Three centuries of Anglophone humanitarianism, empire and transnationalism
Written in equal parts by specialists in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Burnard, Lester and Damousi respectively), this foundational chapter tracks the relationship between humanitarian discourse and practice on the one hand, and the rise, expansion and decline of the British Empire on the other, across three centuries. Not only does it set the scene for the case study chapters that follow, establishing the geopolitical context of Anglophone ameliorative governance and intervention across this longue durée; it is the first such targeted examination of this relationship in its own right. It seeks to take up the challenge posed by Skinner and Lester in 2012, to explore ‘the history of humanitarianism … as a fundamental component of imperial relations, a way of bridging trans-imperial, international and transnational approaches’.
Material culture approaches to exploring humanitarian exchanges
Amanda B. Moniz
Historians have long studied the political, economic, intellectual and emotional dimensions of colonial and early-national Americans’ engagement with foreign peoples through philanthropy, but have focused less on the material culture of these exchanges. By contrast, the managers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century charities paid a great deal of attention to the things they needed to operate their institutions. They regularly discussed beds and beddings, medical supplies, books, garments and much more. Focusing on these objects tells stories both about the expansive international trade networks that helped supply charitable institutions and about the limits of managers’ power to shape the lives of their putative beneficiaries, as the managers of New York Hospital discovered. In the early 1800s, the managers, influenced by the latest European practice, imported up-to-date hygienic iron bedsteads and new bedding from Britain. The port city hospital served a heterogeneous population including many foreign immigrants, African Americans, and sojourning mariners, and its patient population lent credence to the managers’ proclaimed intention of providing ‘Charity to All’. Conflicts between doctors and nurses over the cleanliness of beds and bedding in African American wards, however, reveal the lack of control managers and doctors had over patients’ lives on a day-to-day basis.
The individual exception in the discourse of humanitarianism
Five Australian states and territories offered ‘exemption’ to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at various times during the first half of the twentieth century. An exemption certificate enabled a person to be released from the ‘protection’ legislation that controlled the lives of Indigenous people in every colony, state and territory in Australia. There is little written evidence to show why policymakers thought exemption was a good idea. It was sporadically discussed when protection legislation was debated. There was no one administrator who orchestrated the idea, and no government inquiry into whether it might be a good idea or not. It was also utilised in different ways by government administrators, became popular at some times and places and not others, and was the cause of transgenerational trauma and family dislocation. But it did not come from nowhere. This chapter will argue that Australian exemption policies had century-long roots in the humanitarian impulse which made the inclusion of an ‘escape clause’ in Protection legislation inevitable. The humanitarian practice of ‘civilising’ individual Indigenous people had been around as long as colonisation. While scholars have noted that there are links between the notions of a universal human nature and pathway of progress that existed in the eighteenth century and the humanitarian-couched assimilationist policies of the twentieth century, the story of those connections is yet to be fully told. This chapter explores the origins of exemption policy, using it as a key with which to begin the process of tracing how colonial policies of protection and control were often balanced by the humanitarian urge to allow individual colonised subjects more freedom.
Humanitarianism and human rights, always commingled, briefly found sharper points of distinction in the two decades which immediately followed 1945. Human rights departed decisively from the palliationist mode; the compassionate crusades for the least worst that had defined campaigns for abolition, against King Leopold’s Congo, and for the war waifs and immiserated orphans of the countless conflicts that punctuated the industrial age of total war. From the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration, until the early 1970s, human rights drew itself apart from humanitarianism, constituting itself as an independent crusade based on ambitious, redemptive hope. With the inexorable and relentless disappointment of those hopes and the arrival of the NGO ‘breakthrough’, human rights would again lower its sights, and closed the twentieth century much closer to its older sibling.
Historians of humanitarianism have drawn attention to the year 1833 as a watershed in humanity’s sense of itself. The Antislavery Act passed in that year and abolishing slavery in British colonies was the result of a new extension of concern and responsibility for the plight of others and the culmination of a humanitarian sensibility that stretched back to the European Enlightenment. What is often overlooked is the racial and temporal specificity of this concern, and the even greater specificity of the remedial action taken by the government to address it. Enslaved people of African descent in the Caribbean were its primary targets, though they remained apprenticed to their former owners until at least 1 August 1838. Enslaved Indians were not to be freed; Africans liberated from other nations’ slave ships remained apprenticed to other British subjects and a spectrum of coerced labour relations continued to characterise the British Empire. This chapter examines the historical geography of emancipation as a case study of the realpolitik that always accompanied humanitarian concern.
