pronto -and Britain staying on a moment longer to make things better was not the slightest possibility. Plus the leaders of Pakistan wanted a separate country, no alternative.
          Also now, let us think outside the box, as clever folk say we ought: Might there not be some very positive outcomes, and, nett, a better scheme of affairs overall on the sub-continent in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange?
          When all seems stuck, let’s be bold, eh, at least in our imaginations.

  10. I believe that the British Empire was on the whole a force for good, with the exception of Ireland, in which country the British committed crimes that, as Roger Scruton has pointed out ‘have never been answered or atoned for’.

    • Almost certainly, Sir Roger knows a lot more than than I do in any area that he and I both know something about. But I do allow that he might be mistaken in some matters.

      On Ireland: Yes English crimes committed and not atoned for. Awful crimes. But now, two questions.

      Were the English crimes of greater horror than some Irish inflicted on other Irish?

      Would Ireland have become a place of such abundance in literature and other human endeavours without the removal of clan rivalries that attended the British crimes and other facets of the English presence in Ireland?

      History is a big thing, I think, and wanting history to be different from what it was is a bit silly.

  11. Well then, three quick points. That the Indians learned English qualifies not only English rule but also (and perhaps more tellingly) the Indian material that rule ranged over. SM’s paternalism is visible in attributing good effects all to the benevolence of the English. Secondly, our more sickened tories imagine that everything a liberal thinks is sufficiently by that measure alone a modern lie. (This pattern of thinking is itself rather liberal.) It doesn’t take much learning to see how richly the ancients abhorred foreign rule. Lastly, for the little my opinion is worth, I can’t think of a more just & noble object unfolded in history these past 951 years than the English example. But although English contributions to India have added much, and its rule was as little brutal as possible, the loss of autonomy is nevertheless a harm of a different order. (Autonomy being a principle the English have stood for & lived.)

    • And no, I don’t think the place of India (such as it is) on “the global stage” is the long shadow of English rule. It has fallen to the Indians to keep that politics intact, and it is the fruit of their own labour they now enjoy.

  12. That colonialism is a unique evil is not an invention of marxists & assorted lefties. The loss of self-rule and all that flows from it was held by the old greeks to be the worst of all harms. Mr. Maitra adopts a paternalism popular in certain sycophantic Indian circles. Fine, if you must have a ruler, choose the English. But let him follow better in the footsteps of Burke and notice the loosened wickedness both at home and abroad when you make yourself master of someone else’s house on dubious grounds.

  13. Sumantra does a fine job of highlighting a few of the high profile instances of left wing intolerance of the truth being explored, in our universities; these are, however, merely the tip of the iceberg, with a large number of less high profile instances of censorship and ostracism occurring daily across academia. The irony of institutions putatively devoted to free speech having become places where many are fearful to speak their minds, is clearly lost on our lefty professors.