Statement in rejection of attempts to sanitise empire and justify ‘recolonialisation’ led by Oxford University’s Nigel Biggar


Issued by the Oxford University Africa Society


Oxford, UK  19/12/2017 - The Oxford University African Society notes the recent media reports that reveal efforts by some Oxford University academics to make the case for colonialism and defend the history of (British) imperialism. While this is not altogether new, the recent wave of colonial sentimentality comes in the wake of the publication of an article by Portland University’s Bruce Gilley in the Third World Quarterly (TWQ). Gilley attempted to make a case for colonialism and advocates recolonisation of some areas of the world today.

Gilley’s article attracted widespread global condemnation due to its myriad of factual inaccuracies, wanting scholarly depth, and sheer disdain for formerly colonised peoples. Its publication, after having failed established peer review procedures, resulted in an embarrassing retraction and the resignation of various Editorial Board members of the TWQ.

While Gilley’s arguments were substantively rejected by various academics, it has found enduring support in Oxford’s Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Nigel Biggar, who argues for the ‘British to moderate [their] post-imperial guilt’ based on what he terms as the ‘morally mixed’ legacy of empire and colonialism.

The Africa Society, representing the African community in Oxford University, categorially rejects these latest attempt at colonial apologism, yearning and re-justification through the pursuit of dishonest scholarship by Biggar and associates.

While the Africa Society embraces values of academic freedom and scholarly rigour that allow academia to question entrenched ideas and respect for scholars’ rights and duties to challenge orthodoxies, all scholars must be held to the highest standards of intellectual honesty and evidenced-based arguments. This applies equally to Gilley, whose conclusion—as endorsed by Biggar—that ‘Western colonialism has had a bad name’ is truthless, particularly in a British context where a 2016 YouGov poll found nearly half of British respondents were proud of the role of British empire and colonialism. Even assuming colonialism did in fact attract a bad name, it would certainly be for good reason.

Notably, Gilley’s article, upon which Biggar founds his pro-colonial claims, was rejected by three peer reviewers, as stated by TWQ’s editorial board, many of whom publicly resigned in the wake of its publication. They point to the article’s arguments as failing to meet basic academic standards of reliability. Notwithstanding its retraction, a detailed rebuttal of the article was nevertheless provided, amongst many, by Sarah Khan. Another noteworthy and Afro-centric rebuttal of colonialism, written three decades ago by Innocent Gangaidzo in Vol I(2) of ‘Heritage’, a magazine then edited by our Africa Society, states:

“The colonial period was not, as some would suggest, constructive in having supposedly conducted Africans into the modern world, and deliberately laying down the road to African equality with the rest of mankind. The consequence of this period are typical of the first impact of new economic patterns, which threaten or disrupt the previous social relationships, while not immediately supplying new security devices in their place. The colonial era really did produce a catastrophic dislocation of the lives of common people. All those wars of self-defence, bitter rebellions, millennial uprisings and a million individual acts of protest were set aside airily as the mere product of benighted savagery, perverted superstition or natural foolishness. All those new urban slums, miseries, moral squalors were explained, when they were explained at all, as the outcome of African fecklessness, incompetence or worse. And so with the post-independence upheavals; excellent institutions, it was said, had been provided – whose fault but African incapacity if they now failed to work?”

Following this, it is surprising to read that Biggar deemed it merit-worthy to pen a piece affirming Gilley’s colonial propositions which were initially published through academically fraudulent means.

According to Biggar, “one of colonial rule’s most valuable achievements was order”; he proceeds to describe Gilley’s article as a “courageous call for a balanced reappraisal of the colonial past” which includes taking pride in the British “Royal Navy’s century-long suppression of the Atlantic slave trade”. Biggar appears to be concerned that colonial guilt might make the United Kingdom (and the West) vulnerable and “confirm us in the belief that the best way we [Britain] can serve the world is by leaving it well alone”. He later reiterates that “we won’t simply abandon the world to its own devices”.

The Africa Society has historically and will continue to challenge these grave distortions that eulogise colonial societies and promotes myths of Africa and other colonial contexts as lawless places that were beneficiaries of Western saviourism. Moreover, Biggar personifies those scholars who promote the condescending narratives that glorify colonialism and fails to recognise its ongoing effects, thereby continuing in the tradition of Oxford historians including Hugh Trevor Roper that there is ‘only the history of Europeans in Africa’.

The Africa Society will continue to engage in decolonial conversation in Oxford. These have included the recognition of those obligations that arise out of colonial wrongs through, for instance, reparation movements, as highlighted by acclaimed reparationist Esther Stanford-Xosei, whom the Africa Society hosted earlier this year. Critical scholarship such as Stanford-Xosei’s demonstrates that neither the reparation movement, nor the damage it is campaigning against are a thing of the past. It exposes how  colonial legacies continue to  contribute to the ongoing destruction of indigenous knowledge systems and perpetuate post-colonial plunder.

It is scholarship such as Gilley’s article and Biggar’s sympathetic commentary that manifest a deep colonial nostalgia that provides fertile ground where misconstruals of the past can grow and contribute to mis-education and misguided decisions in the present.

Therefore, the Africa Society is shocked and disappointed that Biggar is leading a 5 year ‘Ethics and Empire’ workshop hosted by Oxford University's McDonald Centre of Theology, Ethics and Public Life. Of the manifold worrying features of the workshop is its ‘invitation only’ nature and the absence of people from former colonies judging from the attendees of the first workshop in July 2017. If Biggar and his co-organisers were truly dedicated to ‘critiques of empire’, they would not rig these workshops by wholly excluding critical scholars. This can only lead to an outcome akin to Gilley’s article: empirical falsity, ahistoricity, and the failure to engage interdisciplinary critiques of colonial legacies. In the avoidance of doubt, the Africa Society does not seek to participate in Biggar’s bigoted workshops or any other event organised by him. Biggar has already proven himself incapable, having unsuccessfully debated with Africa Society Members and Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford activists in the 2016 Oxford Union Debate where he argued that apartheid architect Cecil Rhodes was not a racist.

In closing, the pro-colonialism work pursued by Biggar and others within Oxford reveals a continued urgency to decolonise Oxford; while Oxford claims to represent a rich history of academic freedom, the ease with which it employs genocide deniers like Biggar, glorifies mass murderer like Cecil Rhodes and Christopher Codrington, and admits a paltry number of Black students continues to demonstrate its fundamental colonial nature. To this end, the Africa Society associates itself with the statement by the student movement Common Ground on the issue and supports its works. This demonstrates that scholars should do more to counter ahistorical views that feed justifications of oppression and the supremacy of Western societies over others. The Africa Society will continue to provide such much needed engagement within Oxford in the forthcoming terms and challenge the racist views that prejudice Africans and others within the University.

Oxford only retains three Black full Professors, yet a number of academics willing to publish works of colonial nostalgia, of which Biggar is one example. Therefore, the Africa Society calls on University of Oxford’s administration to increase resources and programmes dedicated to fostering diverse, pluralistic and decolonial scholarship including the meaningful study of history and legacies of colonialism and imperialism.

Against Biggar and ‘Recolonisation’