Ties that Bind: Refashioning Community and Responsibility for a Changing World

Speakers: Caroline Shaw, Christienna Fryar, Emily Baughan

Chair: Richard Huzzey

Britain features prominently in accounts of humanitarianism and human rights. British abolitionists fueled global campaigns against the slave trade and metropolitan activists tried to mitigate the impact of settler colonialism on aboriginal populations. Though these accounts are important and compelling, they tend to rely on a “humanitarian narrative” that emanates from private philanthropists and voluntary groups in the imperial center and assumes a logic of expansion, even while acknowledging that relief could be slow and progress often checkered. Together, the papers on this panel ask what happens when we reexamine the moral bases of responsibility and philanthropic outreach. What would this story look like if it were told from the colonies? If we begin to question whether the individuation of rights brought of necessity an improvement in humanitarian activism? If we were to explore more fully government’s role in generating activism? Each paper tackles aspects of this challenge to historians’ discussions of fellow-feeling and responsibility in a changing British world. For Christienna Fryar, political crises and natural disasters—and the vulnerable subjects affected by these upheavals—challenged and transformed the preferred imperial strategy of minimal intervention in postemancipation Caribbean colonies. Whereas Fryar explores the connections between colonial constitutional politics and imperial philanthropy, Emily Baughan interrogates the workings of internationalism in the making of British foreign aid policies in the postwar period. Geopolitics and rising interest in moral law encouraged the government to commit tax revenue to overseas aid, a decision that, while it sparked considerable debate at the time, continues to be a key feature of British humanitarianism. Shaw’s paper similarly brings questions of ethics to the international sphere in her work on British relief for foreign refugees. Shaw queries through British activism the tension between universal and particular claims for humanitarian outreach and the extension of international rights.

Paper 1: Christienna Fryar, SUNY Buffalo State

“A Fire, A Constitution, and the Political Calculus of Imperial Philanthropy in 1880s Jamaica”

If nineteenth-century imperialism was often about holding territory as cheaply as possible with as little manpower as possible, then this was doubly true in the postemancipation Caribbean. As the former slave colonies slumped into varying degrees of economic ruin, many in Britain wanted to limit the money and resources devoted to these colonies. Yet not only did the Caribbean colonies continue to draw on imperial resources, but natural disasters and administrative crises often forced more aggressive imperial intervention on behalf of vulnerable or disgruntled subjects. This paper examines one such moment in the early 1880s, after a fire destroyed much of downtown Kingston, the new capital of Jamaica. With previous fires, the Colonial Office had refused to provide imperial rebuilding grants or loans, despite requests from Kingston residents or members of the West India Lobby. However, in the early 1880s, Jamaica was in the middle of a political crisis, as Jamaican elites demanded revisions to the unpopular 1865 constitution that the imperial government had imposed after the Morant Bay Rebellion. After a series of internal debates during which various administrators made clear that the fire would not ordinarily warrant financial assistance, the Colonial Office offered substantial rebuilding loans to Kingston residents in recognition of the delicate political situation. Thus, the paper argues, colonial constitutional politics dictated the degree of humanitarian intervention from the metropole. Furthermore, the paper highlights the ways that crisis could both fortify and weaken the political and affective links between metropole and colony.

Paper 2: Caroline Shaw, Bates College

“Refugees: Between the Universal and the Particular”

According to standard accounts of refugee history, the refugee became a matter of political and philanthropic concern in the aftermath of WWI. The term then applied to a handful of groups only. In the mid-twentieth century, the category shifted, its application becoming potentially universal: any individual fleeing persecution could qualify as a refugee. This standard account parallels the rise of a human rights regime. The accruing of rights, whether one places it the late-eighteenth century or in the 1940s or in the 1970s, follows a standard telos from group to individual. The proposed paper challenges this account. It traces the emergence of a powerful British normative claim on refugees’ behalf to the long nineteenth century. First offering a brief look at this longer history, the paper then focuses on British arguments on behalf of foreign refugees between the 1870s and 1940s, be they refugee slaves in the Indian Ocean region or Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. As this paper highlights, British activists, officials, and public commentators alternately individuated or aggregated would-be refugees by group throughout this period. Group or individuated categorization was not necessarily better for the persecuted parties themselves, the paper finds. Yet, understanding this dynamic, the paper argues, can help us better understand the difficulty of elevating refuge to a human right.

Paper 3: Emily Baughan. University of Bristol.

“A Mrs Jellyby Nation: the British State and Overseas Aid, 1918-1925”

Each year, the British Government gives £ 11 billion in foreign aid. Yet, despite this cross-party commitment to foreign aid, at present little is known of the origins of this policy.  This paper it will examine the political, economic and philosophical underpinnings of British overseas aid, tracing its emergence to the immediate aftermath of the First World War. It will argue that post-war foreign aid reflected both a commitment to international free trade, and a Kantian tradition that upheld a ‘moral law’ guiding international relations. Proponents of overseas aid ensured its success by tying it to two of the foremost concerns of British foreign policy in the early twentieth century: the perceived decline of Europe and American ascendancy.  Yet, overseas aid was far from universally popular. The Government took the unprecedented step of using British tax revenues to provide food and shelter for people overseas, of national hardship and prevalent poverty. Conservative critics of aid claimed that Britain was becoming a ‘Mrs. Jellyby Nation’ – saving distant others while blind to the suffering of its domestic poor.  Drawing upon popular media sources, the article will examine these anti-aid voices, as well as the counter-arguments successful in circumventing them: those which connected national pride and foreign policy objectives directly to the granting of humanitarian aid.

 

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