Gregory Woodman for The Daily Wire.


Colonialism, Slavery, And Separating Good From Evil In The British Empire

The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s conversation with Dr. Nigel Biggar on the ethics of colonialism, its relationship with slavery, and the role of empire. You can listen to or watch the full podcast episode on DailyWire+.

Start time: 49:09

Jordan Peterson: You already laid out the opposition to your work that arose when you started to investigate the ethical pros and cons of colonialism, and you decided to undertake a moral assessment of the British Empire Project. You lay that out in the introduction. In chapter one, you start with motives, good and bad, and the question you put forward is: Was the imperial endeavor driven primarily by greed and the lust to dominate? Well, that is the ultimate in postmodern questions, you might say, allied in that sense we discussed with the Marxists. Was the imperial endeavor driven primarily by greed and the lust to dominate? Tell us what you concluded and why. 

Nigel Biggar: This phrase — the lust to dominate — is the one that Saint Augustine used in the early 400s to describe the Roman Empire. That’s why I used it. If you take your cue from Augustine, then that was the kind of essence of the Roman Empire. When I came to think about the history of the British Empire, that was in my mind, and it seemed to me, certainly as far as the British Empire goes, to be completely inadequate to describe it as driven by either the simple lust to dominate or greed. In fact, if you look at the variety of motives that moved Britons to travel all over the world and to take control of those territories, the reasons are various. 

I make a point here that no one woke up in London one day and thought to themselves, “Oh, let’s go and conquer the world.” It wasn’t like that. It was much more ad hoc in response to circumstance. I mean, there may be empires where someone wakes up in Berlin and decides to go conquer Eastern Europe, but it wasn’t always so. And there may be empires that are entirely about the lust to dominate. Maybe, you know, Genghis Khan and his Mongols were of that kind. But one needs to be careful — very careful, I think — not to import a kind of one-fits-all theory and to say, “Well, this was an empire, so this must have been like that.” And a lot of my critics, their reading of historical data is kind of preprogrammed by a theory as to what empire must be. 

But if you look at the history of the British Empire’s motives, an early and persistent motive was trade. The East India Company went out to India in the 1600s to trade and make money. Other people, at the same time, went westwards across the Atlantic and pitched up on the coast of North America. Why did they do that? Partly because they were there to harass Spanish shipping bringing gold back for the Americas to Spain. Why? Because Spain was the dominant empire and England was a Protestant country at the wrong end of power at that time, ironically. 

The beginnings of the English-British Empire in that case were actually anti-imperialist. Then people like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh [were] keen to find gold in the Americas. And yes, they abuse the natives. But there, you’ve got trade, which I think is innocent. You’ve got actually a desire to defend yourself against overwhelming imperial power, which could be innocent. The lust for gold that leads you to abuse other people is not so innocent. Later on, in the 19th century, one reason the British ended up in West Africa and East Africa — one reason — was lobbying by humanitarians to suppress the trading in slaves, so there was a humanitarian reason. So the historical phenomena tell you there are a variety of motives here — some good, some bad.

WATCH: Separating Good from Evil in the British Empire with Dr. Nigel Biggar

[The following section appeared a few minutes later in the discussion at 58:45.]

Jordan: My sense, historically — and you can correct me if you think I am wrong here — is that slavery is a ubiquitous feature of human societies. The conscious realization that slavery itself is intrinsically wrong — even in the case, let’s say, of prisoners of war or debt or debtors — emerged with great difficulty. And it manifested itself most profoundly in the U.K. — probably in the person of [William] Wilberforce and the Christian Protestant evangelists, who made a very strong case that slavery itself was intrinsically immoral. The consequence of that was eventually that the British Navy fought for about 175 years on the high seas to make slavery a counterproductive enterprise. 

One of the things that sort of terrifies me about the radical leftist enterprise is that they really risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater because whatever it was that impelled Wilberforce and then the entire U.K. to stand against slavery is the only thing we know of in the entire history of the world that actually did stand against slavery with any degree of success.

So what other cases do you think can be made that colonialism and slavery were not the same thing? And why do you think there is this insistence on the radical Left side to deny the very process that actually did free slaves insofar as they have become free in recent times? 

Nigel: So, Jordan, I think the identification of colonialism with slavery is similar to the 1619 Project in the United States, which identifies the foundations of the U.S. with “fundamentally racist” and, therefore, “fundamentally illegitimate.” I think what’s happened is that — probably through Black Lives Matter, the killing of George Floyd in 2020 Minneapolis — Black Lives Matter movement came across the Atlantic with no change of clothes, landed in Britain, and our equivalent is to say: Contemporary Britain is systemically racist, and the reason we are systemically racist is that we continue to revere our colonial past — let’s say, by having a statue to Cecil Rhodes — and as we all know, colonialism was essentially about slavery, which was based on a racist view of Africans as subhuman. So, colonialism equals slavery equals racism. And that’s the foundation of Britain. And that’s why we have to repudiate our colonial past. Pull down Cecil Rhodes, pull down Johnny Macdonald in Canada, and somehow, therefore, we liberate ourselves from systemic racism. That’s the logic behind the colonialism and slavery mantra. In this country, those two things are commonly talked about as if they were the same thing. 

My very simple point in that second chapter is to say, wait a moment — as you’ve just said, Jordan — yes, for 150 years some British people, by no means all, were involved in slave trading and profiting from slavery in the West Indies. But from 1807 onwards, first the slave trade then slavery itself were abolished by the British, and for the rest of the Empire’s existence for another 150 years, roughly, the British were involved in anti-slavery. So you cannot identify British colonialism with slavery because for the second half of its life, it was anti-slavery.

And yes, slavery, in one form or another — and some forms were more humane than others — has been around since virtually the dawn of time, practiced on every continent by black- and brown- and red-skinned and yellow-skinned people, as well as white-skinned people. The Comanche nation in the southwest of the U.S. ran what one historian has called a vast slave economy in the 1700s. The Arabs were involved in slavery. Africans were selling African slaves to the Romans and the Arabs before they ever sold to Europeans. So, we may be dismayed at the fact that so many Europeans and British people up until the late 1700s accepted this institution and the fact of slave trading. But we have to put it in context: Everyone did it, including slaves who escaped from the plantations of Jamaica into the forested interior. Some of them kept slaves of their own so common was the practice.

So, yes, what happened in the late 1700s was, for the first time in history, some nations — not just Britain, also Denmark and France — came to the view that owning other people as your property without them having any rights was morally abhorrent. And for the first time in history, these nations — eventually led by Britain — abolished the slave trade and slavery. Then Britain used its imperial power — its power — for humanitarian purposes to abolish slavery from Brazil, across the Atlantic, across Africa, India to Malaysia. So power can be a good thing, and in that case, it was used for humanitarian purposes.

To continue, listen or watch this episode on DailyWire+.

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.

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