Sentiment and affect in mid-twentiethcentury development volunteering
During the 1950s and 1960s, tens of thousands of well-meaning Westerners left their homes and families to volunteer in distant corners of the globe. Aflame with optimism, they set out to save the world, but their actions were invariably intertwined with national and racial power in the overlapping contexts of decolonisation, globalisation and the Cold War. Development volunteering demanded ordinary people leave the comforts of home to spend one, two or even three years in previously unfamiliar reaches of the Third World. Why did tens of thousands of Australians, Britons and Americans respond to this call, and why were they so enthusiastic about it? This chapter explores volunteers’ multiple and often overlapping motivations, ranging from idealism, political or religious convictions and professional ambition to dissatisfaction with life at home and the desire for adventure. Based on hundreds of application forms submitted by intending volunteers, this chapter shows how individual sentiments and emotions were translated into action on the international stage. It also situates personal motivations within the broader expansion of travel and tourism, arguing that individual desires to save the world were enabled and encouraged by accelerating globalisation and the expansion of transnational capitalism during the 1950s and 1960s.
The conclusion describes the constant struggle to reconcile missionary and government ideals, made all the more difficult by the necessity for both to compromise such ideals in the face of unforeseeable local realities. It argues that missionary groups constantly reshaped missionary schooling as the solution to moral anxieties throughout the British colonies. By the time of the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, 1910, the self-critical nature of the report on missionary education considered missionary schooling to have failed in creating a new generation of Christians, as it struggled against the forces of secular modernisation, nationalism and Islam. Missionary schooling was too entwined within government structures and too engrained in missionary ideology to contemplate relinquishing control of educational institutions, or to transfer them to secular or non-Christian groups. Rather than a break with the idea of missionary schooling, Edinburgh was a moment of reinvention as missionary groups sought to professionalise, and refashioned themselves as educational experts, particularly in the context of adaptive education in Africa. Through providing advice to governmental committees, missionaries ensured that their concept of missionary modernity, including ongoing investment in educational enterprises and the moral (re)formation of local groups, was secured into the twentieth century.
In 1860, over 120 missionaries from various Protestant societies gathered together in Liverpool to discuss matters pertaining to missionary work in the British Empire. India was a primary focus of many of the discussions, including those on education, as the recent Indian Uprising of 1857 had prompted anxiety as to the stability of British rule in India. Missionary groups were quick to point out that no Christian Indians had joined in the violence and to assert that this was an indication both of the morally regulating effect provided by Christianity, and of the need for Christian religion to be taught in schools. At the Liverpool conference, the education of women was a major topic. Chapter 3 examines ideologies behind mission schooling for females in the third quarter of the nineteenth century through examining the Liverpool conference meetings and other writings by the Indian missionary Behari Lal Singh, who was the only non-European delegate at Liverpool. Singh was a strong advocate of female education, and after returning to India after the conference, he, with his teacher wife, established female orphan schools. Through reading Singh’s writings in the context of the Liverpool Missionary Conference and the broader role of women in missions of the period, the chapter particularly highlights the changing focus of some missionary groups to more explicitly include women in schooling, and in doing so demonstrates the central role which British and local women were ascribed in missionary modernity to facilitate the Christianisation of non-European societies.
The Negro Education Grant and Nonconforming missionary societies in the 1830s
Chapter 1 presents a detailed examination of the Negro Education Grant of the 1830s, which provided ‘religious and moral education’ to the children of emancipated slaves. It analyses the educational landscape in Britain in order to contextualise the debates and discussions that led the instigation of the Negro Education Grant, particularly those debates that focused upon the term ‘liberal and comprehensive’. By focusing upon this term and imbuing it with their own meanings, numerous secretaries of evangelical missionary societies bounded together to assert their position as important partners for the Imperial government to work with to provide schooling to emancipated peoples. Schooling was not the only means by which evangelical missionary groups spread their message; however, it was the most amenable means by which they could collaborate with governments and become part of the colonial structure. The provision of missionary schooling was considered necessary to address the moral vacuum that was perceived to be left when the system of slavery was abolished in British colonies. Through arguing that they were the most apt providers of religious and moral education, Anglicans and Nonconformists increased their own standing in religious circles in Britain as their work was legitimised through collaboration with governments. Tellingly, the debates surrounding the Negro Education Grant did not include voices from those to be instructed under this system, which reflected the broader biases evident with the educational offerings of early nineteenth-century missionary societies towards transposing British educational ideas rather than incorporating local people’s expectations.