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What Nigel Biggar says about the British Empire

We are constantly being told by that coalition of communists and racists that talk about “de-colonisation” that the British Empire was a Bad Thing and that therefore we whiteys should a) be ashamed, b) tear down any monuments to that empire and c) give all our money and wealth to the descendents of the alleged victims of that empire. This despite the fact that there is almost no one alive who had anything to do with said empire. There is no force for good like inter-generational guilt.

For some time Oxford Academic Nigel Biggar has been discomfited by this claim and these demands. In 2017, he was denounced by “fellow” academics for running an “Empire and Ethics” project. Last year saw the publication of his book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. This itself was something of a palaver with Biggar’s original publisher dropping the thing in what appeared to be a cancellation. Luckily there is still some competition in the publishing world and another publisher came to the rescue.

Biggar is at pains to point out that he is an ethicist not a historian. He deals in moral issues not historical ones; hence the title of the book. Well, that’s the theory but with over a hundred pages of footnotes it would appear he is quite good at the not-day job.

He examines the various claims that the “de-colonisers” make: Amritsar, slavery, Benin, Boer War, Irish famine. In all cases he finds that their claims are either entirely ungrounded or lack vital information that would cast events in a very different light.. Amritsar? Dyer was dealing with political violence that had led to murder. Some victims had been set alight. Anyway, he was condemned for his actions by the British authorities and, indeed, his own standing orders. Slavery? Everyone had it and Britain was the first to get rid of it. Benin? They had killed unarmed ambassadors. Irish famine? They tried to relieve it but they were quite unequal to the size of the task. In the case of Benin he comes very close to accusing the leading de-coloniser of knowingly lying. The only one of these where I don’t think he is so convincing is the Boer War. He claims that Britain was concerned about the future of the Cape and especially the Simonstown naval base and also black rights. I think it was the pursuit of gold even if it does mean agreeing with the communist Eric Hobsbawm.

He is far too polite about the “de-colonisers”. They are desperate to hammer the square peg of reality into their round-hole of a theory. To this end they claim knowledge they don’t have, gloss over inconvenient facts, erect theories that don’t bear scrutiny and when all else fails: lie. Biggar tackles all of these offences against objectivity with a calmness and a politeness that you can bet his detractors would never return.

The communists – because they are obsessed with such things and are past masters at projection – like to claim that there was an “ideology” of Empire. Biggar thinks this is nonsense. As he says:

There was no essential motive or set of motives that drove the British Empire. The reasons why the British built an empire were many and various. They differed between trader, migrant, soldier, missionary, entrepreneur, financier, government official and statesman. They sometimes differed between London, Cairo, Cape Town and Calcutta. And all of the motives I have unearthed in this chapter were, in themselves, innocent: the aversion to poverty and persecution, the yearning for a better life, the desire to make one’s way in the world, the duty to satisfy shareholders, the lure of adventure, cultural curiosity, the need to make peace and keep it, the concomitant need to maintain martial prestige, the imperative of gaining military or political advantage over enemies and rivals, and the vocation to lift oppression and establish stable self-government. There is nothing morally wrong with any of these. Indeed, the last one is morally admirable.

One of the benefits of the British Empire is that it tended to put a stop to local wars. How many people lived because of that? But that leads us on to another aspect. Almost no one ever considers what went on before the Empire arrived. Was it better or worse than went before it? Given that places like Benin indulged in human sacrifice, I would say that in many cases the British Empire was an improvement. And if we are going to talk about what went before what about afterwards? He has little to say about what newly-independent countries have done with their independence. The United States, the “white” (for want of a better term) Commonwealth and Singapore have done reasonably well. Ireland is sub-par but OK. Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent have very little to show for themselves. This may explain why Britain needed very few people to maintain the Empire. At one point he points out that at the height of the Raj the ratio of Briton to native was 1 to 1000. That implies a lot of consent. Tyrannies need a lot more people.

The truth of the matter is that talk of reparations is rooted in the failure of de-colonisation. If Jamaica were a nicer place to live than the UK, if Jamaica had a small boats crisis rather than the UK then no one would be breathing a word about reparations or colonial guilt. All this talk is pure deflection from the failure of local despots to make the lives of their subjects better.

Biggar has nothing to say about what came after the empire and he also has little to say about how it came about in the first place – so I’ll fill in that gap. Britain acquired an empire because it could. Britain was able to acquire an Empire because it mastered the technologies needed to do it to a higher level and on a greater scale than anyone else. Britain mastered technology because it made it possible to prosper by creating wealth. That in itself was a moral achievement.

