Daily Archives: January 30, 2015

‘Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance’ by Alan Lester and Fae Dussart


2014, 275 p. & notes

When I read Rowan Strong’s book on Anglicanism and the British Empire recently, I found myself somewhat surprised that historians coming out of  a different academic stream- in this case, the history of Christianity- were  wading in the same waters that I splash around in through studying colonial communities through a transnational lens.  There were similar questions and concerns, but when I checked the bibliography, I found that the author had drawn from a largely unfamiliar body of literature written by strangers (to me!). Why hadn’t I heard of any of these people before?

This was not at all the case with this book, which felt very much like ‘home’ for me.  Alan Lester and Fae Dussart have written a couple of  papers together, and Alan Lester is perhaps best known for his concept of ‘imperial networks’ of people, goods and ideas- a concept that I’ve found really useful.  Lester is a Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex, where Dussart is a Visiting Research Fellow, lecturing in Modern British and Imperial History (originally from the University of North Carolina).   Looking through their bibliography, I found very familiar names- Catherine Hall, Zoe Laidlaw, Antoinette Burton, Julie Evans etc.   These are my people!

Their book explores the paradox that at the very time that the British Empire was embarking on its violent dispossession of indigenous land across multiple sites, it was also professing humanitarianism and a deep desire to ‘do the right thing’.  Is it possible to reconcile two such disparate impulses?

Lester and Dussart choose to use the term ‘humanitarian’, even though other historians  have chosen other terms more commonly used at the time (for example, Jessie Mitchell’s In Good Faith? uses the term ‘philanthropy’) .  But in the opening chapter of this book, it is clear that their observations extend beyond the 19th century settler colonies when they discuss present-day humanitarian campaigns and organizational structures.

As in Strong’s book, they draw a longer timespan for humanitarianism than just the 19th century evangelical movement, while acknowledging its fundamental importance for the settler colonies under discussion  They describe humanitarianism as a chain, with donor/philanthropist/recipient links, noting that it is always an unequal power relationship. Actors at each point perform roles for the benefit of those next along the chain with missionaries, protectors or aid workers on the ground always having to perform dual roles for the benefit of donors above them and recipients below them (p.11).

The book combines biography and geography.  Humanitarian governance during the 19th century was mediated through the men (for it was, in this case always men) who took it upon themselves to govern the empire.

To get to know what feelings and behaviours, what affects and effects, a humanitarian moral code engenders, one has to try to understand these men at various levels of governmental structures as complex individuals with varying capacities in a world of dynamic social relations that they only partially comprehended and controlled, but sought to improve, in the process raising their self-esteem and the esteem in which they were held by others.

The book emphasizes the importance of the sequential locations of its main ‘characters’, and by picking up on Doreen Massey’s idea of ‘place’ as the juxtaposition of intersecting trajectories, highlights the fact that these mobile men of empire encountered differentially contrived sets of relations between Britons and ‘others’ in the colonies they administered.

It traces the genesis of humanitarian governance as it moved from the idea of  ’emancipating’ and  ‘ameliorating’ the conditions of slaves in the West Indies through to ‘conciliating’  ‘protecting’ , and attempting to  ‘develop’ the indigenous peoples in the expanding British empire.  It focusses in particular on the Protectorates established as secular schemes in the Cape, Port Phillip and New Zealand, and the experience of the men working, often for the very noblest of motives, in a program- for Port Phillip at least-  that always had eventual assimilation and dispossession as its ultimate intention.

The book opens with Sir George Arthur, whose career took him from Honduras, to Van Diemens Land, to Canada and then India and then closes with another George- Sir George Grey, who career traversed South Australia, New Zealand and the Cape Colony.  Historians in these erstwhile colonies often have a very different ‘take’ on the slice of career spent in their homeland, and the nuanced approach in this book gives them a coherence not easily detected in colony-bound biographies.

I really enjoyed this book, and not just because it is right in my area.  Many of the chapters have been published in article-form in different journals, and I enjoyed having them integrated into a single text like this.  It was easy to read, and the interweaving of observations about current-day humanitarianism was insightful.  Once again, it’s damned expensive in both hard cover and even in e-book form ($65A), so it’s one for the  academic libraries, I guess.  A shame really, because I think its appeal could well stretch further than that.