It was the second week of December 2017, and my wife and I were at Heathrow airport, waiting to board a flight to Germany. Just before setting off for the departure gate, I couldn’t resist checking my email just one last time. My attention concentrated when I saw a message in my inbox from the University of Oxford’s public-affairs office. I clicked on it. What I found was notification that my “Ethics and Empire” project had become the target of an online denunciation by a group of students, followed by reassurance from the university that it had risen to defend my right to run such a thing.
So began a public row that raged for the best part of a month. Four days after I flew, the eminent imperial historian who had conceived the project with me, John Darwin, abruptly resigned, pleading “personal reasons.” Within a week of the first online denunciation, two further open letters appeared, this time issued by academics. The first bore the names of 58 colleagues at Oxford. The second, signed by about 200 academics from around the world, was addressed not to me, but directly to my university, calling for it to withdraw its support. For more than a fortnight, my name was in the media every day.
What had I done to deserve all this unexpected attention? Three things. In late 2015 and early 2016, I had offered a partial defense of the late-19th-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford. Then, in late November 2017, I published a column in The Times of London, in which I referred approvingly to Bruce Gilley’s controversial article “The Case for Colonialism,” and argued that we Britons have reason to feel pride as well as shame about our imperial past. Note: pride, as well as shame. And a few days later, third, I finally got around to publishing an online account of the “Ethics and Empire” project, whose first conference had in fact been held the previous July. Contrary to what the critics seemed to think, this project isn’t designed to defend the British Empire, or even empire in general. Rather, it aims to study evaluations of empire from ancient China to the modern period, to understand and reflect on the ethical terms in which empires have been viewed historically.
A classic instance of such an evaluation is Saint Augustine’s City of God, the early-fifth-century apologia for Christianity, which involves a generally critical reading of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, “Ethics and Empire,” aware that the imperial form of political organization was common across the world and throughout history until 1945, doesn’t assume that empire is always and everywhere wicked, and does assume that the history of empires should inform—positively, as well as negatively—the foreign policy of Western states today.
That was quite enough to rouse the academic forces of repression. Responding to the online description of “Ethics and Empire,” Priyamvada Gopal—then a reader in postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, now promoted to professor—tweeted, “OMG. This is serious shit…. We need to SHUT THIS DOWN” (Dec. 13, 2017, 8:45 a.m.). A few minutes later, she issued a call to arms to “Oxford postcolonial academics” (8:49 a.m.). Among those who responded were Max Harris, fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who tweeted, “Totally agree—more needs to be done” (5:08 p.m.), and “working on a response” (Dec. 14, 2017, 2:30 a.m.); and Jon Wilson, senior lecturer in history at King’s College London, who wrote, “We need a big well-argued letter signed by everyone who writes on empire” (Dec. 16, 2017, 12:39 a.m.), and, “I’ll be in touch with James [McDougall]” (2:14 a.m.). When the Oxford Open Letter appeared on Dec. 19, Max Harris and Jon Wilson were among its signatories, and James McDougall, professor of history at Oxford, was listed as its senior co-author. When the worldwide one followed on Dec. 21, Priyamvada Gopal’s name came first, then Jon Wilson’s.
Shortly afterward, Oxford’s Centre for Global History took its cue, almost verbatim, from the Oxford letter and announced on its website that it “is not involved” in the “Ethics and Empire” project headed by me and “other scholars at Oxford”—coyly declining to name John Darwin, who, until very recently, had been the Centre’s own director. That this was a statement of boycotting intent, not of mere fact, was evidenced by the Centre’s obliquely critical claim “to move beyond the problematic balance sheet of empires’ advantages and disadvantages” and to “shun imperial nostalgia.” When this notice was first posted, one of the Centre’s own members reported to me that no one had consulted him about it.
The effect of all this was unnerving and damaging. Soon after John Darwin had jumped ship, the only other historian involved in “Ethics and Empire” followed suit. One of my oldest friends urged me to abandon the project, saying that it was too “toxic.” When I showed reluctance, he severed his public association with me by resigning from the advisory council of the research center I directed. Fearing that no historians would want to collaborate, I was forced to suspend plans for the project’s second conference in 2018, hoping that the damage might prove reparable once the dust had settled.