Of course, modern Britons don’t actually need to justify the Empire. As I pointed out at the beginning none of us had anything to do with it. You could argue (does anyone actually do this?) that we current-day Britons are the inheritors of the same culture and perhaps we should be ashamed about that. Except that I am not in the mood to condemn a culture that produced the rule of law, freedom of speech, property rights and the Industrial Revolution. Anyway, does anyone seriously think that modern British culture would be capable of giving birth to a second empire? Culture changes. The other argument is that many of us continue to be the beneficiaries of the Empire. At very least those who have started with nothing and yet are still on the hook for reparations are entitled to feel a bit miffed. But one only has to look around to see that most of Britain’s prosperity is much more recent in origin. Sure, that big house might have originally been built from a slaver’s profits but if a more recent person hadn’t kept the roof intact it would be a ruin by now.

A narrative about a rapacious British Empire is being used to first humiliate and shame modern Britons in preparation for their impoverishment and eventual extermination. OK, maybe I am getting ahead of myself here but I’ll bet you some of them of thinking that. There is certainly nothing in the “decolonisation” belief system to prevent it. Biggar’s achievement is to demonstrate that – if you do believe in intergenerational guilt  – there is nothing to be ashamed of.

34 comments to What Nigel Biggar says about the British Empire

  • DiscoveredJoys

    Reparations: Taking money from people who are not guilty and giving it to people who are not victims.

  • bobby b

    This is probably impolite, but I don’t think you can have this discussion without consideration of the “IQ by nation” data set out here.

    In short, Britain didn’t just luck into the development of world-altering technology that gave it a huge advantage over the rest of the world.

  • Paul Marks

    First of all the British Empire was not the source of British wealth – Britain could have an Empire because it was wealthy, it was not wealthy because it had an Empire. William Pitt the Elder’s economic arguments for empire were refuted back in the 1700s – it is astonishing that historians still trot out the idea that the Empire (or slavery) were the source of British economic strength – which really based on domestic farming (the agricultural revolution) providing Real Savings (this was era when money was mostly real – Credit Bubbles did exist but they were relatively small compared to today) for investment in industry – and the markets for industry were mostly domestic (rather than exports to colonies).

    T.S. Ashton’s short book on the Industrial Revolution was published 75 years ago, but it is still the best guide (sadly recent works are often worthless – filled with racial and sexual obsessions).

    As for the Empire itself – the abuses of the East India Company are well known precisely because Edmund Burke spent many years of his life making them well known. But the Company of the late 1700s was not the Company of the 1800s – reform did take place.

    Generally speaking (not always) British rule was better in the various parts of the world, than the local rulers (and endless war) that it replaced. This includes India – where, contrary to modern claims, the population massively expanded under British rule (in spite of famines that hit, from time to time, due to weather conditions), although it is certainly true that security in private property in land could have been better – both the East India Company and the new Crown Government, with its Mill (J.S. Mill – following his father James Mill – neither visited India) influenced Legal Code followed principles that were NOT followed in Britain itself in relation to land – and the greater state power in India was a bad thing. However, local rulers had certainly been no better in this regard.

    But the lies continue – for example the claims that Winston Churchill could have prevented mass loss of life in the Bengal famine of the 1940s (Bengal had suffered harvest failures repeatedly over the centuries – long before British rule) – food traditionally came from Burma during time of famine in Bengal, but the Imperial Japanese Army was in Burma, and the Imperial Japanese Navy was a threat to the Indian Ocean

    I sometimes suspect that modern accounts ignore the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy because some (some) Indian Nationalists were helping them, and helping Nazi Germany as well. To admit that the reason that people starved in India was because of the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy being in control of Burma and being a threat in the Indian Ocean, and invading India itself (and had they won they would have slaughtered the Indians and kept the survivors as slaves – see their behaviour in China) would cast certain Indians who (unlike the vast majority of Indians – who remained loyal) helped the Japanese (and helped Nazi Germany) in a bad light.

  • Paul Marks

    bobby b

    In most countries industry was either under direct state control, or was under the control of guilds backed by the state.

    Britain did not have an Industrial Revolution because we were more intelligent than, say, the French – an Industrial Revolution would have been blocked in most other lands, either by direct state control or by guilds backed by the state.

    For example, the French guilds (made compulsory way back in the reign of King Henry IV) were not removed till 1791.

    As for farming (the source of the profits that went into industrial investment in Britain) again an agricultural revolution would have been illegal in most other lands – in most other lands farming was a matter of peasant plots or village communnities, and it was unlawfu to change this.

