Fellow-Feeling in an Imperial Age

AHA Session 271
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Thomas W. Laqueur, University of California, Berkeley
Thomas W. Laqueur, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

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 an 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 it were told not in opposition to business as usual but as at the very core of capitalist enterprises? If we begin to question whether the individuation of rights brought of necessity an improvement in humanitarian activism? Each paper tackles aspects of this challenge to historians’ discussions of fellow-feeling and responsibility in a changing British world. Each paper, moreover, emphasizes the contingent and often unpredictable ways in which different populations come to be subjects of humanitarian concern, as well as how different authorities assume the duty of care. 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, Mircea Raianu interrogates the relationship between humanitarianism and capital. Following the charitable bequests of the Tata family in colonial India, Raianu highlights how these leaders of Indian industry used philanthropic outreach at home and in London to shape an Indian nation and Indians on the eve of independence. Caroline Shaw’s paper brings questions of ethics to the international sphere in her work on British relief for foreign refugees, exploring through British activism the tension between universal and particular claims for humanitarian outreach and the extension of international rights.

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