Imperial Trajectories: Britain’s Entanglement with the World

Speaker: Tehila Sasson, Aimee M. Genell, Radhika Natarajan

Chair: Kevin O’Sullivan

Central to Modern British Studies at Birmingham’s call for proposals is a desire to understand the importance of British Studies today. One panel proposes to consider the continuing legacy of the British Empire in shaping local, national, and global governance. Each of our papers reflects on an imperial ending to examine the relationship between contemporary institutions and Britain’s imperial past. Aimee Genell’s paper explores why British administrators favored limited “self-government” in Egypt at the outset of occupation. By focusing on Lord Dufferin and connecting his Irish, Egyptian and Indian careers, she argues that Dufferin’s plan for administrative reform in Egypt drew upon his earlier understandings of autonomy within the Ottoman and British Empires. In each case, Dufferin’s administrative solutions to political crises were in line with a particular theory of international relations, which viewed the world as safe for empire. Radhika Natarajan’s paper examines the negotiation of migrants’ social rights and political belonging in post-war Britain. Through stories of Commonwealth Citizens’ attempts to access welfare, she connects the ‘domestic’ history of social democracy to forms of ‘imperial’ community management. Tehila Sasson’s paper examines the relationship between military and non-governmental aid in natural disasters after decolonization. As the British military found a new role as an agent of aid, it participated in the creation of new conceptions of global humanitarian community in the 1970s. Through these papers we explore how Britain’s imperial trajectories have shaped the contemporary world.

Paper 1 Abstract: “The Reorganization of Egypt: Lord Dufferin’s Tanzimat?”

Aimee M. Genell, Yale University

On February 6, 1883, nearly five months into the British occupation of Ottoman-Egypt, Lord Dufferin authored a report outlining British policy and a plan for the “reorganization” of the province. Dufferin’s “Reorganization of Egypt” proposed far-reaching institutional changes that radically limited Ottoman and European rights and privileges in the province.  Dufferin projected the reorganization of the army and police, the native courts, distribution of water, and new forms of taxation and land use. To placate the constitutionalists in Egypt, the report also called for the creation of representative assemblies, whose role in governance would be confined to consultation. The report was widely considered by contemporaries and later historians to be the blueprint for the occupation. Yet, the scheme itself appears only briefly in historical accounts and without much concern for the ideas animating the report. By the time Dufferin arrived in Cairo, he had extensive experience with Eastern Question diplomacy and had worked on various other “reorganization” schemes for other parts of the Ottoman and British Empires.

This paper traces Dufferin’s schemes for administrative reform in diverse contexts – from Ireland, Mount Lebanon, Canada, Eastern Anatolia and Egypt. Dufferin’s reorganization schemes presented a particular theory of international relations that sought to strengthen imperial architecture through administrative decentralization, but cut across distinct imperial and international spaces. This paper argues that Dufferin’s plan for administrative reform in Egypt drew upon his earlier understandings of autonomy within the Ottoman and British Empires. Dufferin was a key figure in a long-standing debate between the British and Ottoman governments on the meaning of self-government and autonomy within empire. The British Foreign Office viewed provincial autonomy in the Ottoman Empire as an instrument to limit the influence of other European powers, and also as a device to curtail Ottoman involvement in governing particular provinces. In contrast, the Ottoman Foreign Ministry viewed autonomy as a derogation of sovereignty and worked against British efforts to create autonomous provinces.

Paper 2 Abstract: Conversations in a Nottingham Welfare Office

Radhika Natarajan, Reed College

In 1959, Edmund N. Burke, a welfare officer from Jamaica, instituted a course to cultivate the leadership skills and civic capabilities of West Indians living in Nottingham. Instituted in the wake of the ‘riots’ that shook the city in 1958, the program’s organizers believed that the leaders cultivated in the course would go on to work as leaven, lifting up the community by instilling cohesion and cooperation. In partnership with West Indians resident in Nottingham and social workers employed by the Nottingham Council of Social Service, Burke brought community development principles honed in the villages of Jamaica to urban Britain.

This leadership program represents a strange return, that of the cooperative principles that went out into the empire and came back as community development. In my paper, I will situate the ‘Nottingham Experiment’ (as it became know in newspapers hungry for examples of ‘good’ race relations) in the context of the imperial circuits of cooperation and community development. The “Rochdale Principles” of cooperation, first proposed in Lancashire in 1844, traveled to Jamaica in the early twentieth century via the Antigonish Movement of Nova Scotia. From the 1930s, Jamaica Welfare promoted adult education and village improvement programs throughout the island to demonstrate the fitness of Jamaicans for self-government. That West Indian social workers had something to teach their British peers was itself a symbol both of West Indian capacity for independence and also the internationalization of community development at mid-century. In Britain, the idea that a West Indian community could be mobilized by leaders found favor in local councils throughout the country as a way of managing the ‘immigrant problem.’ The turn to community development, however, also represented the end of a commitment to a social democratic vision of community that could include migrants from the decolonizing empire in its expansive reach.

The conversations at the Nottingham Council of Social Service—amongst social workers from the West Indies and the Midlands, West Indian settlers, and civic leaders—created an avenue of participation for migrants in Britain, not as universal citizens, but as members of discrete communities.

Paper 3 Abstract: Modern Britain and the Rise of Disaster Militarism

Tehila Sasson, University of California, Berkeley

The notion that natural disasters require military response has become so familiar to us in the past decades that it almost seems inevitable. And there is some sense to it: as its proponents would argue, the military is well-equipped to transport food and supplies in difficult conditions. Its efficiency in sustaining itself in difficult and extreme conditions makes the armed forces an effective body for disaster relief. Yet paradoxes here are also clear when the armed forces of the state are deployed to humanitarian disaster-zones instead battlefields. “Disaster militarism,” as some call it, carries a political valence, making the military seem both benevolent and necessary. As this paper will argue, this is not a new phenomenon. Its origins lay in the 1970s, when states began responding to natural catastrophe by calling in the troops.
This paper examines the emergence of this phenomenon by focusing on the British military. Although the story is largely global, the British story is rather unique because of the country’s former imperial experience. In the 1970s, as the British military relinquished the majority of its operational and combat roles, it became one of the major international responders to large-scale catastrophes and providers of humanitarian aid. Its knowledge and availability, as well as its former bases in Asia and Africa, allowed it to become a major participant in disaster relief in these areas. Disaster militarism, I argue, emerged in the 1970s because of the shrinking of the military as a result of decolonization and détente. It was a way to repurpose the armed forces and re-appropriate their knowledge in the service of humanitarian aid. Through this repurpose, the military became part of the larger project of humanitarian governance.  By harnessing its skills to transport aid, the British military acquired a new justification and a new role as a humanitarian actor.




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