    For example, in the Spanish Empire it was illegal to remove a tenant – as long as they paid the “customary rent”, modern farming methods were therefore unlawful. Even President Theodore Roosevelt (no free market person – quite the contrary) rightly denounced “Spanish law” in Latin America – and the term “Spanish practices” (i.e. regulations in industry preventing new methods) was a term in English for centuries.

    Tragically Britain itself started to go down the state intervention road – starting in the late 19th century (for example the great powers that Prime Minister Disraeli gave to trade unions in 1875) so British industry started to fall behind.

  • Paul Marks

    Even the traditional commercial rivals of Britain, the Dutch, were in the 1700s dominated by compulsory (i.e. state backed) guilds – so an industrial revolution would not have been possible there even if they had had the natural resources (coal, iron ore and so on) which they did not.

    As for the German lands – in the 1700s they were dominated by despotisms such as Prussia where farming was dominated by serfdom, and the the rest of the economy crushed by taxes and regulations.

    The legal code of “Frederick the Great” was terrible, and his wars were wars of aggression resulting in vast loss of life – he does not deserve the “good press” as an “enlightened ruler” that he has had in English language sources since the 1700s.

    One exception to these favourable accounts is Edmund Burke’s “Annual Register” – which presented Prussia in the 18th century as the despotism that it was.

  • Snorri Godhi


    it is astonishing that historians still trot out the idea that the Empire (or slavery) were the source of British economic strength – which really based on domestic farming (the agricultural revolution) providing Real Savings […] for investment in industry

    It is worth noting, though, that the Agricultural Revolution was kick-started by importing New World crops — and the Spanish Empire deserves gratitude for that.

    And of course, the Kingdom of Portugal for developing navigation beyond what even the Vikings could do.

    Generally speaking (not always) British rule was better in the various parts of the world, than the local rulers (and endless war) that it replaced.

    … and the other Europeans that British rule kept out. 🙂

  • FrankS

    Just started reading Biggar’s book on Kindle. Excellent writing. Excellent attitude. Three cheers for academics who are courageous enough to think for themselves. Can’t be many of them around, I sadly suppose.

  • Mark

    I read somewhere that in France, it was illegal – like actually a crime illegal – to build a railway until 1843, and this law was only repealed because the hun was building them and was gaining a clear economic advantage.

    That says a tremendous amount.

    Spain could perhaps have won in the 16th century, France perhaps could have in the 18th and blighty could have become a satrapy of either. What would the world look like today had either come about?

    I never cease to be amazed at the breadth and depth of sneering contempt for the British empire and class system from those whose empires were second rate and who’s class systems were rigid to the point they exploded.

    Will they ever get over it? (We all know it’s just jealousy)

  • David Roberts

    The ability of the majority of Anglosphere people to believe, tolerate or ignore a received opinion, which is the opposite of the truth, is a conundrum. Throughout the recorded history of civilisation, all peoples have either been colonized or been colonizers or both. The reality of the past is hunter-gatherer or empire. I laughably think in terms of a spreadsheet; a list of all empires with all their pros and cons. Then ask people to choose which one they would choose to live in. I am not sure, because of the conundrum, which one they would choose.

  • Kirk

    The current mania against things like the British Empire has as its source all the Marxian belief systems founded in opposition to the Imperial system back in the day. We’re still running on delusional thoughts that a ne’erdowell loser came up with to explain why he was a failure at life, along with a bunch of other people.

    The sad reality is that there was an historical inevitability to what happened during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Someone, somewhere, was going to break the iron rice bowl of the then-extant conditions around the world, kick-starting the rise into modernity. That it was Europe was accidental; it could well have been China, had they not been mouldering under the weight of the court eunuchs that shut down Zheng He’s trade fleets. Hell, given somewhat different conditions, it might well have been the Aztecs that arrived on European shores first, but that would have presupposed a lot of European “bad luck” and a bunch of Aztec “good luck”.

    It’s all a matter of timing, too… Why didn’t the Vikings bring along all the diseases that the Basque fishing fleet did, along with the other European explorers whose arrival brought the epidemic diseases that cleared the lands of North America? Better hygiene? Who knows… It didn’t happen, and the European colonization of the New World was delayed for a few centuries.