Happily, I was able to repair it. Four fresh historians—including one dissenter from the Centre for Global History—stepped up, three of them, as it happens, wearing slightly darker-than-pink skins. And since 2019, the three annual conferences have attracted more than 40 historians from Oxbridge and elsewhere in Britain, and from California to the Netherlands. “Ethics and Empire” will complete its work in the summer of 2023. So, that story has a happy ending: The attempted cancellation failed, albeit not for want of concerted trying.
A subsequent attempt did succeed, however—at least for a while.
The facts are these. In the wake of the public row in December 2017, I was approached by Robin Baird-Smith of Bloomsbury Publishing, who suggested that I should write a book on colonialism. Initially doubtful, I gave it some thought and eventually decided to take up his suggestion. In May 2018, Bloomsbury and I signed a contract.
Thirty months later, I delivered a manuscript, a nail-biting eight hours short of the deadline. On Jan. 5, Robin wrote to me, saying, “I consider this to be a book of major importance, certainly one of the most important on my list for some time…. Your research is exhaustive. I am speechless. Your argument is conveyed with care and precision. I say again, this is such an important book.” He predicted sales of 15,000 to 20,000 copies. The manuscript was entered into the copy-editing process, and a cover was designed.
Then, on March 15, an email arrived from Sarah Broadway, head of special-interest publishing at Bloomsbury. In it, she told me that “we are of the view that conditions are not currently favorable to publication” and that “we will therefore be postponing publication and will review the position next year.” She added, “If you are not happy with this, we will pay the balance of the advance due and revert the rights to you.”
I was stunned.
Twenty minutes on, I replied, asking, “Please explain what conditions make the publication of my book ‘currently unfavorable’ and what conditions next year might make it favorable.” Four days later, Broadway replied, revealing nothing and merely repeating, “We consider that public feeling on the subject does not currently support the publication of the book and will reassess that next year.”
A knowledgeable source informed me that senior Bloomsbury executives wanted me to volunteer to walk away, so that they could appease younger staff who had protested against being made to work on material they found objectionable. Since I had no alternative publisher waiting in the wings, I was strongly disinclined to comply. Instead, I decided to hire a lawyer to look at my contract in the hope that I might be able to make Bloomsbury proceed with publication. Alas, £600 later, I was told that a get-out clause permitted the publisher to walk away virtually at will. From my point of view, it was worthless.
Although I couldn’t stop Bloomsbury walking away, I wanted at least to try and hold them to account. So, on March 29, I wrote back, “The public is diverse, of course, and feels more than one thing. What the typical reader of The Guardian feels is not the same as that of the typical reader of The Times. Nor is it the same as that of supporters of a government whose recent white paper on academic freedom opposes the imposition of ‘decolonizing’ policies. Therefore, could you clarify for me, please: Which public feeling concerns you; in what sense it is ‘unfavorable’ to the publication of my book; and what would need to change to make it favorable again?”
A little more than a week later, on April 6, came the response: “We have grappled with giving defined criteria to ‘what would need to change to make it “favourable” again?’ and find this very difficult to define objectively rather than subjectively. We have concluded that this subjectivity could lead to your book being in a limbo lasting more than a year, or it might not, but we don’t wish to put you in that position of uncertainty when there are other houses like HarperCollins who would, I’m sure, publish it now. Accordingly, we would like to release you from your contract so that you may find that certainty. I will send through paperwork confirming formal reversion, and we will pay the portions of the advance still due to you into your bank account.”
On April 16, with nothing left to lose, I decided to tell Bloomsbury what I thought of the firm. Here is what I wrote:
Since Bloomsbury decided to cancel my contract, I took the only option left me and gave my consent.
I do not wish to conclude this correspondence without communicating the depth of my dismay at Bloomsbury’s conduct. You commissioned me to write a book on colonialism. I submitted the text on time. Your own commissioning editor, Robin Baird-Smith, described it as ‘a book of major importance, certainly one of the most important on my list for some time.’ He predicted sales of 15,000 to 20,000 copies. And yet you decided to cancel my contract because of ‘public feeling.’
This ‘public feeling’ was sufficiently clear to you to warrant cancelling a contract. Yet, in spite of two requests, you refused to be transparent with me about it.
