Did you know that, between 1808 and 1867, the United Kingdom spent 1.8% of its GDP annually on the campaign to abolish slavery — a sum calculated by Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape to be the most expensive foreign policy in human history?
Abolitionism compelled successive administrations, however much they resented the cost, to assume protectorates over parts of Africa. Local slavers resisted furiously. As late as the 1880s, the Mahdist uprising in Sudan was partly motivated by the desire to bring back slavery. But public opinion in Britain would settle for nothing less than the extirpation of the foul business, and not only in Africa. Sir Stamford Raffles emancipated slaves in Malaysia, for example, and established schools for their children.
These facts, recounted in Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by the Oxford ethicist Nigel Biggar, will come as a shock to most young Americans and most young Brits. Slavery, these days, is not taught as a historical phenomenon but as a morality tale in which white men are the bad guys.
Even to point out that colonialism was driven in part by opposition to slavery is to be anathematized — as Dr. Biggar, a mild-mannered Episcopal clergyman, has found. We are meant to say “slavery-and-colonialism” as a single compound noun.
Why? Because those peddling woke history (including some senior historians) are not primarily interested in the past. Their object, rather, is to discredit the liberal-capitalist model that has enriched the West. In order to do this, they have to pretend that our wealth came not from property rights, free trade, and limited government, but from plunder.
This argument was first advanced by Lenin, who claimed that imperialism was a way to stave off the proletarian revolution by going further and further afield in search of resources. It was sedulously propagated by Soviet agents in the 20th century. It wormed its way into school curriculums in postcolonial states, and influenced many of the leaders in today’s Global South. But it is, on any measure, nonsense. …
To stand up the claim that imperialism was a racket that impoverished the colonies, you need to compare it to what went before and to what came after. Once you do that, you find that there were two sides of the ledger: political repression, yes, but also the end of slavery, human sacrifice, and tribal wars. The transfer of resources, undoubtedly, but also the building of roads, schools, and clinics. …
As an anti-colonial Egyptian historian admitted in 1968, British influence in his country had rested on consent because it had brought “low taxation and efficient fiscal administration.”
Colonialism was the progressivism of the time, rooting out slavery and spreading civilization:
The idea that the British Empire was a way to loot the colonies would have been met with incredulity by the colonial office throughout the 19th century. It was forever fighting a rearguard action against taking on expensive new responsibilities at the behest of missionaries and do-gooders. If the empire was an exploitative machine, it was a spectacularly inefficient one. The level of taxation in the colonies was always lower than in Britain and, indeed, lower than in the rest of the world.
But today it is the excuse for modern leftist authoritarians to bully their way into more resources for themselves — especially good government jobs.
Why does all this matter? Because, as I say, it is really about the present day. If the British were the bad guys, the Alan Rickmans of the global drama, it follows that the ideas they brought with them should be disparaged.
What ideas? The rule of law, jury trials, private property, free speech, free association, free worship, free competition, parliamentary government, habeas corpus. Sure, these ideas were not always realized. But it is striking that independence movements turned them into such persuasive arguments that most colonies were brought to self-rule without a shot being fired in anger.
After the US War of Independence, the British Government was determined to always grant independence as soon as the colony was ready, even before.