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

Completed 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 enslavement, the beginnings of Christian evangelisation in India, and the establishment of Protectors of Indigenous peoples in the Australian colonies and New Zealand. But philanthropic concerns also had an impact within Britain, as the same men and women who campaigned for emancipation, proselytisation and protection abroad often sat on the domestic committees for the relief, schooling and nursing of the metropolitan poor and labouring classes.

This project assumed that disciplining the poor and labourers at home and ‘improving’ the colonised abroad were two sides of one and the same set of social concerns. It therefore investigated philanthropy not as a private, moral relation between the wealthy and the needy, but as a branch of the British imperial administration, with public relevance and a transnational impact. By lobbying the Houses of Parliament and the Colonial Office, philanthropists influenced public policies as well as 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 investigated how the philanthropic ideas of humanness and reform were incorporated into – and disavowed by – the languages and practices of the British imperial administration. To this end, it analysed influential philanthropists (e.g. Robert Young and the Quaker William Allen), transnational philanthropic groups (e.g. the Aborigines Protection Society), several prominent colonial governors and administrators (e.g. Lord Elgin and Edward Eyre) and colonial administrative stations tasked with implementing protective policies (e.g. the Protectorates of Aborigines in South and Western Australia). By surveying the relevance of the same set of social problems and similar ‘philanthropic’ solutions in different and distant spaces, this project shed light on the interconnectedness of the British imperial framework from a transnational and comparative perspective.

This research assessed 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. Far from pursuing an optimistic history of the British imperial power by focusing on its ‘humane’ face, this research showed that to ‘love humans’ meant, in fact, to govern and discipline them, while this disciplinary mission made an extensive use of the law.

Research published within the context of this project include:


Cazzola, M.: I missionari dell'ordine: Pensiero e amministrazione nell'Impero britannico (secoli XVIII-XIX). Il Mulino, Bologna (2021), 238 pp.

Journal Articles

Cazzola, M.; Küsters, A.: Transnational Echoes of Spenceanism: A Text-Mining Exploration in English-Language Newspapers (1790–1850). International Review of Social History 69 (1), pp. 67 - 97 (2024)
Cazzola, M.; Sandrini, L.: Le donne, il matrimonio e l'ordine sessuale dell'Impero britannico (c. 1715-1815). Commento a margine di "Black Sails" e "Bridgerton". Genesis. Rivista della Società italiana delle storiche 22 (2, 2023), pp. 59 - 79 (2024)
Cazzola, M.: Robert Young and the Philanthropic Science of Social Happiness (c. 1788-1801). History of Political Thought 44 (1), pp. 116 - 152 (2023)
Cazzola, M.: Cercasi superstato per la fine dell'Impero. Società in espansione e variazioni sul world state nel pensiero imperiale britannico (secoli XVIII-XIX). Storia del pensiero politico 12 (1), pp. 7 - 25 (2023)
Cazzola, M.: Nel solco della controstoria: società, governo e ordine nel pensiero amministrativo imperiale britannico. Materialismo Storico 12 (1), pp. 134 - 181 (2022)
Cazzola, M.: In Love with Social Order. William Allen and the 'Science' and 'Art' of Early Nineteenth-Century British Philanthropy. History. The Journal of the Historical Association 107 (377), pp. 672 - 696 (2022)
Matilde Cazzola, "Innamorati della società: Le origini filantropiche della scienza sociale in Gran Bretagna (1790-1857)," Scienza & Politica. Per una storia delle dottrine 34 (67), 127-142 (2022).
Cazzola, M.: Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Political Economy of Emancipation. Intellectual History Review 31 (4), pp. 651 - 669 (2021)
Cazzola, M.: British Imperial Administration and the ‘Thin Crust of Order’: Society, Constitution, and Diplomacy in the Political Thought of Lord Elgin. Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi 55 (1), pp. 281 - 302 (2021)

 Contributions to Collected Editions

Cazzola, M.: Remaking Britain in the Image of the Raj. James Fitzjames Stephen's 'Indian' Correctives to Electoral Reform. In: English Law, the Legal Profession, and Colonialism. Histories, Parallels, and Influences, pp. 82 - 109 (Eds. Griffiths, C.; Korporowicz, Ł. J.). Routledge, London; New York (2023)
Cazzola, M.: Razza e classe nell’economia politica della protezione. Edward Eyre Protector of Aborigines in South Australia (1841-44). In: Peripli culturali. Viaggiatori europei e incontri con l'alterità in età moderna e contemporanea, pp. 149 - 172 (Ed. Iannuzzi, G.). Carocci editore, Roma (2023)
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