Of course, it is quite clear what it is. The public feeling that concerns you is that of—for want of a more scientific term—the ‘woke’ left. This is an illiberal movement that agitates to suppress the expression of any views that offend it. Since my book exposes several of its basic assumptions as false, you correctly anticipated that the ‘woke’ section of public feeling would be offended by it.
Therefore, rather than publish cogent arguments and important truths that would attract the aggression of these illiberals, you chose to align yourselves with them by de-platforming me. In so doing, you have made your own contribution to the expansion of authoritarianism and the shrinking of moral and political diversity among us.
I can quite understand, then, why you were unwilling to be transparent about your reasons. They are shameful.
When I sent this message, I was careful to copy into it Nigel Newton, founder-director of Bloomsbury Publishing. Come the day, when the media would invite Bloomsbury to explain itself, I wanted to ensure that he took responsibility.
So my book was cancelled—and I was, in my wife’s words, “devastated.” In the end, however, what Bloomsbury jettisoned, William Collins retrieved. In July 2021, we signed a contract. And on Feb. 2, 2023, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning was published.
While the fate of my book turned out to be a happy one, and Bloomsbury’s cancellation came to nothing, I still believed that the publisher should either be made to justify its conduct in public or be embarrassed by it, pour décourager les autres. So in the fourth week of January, I handed over the email correspondence of March and April 2021 to a journalist at the Times of London.
According to his report of Jan. 28, 2023, Bloomsbury “insists it didn’t cancel Biggar’s book but simply wanted to delay publication. It said it offered to pay out the contract because the author was keen to have his book published sooner.” The email correspondence of March and April shows that that claim is a false one. Sarah Broadman’s message on April 6 makes clear that the initiative to cancel the contract was Bloomsbury’s. And my message on April 16 expresses my dismay at that.
In case some readers might wonder whether Bloomsbury was justified in cancelling my book on account of its poor quality, let me present excerpts from some of its 11 pre-publication commendations: “scrupulous, fair-minded, and scholarly” (Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government, King’s College London): “brilliant and immensely readable” (Ruth Dudley Edwards); “formidably well-researched” (Christopher Hallpike, professor emeritus of anthropology, McMaster University); “a work of exemplary clarity and fairness” (Krishan Kumar, professor of sociology, University of Virginia); “well-researched, rigorously argued, and well-written” (Andrew Roberts); “scrupulously honest” (Tirthankar Roy, professor of economic history, London School of Economics); and “uncompromising and compelling” (Robert Tombs, professor emeritus of history, University of Cambridge).
Let me close with reflections on two questions raised by my experiences of cancellation. First, what motivates the anti-colonialist cancellers? On the surface, of course, they believe that I’m wrong. But only on the surface. They could react, as thoughtful people do react to things they object to, with skeptical, critical curiosity. They could wonder about the reasons I give, examine them, and respond with counter-reasons of their own. They could engage rationally, even if forcefully. But that isn’t how Priyamvada Gopal and her allies reacted in December 2017. Remember her call to arms: “OMG. This is serious shit …. We need to SHUT THIS DOWN.” Observe, first, the tone of panic, even hysteria. Then observe the recourse not to superior reasons, but political suppression. Now, having read anti-colonialists like Gopal over the intervening five years, I think I understand why. As I have laid bare in my book, they have barely an intellectual leg to stand on. Rationally, these little emperors are virtually naked. So, terrified that they will be exposed, they make a lot of aggressive noise to silence critics and distract onlookers. They cancel, because they can’t answer.
The second question is this: Why are adult senior managers in publishing houses—as in universities—so willing to indulge the illiberal clamoring of their junior colleagues? Bloomsbury denies that its decision to cancel me had anything to do with political pressure from below, but since an internal source testifies to the contrary and since their best explanation to date is a demonstrably false one, we have good reason not to believe them. In Bloomsbury’s case, they didn’t cave in for commercial reasons: According to their commissioning editor, my book was set to make them money. I can only speculate—but my speculation is informed by other cases—that they reckoned that caving in and avoiding internal unhappiness and perhaps external agitation would be the least costly option. They perceived that appeasing the illiberals within was the path of least resistance.
That’s why it’s so important that Bloomsbury be held to account in public—so that they, and other publishers, see the reputational costs of unprincipled cravenness.