    Similarly, why didn’t the Indians or the Chinese arrive in the New World from the Pacific? Explorers could have followed the trails blazed by the Polynesians across the island chains, and then China could have been the ones dropping the diseases and digging the silver out…

    None of that happened, because it didn’t. Europe got there first, and the reality of things is that what we got out of it was probably one of the better-case scenarios for world development. In the grand scheme of things, the Europeans weren’t really all that bad… Imagine the Chinese Imperial authorities arriving in the Americas and setting up shop, for examples. Or, the Mughals… I seriously doubt that the locals would have done better out of either alternative.

    Humanity getting out of its cradle was always going to be ugly, and to blame the first ones out into the world for what happened is both childish and foolish. India can whinge and blame England for all that went on during the Raj, but to do so is to forget exactly why the Raj was even possible, and why so many Indians rallied to the East India Company in the first damn place; their own leadership and feckless national traits made them ripe for the picking, and the old regimes of India made the British and the Raj look positively benign by comparison. All of which is conveniently forgotten by the revisionists…

    I mean, it’s not like the local leadership was known for treating its people any better than the British did; quite the opposite was the case, which was why the Raj was so damn successful.

  • David Roberts

    Looking for a common thread in the creation of empires, my view is that each empire assumes a fixed set of ideas comprising mores and beliefs. These ideas may be: the same, similar or different for any given empire. Professors Biggar’s description of the ideas underpinning the British Empire are still mostly dominant in the major part of the world today. It could be said therefore, that the British Empire still rules.

    To Kirk’s point, it was not always going to happen. In known history all empires have ceased in some way. The British Empire is a one-off, as it created our current whole world civilisation. In order to maybe prevent the collapse of this civilisation; it behoves us to understand the causes essential for the creation and rise of this world civilisation. A fond hope perhaps.

  • Kirk

    I would beg to differ that the British Empire was a one-off. It was a part of a much larger whole, namely the dislocation caused by the European explosion onto the world stage. The Brits were actually somewhat latecomers to the colonial thing, when you look at what Spain, Portugal, and Holland were getting up to.

    The dislocations brought about from Spanish efforts in the Americas, which directly led to their trade domination between China and the rest of Europe, along with the Columbian Exchange, brought about far more growth to the world than we want to remember, because it was invisible to Anglo-Saxon sensibilities, other than romancing the piracy of the Elizabethan Age.

    Spain’s indirect influence on the Chinese was massive. New sources of food, the hundreds of millions of tons of silver dumped into the Chinese economy… All of that was enormously dislocating, and led to a lot of the problems the Chinese had during the succeeding centuries. Then, there was the reverse influence that motivated everyone else to go East for the same spices and other resources.

    Grand scheme of things, the British were bit players in it all, up until the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, when their efforts finally took off. By that time, the damage done to the Spanish and Portuguese economies due to all the influx of dislocating wealth had run through their economies, and there you were with the British perfectly positioned to take part in the second stage of things.

    I don’t think the British Empire was the great evil that a lot of people make it out to be, but also wasn’t the unique thing of wonder and awe that the opposite school tries to make it.

    At some point, the stasis of the post-Roman world was going to be broken, by someone. Europe got there first by a series of accidental historical events and cultural features that could have been done differently, or which could have happened elsewhere. As I point out… Zheng He could have been “the guy” to arrive first in Europe, had the Ming been a bit less tied up in Imperial bureaucracy and cultural sloth. Same with the innovations of the Industrial Revolution; China was shipping tons of materials made in factories to Manila to trade for silver, which the Spanish then transported to Europe at great profit. You read about that period, and it’s truly nuts how much congruity there is with the current period, right down to the nascent Chinese shut-down by the authoritarian government in Beijing… Xi isn’t anything new, in Chinese history. The central government would rather have control than prosperity and individual freedom.

    Which, again, is a cultural choice. The Europeans made different ones, and because of that, broke out of Europe to advance the world, for good or ill. Someone else would have done it, eventually, if they hadn’t.

  • Mark

    @David Roberts

    Have to agree. I really can’t see that there was anything remotely inevitable about industrialisation and it’s spread around the globe. Because today it is global, it’s so easy to forget just how startlingly different it is from anything that went before

    How did the China of, say, 1500 fundamentally differ from the China of 100BC, and had industrialisation not been brought there from outside would the China of 2500 be fundamentally any different? Ditto India, the Pre-Columbian Americas, Australasia, sub saharan africa…..

    And you make a very astute point. To those frothing at the gusset at the thought of Britain, the US and the west in general decaying back to the pre-industrial night, do you think China, India or anywhere else could take any sort of lead and maintain it for very long or would they inevitably follow?

    I strongly suspect the latter.

