Philanthropy, administration and the law in the 19th-century British Empire

Research Project

The 19th century witnessed the increasing influence of philanthropists and philanthropic discourses on British imperial policies, most notably during the 1830s, with the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, the beginnings of Christian evangelisation in India and the establishment of protectors of indigenous peoples in Australia, New Zealand and the Cape. But philanthropic concerns had an impact inside the boundaries of Britain, too, as the same men and women who campaigned for emancipation, proselytisation and protection abroad often sat on the committees for the relief, schooling and nursing of the metropolitan poor and labouring classes at home.

This project assumes that disciplining the poor and labourers within and ‘improving’ the colonised without were two faces of one and the same set of social concerns. It therefore investigates philanthropy not as a private, moral relation between the wealthy and the needy, but as a branch of British imperial administration, with a public relevance and a transnational impact. By lobbying the Houses of Parliament and the Colonial Office, philanthropists influenced public policies and legal and legislative processes on a pan-imperial scale. They prompted the establishment of parliamentary select committees and commissions of inquiry, and ensured the approval of new, epoch-making pieces of legislation.

This project seeks to investigate how philanthropic ideas of humanness and reform were incorporated into – and most often disavowed by – the languages and practices of British imperial administration. To this end, it analyses some influential philanthropists (eg Robert Young and the Quaker William Allen), some transnational philanthropic groups (eg the Aborigines Protection Society and the Salvation Army) and some prominent colonial governors and administrators (eg Lord Elgin, George Grey, Edward Eyre and Saxe Bannister). These figures interpreted their tenures as associated with a moral and ‘civilising’ responsibility as they ruled and visited several colonial and extra-colonial sites. By surveying the relevance of the same set of social problems and of similar philanthropic solutions in different and distant spaces, this project will shed light on the interconnectedness of the British imperial framework from a transnational and comparative perspective.

This project aims to assess philanthropy as a key function of the 19th-century British imperial governance, as it bent universalistic principles to the local and transnational need for social order. To ‘love humans’ meant, in fact, to govern and discipline them, while this disciplinary mission made an extensive use of the law.

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