Kate Fullagar
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An incident at the Sun Tavern
Changing the discourse on Indigenous visitors to Georgian Britain
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Native Americans had been visiting Britain since the early sixteenth century. Britons always understood them as fellow humans, though admittedly through certain dominant cultural typologies such as savagery. As Britain’s relationship with North America crumbled from the mid-eighteenth century, visiting Native Americans became increasingly problematic. The typologies employed for understanding such people shifted perceptibly during one visit in 1765. When an unscrupulous tailor from New York displayed two Mohawk men at the Sun Tavern in the Strand, no less an establishment than the House of Lords intervened to issue a general edict against the commercialisation of Native American envoys. The Lords confirmed a new way of thinking about Indigenous travellers, one that recognised them as individuals who deserved at least to be free of certain behaviours from Britons. This shift may be seen as a sign of the emergence of humanitarian discourse and simultaneously the erosion of the motif of savagery. What happened next, though, belies usual liberal understandings of what such a shift does for non-Europeans. Native American travellers to Britain now found themselves facing one of two responses: either a complete lack of interest or, ironically, an increased chance of being made into a spectacle. This chapter outlines the ways in which the ameliorative impulse ran parallel to a new comprehension of Indigenous people, one that was more ‘humane’ than what had gone before but also less engaged and thus ultimately less concerned about observing Indigenous rights.

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Humanitarianism, empire and transnationalism, 1760–1995

Selective humanity in the Anglophone world

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