  • Colli

    This is probably impolite, but I don’t think you can have this discussion without consideration of the “IQ by nation” data set out here.

    In short, Britain didn’t just luck into the development of world-altering technology that gave it a huge advantage over the rest of the world.

    Due to the Flynn effect, average IQs in the West have risen about 30 points over the last century. That is an insane amount, but, more relevant to the point, I see no reason why people in the 18th or 19th centuries would be more intelligent on average than those in the first half of the 20th. Since we don’t have IQ data from that time, obviously this is just a guess, but I think it is more reasonable than assuming they were the same as now. That would put Britain below such places as modern Chad, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea. Even assuming they were the same though, it doesn’t explain why this happened first in Britain instead of Finland, China, Korea or Cambodia

  • Runcie Balspune

    What is overlooked about slavery is it was everywhere, it doesn’t matter where you live today, if you were not a direct descendent of a slave you were probably a descendent of a “beneficiary of slavery”, regardless of how you define the term, and after a few generations that’s what you will ultimately be.

    What is overlooked about the British Empire was the ones that came before it, the Arab Islamic caliphates were only constrained by the lack of seagoing technology, it managed to colonise about a third of Christian lands and ended with one sixth of the world population under it’s control, all achieved through bloody conquest, and the remenants are causing issues today, such as the so-called “Arab Spring” of the 2010s and the never-ending genocide against Israel.

    At least the British Empire got rid of slavery, whereas the Arab empire had it baked in.

  • David Roberts

    Kirk. I am happy with your analysis until the late 18th century. Something happened then. This was brought home to me by the 2000 year graphs of Hans Rosling. A multiplicity of shoes had to drop for the 3rd British Empire to arise. Thomas Sowell covers some of them. Possibly others that may or may not be important were: the religious climate, scottish education, the bible translation, the English, American and French revolutions, the movement against slavery, the navy, the political system, coffee houses etc. etc. Some Authors not yet mentioned in this area are: Joseph Henrich, Vishal Mangalwadi, Arthur Herman, Niall Ferguson and Deirdre McCloskey. It is a fascinating but daunting topic.

    Mark. Following your points, I have an inkling that India is a candidate to stave off civilisation decline.

  • Mark

    @David Roberts

    Regarding India, if they do have to step up, I hope you’re right but the caste system – which doesn’t officially exist of course and which the raj didn’t really interfere with – is one hell of a barrier to overcome.

  • David Roberts

    Big omission by me, I should have included Bruce Gilley in my list of authors.

  • Kirk

    @David Roberts,

    I remain highly suspicious of “just so” stories told by people wanting to claim exceptionalism for their particular hobby-horse or favored people. While I agree that “something changed” in Europe and England, I’m not going to say it was particularly unique and/or impossible to have happened elsewhere in another way.

    Do note that the British experience with the Industrial Revolution has been repeated several times, under different circumstances. Note the rise of Germany during the 19th Century; if the conditions for the rise of the Industrial Revolution were unique to England, then how did that happen?

    A good deal of the problem here is that we do not really have a good working theory for what the hell happened, culturally, to make all the difference. You can speculate, you can write up all your theories you like, but without actual experimental replication of conditions producing like outcomes, that whole exercise is a waste of time. Just like damn near everything in the humanities is… If it’s not replicable, it’s not science; it’s merely speculation and scholarship.

    If you follow the history of technology, you’ll find multiple instances of things that could and should have led to their own “industrial revolutions”. Those Roman grain mills in southern France, for example. They did not. Then, there’s the obvious advanced science and machining behind the Antikythera Mechanism, something that shocked the hell out of the archaeological community when they finally realized what it was. Where did all the supporting tech infrastructure for that vanish off to?

    For that matter, riddle me this: Gobekli Tepi. Built during an era where there were supposedly nothing but hunter-gatherers, it indicates a sophistication of scale and organization that we simply have not hitherto conceived of as even possible… And, who knows what the hell else is out there?

    I do not think that the Industrial Revolution or any of the other things going into the rise of Britain into imperial status were particularly special or unique; the conditions were present elsewhere in the world, but for various reasons, just didn’t happen. The fact that it happened first in the UK and Europe really doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that that’s where it did happen first.

    Good freaking grief, but I think a lot of people need to get over themselves. At the time Cortez invaded Mexico, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was bigger than any major European city, with better public sanitation and arguably better civic organization. Was that something we should discount? How long did it take for London to get good public sewers, and you’re arguing for some innate European superiority of civilization?

    Look at the size and scale of the various Meso-American cities, or what they’ve deduced was present in the Amazon. Failing that, then look at the remnants of the civilization that left the ruins typified by Angkor Wat, or any of the other major sites we’ve found all around that part of the world. India’s ruins, alone? Along with the stuff that’s out in the Bay of Bengal, under water now that the last Ice Age has ended?

    No, someone was going to do the Industrial Revolution sooner or later. The fact that Europe got there first, and wound up dominating the world until the rest of the human race caught up to the game is a mere accident of history.

  • Kirk

    Another point which I think needs making is the fact that the British Empire was essentially the second stage of the civilizational rocket which was Europe’s world domination tour.

    Absent the things done by Spain, Portugal, and Holland, England simply would not have had the wherewithal to even begin their trip to the top. They took advantage of the things that the Spanish did; piggy-backed off of the Portuguese and their navigational efforts, and used the navigational aids developed by both the Portuguese and the Dutch to arrive at their starting position. Had the earlier nations not already done their thing around the world, particularly the Caribbean, the British would have had to develop all that infrastructure on their own, at great expense. With the Spanish having developed all those lovely ports to raid, the British were able to get a good headstart on their Imperial ambitions, which they didn’t really even articulate until well after they’d gotten well into that treadmill effort. Had you asked a British trader of the 18th Century what he thought of the idea of Empire, I rather suspect he’d have stared at you as though you were mad… He’d have perceived no such thing.

    Which was probably a large part of why it happened, in the first place. The British were a hell of a lot more pragmatic about such things than either the Portuguese or the Spanish.

    The British Empire was a stellar achievement of the human race, but I fear that it wasn’t “meant to happen” by the people who did it. That quip about it being acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness ain’t far off reality, to my mind.

    There’s also a bit of a question to be asked as to what the political antecedents actually were. Would the British Empire have happened, absent the Hanoverian dynasty running Britain? Imagine the effect of a permanent Protectorate under some of Cromwell’s more unpleasant allies? Would an England dominated by the sort of people who became the Puritans have worked its way into an Industrial Revolution?

    Too many variables and contributing factors, here. I remain of the opinion that neither an Industrial Revolution or a British Empire were necessarily inevitable, but that similar things could well have happened elsewhere at other times. The vagaries of history simply started the process in Britain at the time it occurred.

    It’s unfortunate that there’s no way of running an experiment to really answer the question, so that’s just going to have to remain in the realm of speculation until someone can manage to build a simulation which might answer it all conclusively.

    Which, if some of the navel-gazing types are correct, might be what’s going on in the world around us: We’re a simulation, one being run to determine just how asinine you can get with your variables and still see some kind of sane results. A quick read of history, paying attention to all the absurd coincidences? You might be forgiven for theorizing such a thing.

  • Ferox

    It seems reasonable to suggest that the whites who believe that western countries have achieved their successes via theft from brown people should do their part to make amends by sending all their personal wealth to a deserving brown person forthwith. Or are they saying that they will only make amends for their terrible racist past if everyone else does it too?

    If that isn’t enough penance for them, they are of course also welcome to snuff themselves to demonstrate their remorse. Please, xir, show us evil racists what social justice looks like.

  • Kirk

    I’ll be right in line to do that, once said little brown people have set their own houses in order by making reparations to their own victims… Many of whom were the result of the sheer backasswardness of their own cultures.

    This incessant focus on victimization by the eeeevul Europeans tends to gloss over the very real problems that those same Europeans put an end to… In India, for example? Sure, there were a bunch of deaths due to the salt trade and other issues, but the point that the various “activists” fail to include in their blamestorming is that that very salt trade was one that the local arsehole aristocrats were using to do the very same thing, often at much more abusive levels. If you were to actually work out the ratio of abuses to improvements across all these nations making the complaints, the net outcome would almost always wind up being “Yeah, you were better off under the colonialists than you ever were under the status quo…”

    I mean, they want to make believe that they dwelt in some kind of self-sufficient paradise before the Europeans showed up, but the actual reality is that they were living under some really nasty conditions they’d mostly made for themselves.

    Which isn’t to justify the abuses that were perpetrated by European colonialism, just to point out that there were balancing factors these genius types are all ignoring out of a desire to excoriate “the white man”.

    Never ceases to amaze me how often they forget to look in the mirror and examine the actual historical record, wherein their own people not only willingly collaborated with the Europeans, but actively aided them in more effective exploitation. End of the day, the whole thing ought to be left in the dead past and left to history, because if you’re going to be absolutely honest about things like the Spanish Conquista of the Americas, you have to factor in things like ending mass human sacrifice right along with the whole “Yeah, we’re killing hundreds of thousands of you by making dig up silver…” And, you have to include the intermarriage between the Spaniards and the local women, many of whom were former members of the aristocracies of the various nations making up Central America. As well, there were “turned” males joining the Spaniards in gleefully lording it over the rest of the locals… The record isn’t one of “Just white males from Spain” doing the dirty; there was a ton of collaboration going on.

  • David Roberts

    Much of our discusion is covered here in this YouTube video by Peter Boghossian & Bruce Gilley.

  • Mark



    The Spanish conquistadors for example generally get a bad press for what they did, and much of it wasn’t particularly nice.

    But estimates as to how many people had their living hearts ripped out to feed the Aztec gods range from, I believe, 20000 to 250000 a year(!).

    Let that sink in.

  • jgh

    Bloody hell, the ENTIRETY of Jamaica is one big reparation. The West Africa Squadron spent a century capturing slave ships and liberatng the slaves, asked them: do you want to go back to West Africa, or do you want freedom, British citizenship, an acre of land, and a shovel in Jamaica.

    “Reparation” – as stated repeatedly by the subpostmasters – is a return to where you would have been before the event. Ok, give ’em all free passage to the West African country of their choosing, and give my ancestors back the lives they lost killing off the Atlantic slave trade.

  • jgh

    “Humanity getting out of its cradle was always going to be ugly, and to blame the first ones out into the world for what happened is both childish and foolish”

    But the British were not the first, that was Spain and Portugal. Britain lagged behind by about 300 years, it had spent centuries being very inward-looking. Once started in earnest, within 100 years they were pulling out imperial political control.

    “Similarly, why didn’t the Indians or the Chinese arrive in the New World from the Pacific?”

    Trade winds? Because of the direction the Earth rotates, the predominant winds blow towards the west. Fighting against them to cross the Pacific from Asia is a lot harder than flowing with them across the Atlantic from Europe.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Something else to consider- wood. A book I read years ago suggested that the North Atlantic was a bad place for ships. African timber wasn’t tough enough, and this was the wood that the Arabs had to work with. European timber was tougher, so ships made from such wood could survive the seas, and reach the Americas.

  • Mary Contrary


    You clearly know more detail than I do about how close other civilisations appeared to come to an industrial revolution. But for all that data, it doesn’t necessarily point in the direction you think it does.

    With all the things you cite about how close others came, this rather begs the question “So why didn’t they manage it then?”.

    Certainly, the examples you give does seem to exclude racial superiority and any notion that Europeans are inherently more ingenious or inventive than non-Europeans.

    I think you may have put your finger on it when you wrote this:

    Xi isn’t anything new, in Chinese history. The central government would rather have control than prosperity and individual freedom.

    Which, again, is a cultural choice. The Europeans made different ones, and because of that, broke out of Europe to advance the world, for good or ill.

    Yes. There it is. The reason the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe, and indeed specifically in Britain, is because our cultural choices nurtured the inventions and allowed them to develop, to reshape the economy, to become a virtuous cycle of improvement and advancement. And others (including, per David Roberts, the French) made cultural choices that strangled it at birth.

    If this is true then you err when you go on to say immediately after the paragraph I quote:

    Someone else would have done it, eventually, if they hadn’t.

    No, they would not. Not so long as they continued to make the cultural and political choices antithetical to developing a capitalist society. They would have marched right up to the edge of it, but then the legal and social response would have strangled it at birth, just as had happened many times before. Only if they first made the same intellectual, philosophical, moral advances that we made would they have then been able to turn individual invention into Industrial Revolution.

  • Paul Marks

    Good points Snorri.

  • Colli

    With all the things you cite about how close others came, this rather begs the question “So why didn’t they manage it then?”.

    Why didn’t Britain manage it before they did? The culture of Britain was certainly not static and got better over time. It seems likely that these other societies’ cultures would also have improved to make an industrial revolution possible.
    You also have to consider that wealth grows not just exponentially, but super-exponentially, so even a marginal advantage makes a huge difference over even a relatively short period of time. Meaning that Britain’s culture did not have to be vastly superior for its society to have such phenomenal growth.

    No, they would not. Not so long as they continued to make the cultural and political choices antithetical to developing a capitalist society

    If Britain had not adopted the cultural and political values it had at the time, the Industrial Revolution would likely not have happened there either.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Dr Kristian Niemietz of of the Institute of Economic Affairs points out in this essay – with references to Adam Smith’s own writings and those of others – that the UK did not get rich because of the Empire. The Empire came into existence because the UK was getting rich and could afford it. There’s no real substance to the claim that conquest builds wealth. Quite the opposite.

    The claim, going back to J. A. Hobson over a century ago, and taken up by Lenin, that the reason for the continued existence of “late capitalism” was down to Empire, is mistaken. It was also a way for Marxists and Leftists more generally to try and explain away why market-based economics failed to collapse. The “empires did it” helped fix that awkward fact, much as did the claim – also refuted – that slavery is what explained the rise of Western prosperity, even though freer states have, other things being equal, outperformed unfree ones. The US South was overtaken by the North, and that was starting to gain traction before, not after, the Civil War. In Russia, serfdom did not end across that vast country until the 1860s, and it was only after then – for a brief period – that Russia started to catch up with the West, before the madness of the early 20th Century.

  • Kirk

    @Mary Contrary,

    You seem to want to believe something that makes you feel special, different, and better than everyone else. This belief is entirely unprovable, and entirely a matter of faith. “Europe/the UK is just better!! Unique!! Special!!”

    This is a natural thing, I suppose. But, you’ve failed to consider the implications of it all, not the least of which is “If the Industrial Revolution and modern conditions were unique and solely European contributions to the world, then everything that follows on from that is also uniquely Europe’s fault…”

    You can’t plead “Everyone else does it!!” when it comes to imperial abuses while at the same time claiming that Europe was the only place to ever achieve modernity because of some ill-defined set of characteristics you want to believe were responsible.

    The thing I find really fascinating is just how ignorant most social commentators are about technical matters. None of them seem to comprehend the general rise in technical knowledge that was going on around the world; China had a lot more going on during the late middle ages than many appreciate; gunpowder was a Chinese invention, the crossbow, and all sorts of other things that aided the rise of modernity. Horse collars, for example? A little-known innovation that allowed for much more effective use of the horse, and a rise in travel speed/efficiency in plowing that we usually don’t see mentioned in any of the usual histories. Along with better plows, and all the rest.

    There was an entire ecosystem of improved technologies and practices that the Industrial Revolution was laid on top of, and those innovations happened around the world, and spread out all over the world in the same way. The Industrial Revolution arose not from some uniquely English set of virtues, but as a part of a rising tide of innovation and improvement. It hit critical mass there in England first, but if you were to examine the rest of Europe during that period, about all you’d find which was unique was the accident of British geography that left it on an island with resources and few people overrunning the place ever other generation and crushing the innovations. Were you to examine what was going on in the various Central European countries, you’d find a half-dozen times and places where something like the Industrial Revolution nearly got going, but which got crushed because some set of arseholes came in from outside and ended the whole thing. Being in the major invasion routes of Europe does a lot of damage to any hopes of innovation and improvement… Something the British didn’t have to worry about.

    Someone else would have done it, eventually. Who? I can think of a half-dozen different candidates, but they were all co-opted by the Europeans before they had the chance to get going on their own, which is only to be expected.

    Hell, absent the pressures generated by the Columbian Exchange and the Europeans, there’s a decent chance that the Chinese might have gotten an Industrial Revolution of their own going, supposing that things broke right. They were doing factory production and were a hell of a lot more technically innovative than the Europeans were for a long, long time… Absent the dislocations stemming from all that silver coming in, the new food sources disrupting the countryside, there’s no telling where that would have ended.

    The problem with a lot of social theory and historical speculation is that you simply can’t run real science on any of the propositions… It’s all speculation and scholarship, which are all too prone to these “just so” stories meant to make people feel superior and really good about themselves.

    I’m not a huge believer in any of them. I hear someone tell me “Yeah, we special!! We unique!! We better than everyone else!!”, and the first thing I think is “Yeah, right… Show me.”

    I’ve yet to have anyone manage that feat, conclusively. There are always things they leave out of their little fantasies, and massive gaps in their knowledge.

  • Mark


    “If the Industrial Revolution and modern conditions were unique and solely European contributions to the world, then everything that follows on from that is also uniquely Europe’s fault…”

    What specifically is our (the West’s) “fault”?

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    My thoughts on why Britain was favoured- 1) The Islands were easy to defend, so you could build things and wars wouldn’t destroy you or what you built. 2)The Rule of Law meant that powerful people couldn’t just grab your money. 3) Resources. Britain had lots of coal, for steam engines. Other countries were not so blessed.

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