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Comptes rendus

Damousi, Joy, Burnard, Trevor and Lester, Alan (eds.), Humanitarianism, Empire and Transnationalism, 1760-1995: Selective Humanity in the Anglophone World

Manchester University Press, 2022
Lauriane Simony
Bibliographical reference

Damousi, Joy, Burnard, Trevor and Lester, Alan (eds.), Humanitarianism, Empire and Transnationalism, 1760-1995: Selective Humanity in the Anglophone World, Manchester University Press, 2022

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1In recent years, there has been growing academic interest in the history of humanitarianism as a subject in itself, rather than as a lens through which historians could explore the emergence of anti-slavery movements in the 18th century, the rise and fall of empires in the 19th and 20th centuries, or major international crises of the 20th century. “Humanitarianism”, broadly defined by co-editors Joy Damousi, Trevor Burnard and Alan Lester as the “projection of empathy and concern for the welfare of others” (p. 1), indeed represents a highly productive topic of research as it touches upon a wide variety of fields (the history of slavery, of empire, of development, of human rights etc.) and actors (colonial officials and colonised people, missionaries, travellers, settlers, activists, etc.) on various scales, from individuals and local NGOs to nation-states and international networks. Writing the history of humanitarianism also allows to challenge certain contemporary political discourses justifying the necessity for the United Kingdom’s strong interventionist role on the international stage by its early involvement in anti‑slavery movements or its rich tradition of overseas development aid programs, therefore presenting the UK’s long history of slavery and colonial exploitation in a positive light. As the authors argue in the introduction, “the legacy of humanitarianism remains one that many people want to claim” (p. 2).

2A major contribution to the expanding literature on the relations between humanitarianism and empire, Humanitarianism, empire and transnationalism aims to give an overview of the different forms of discourses and practices of Anglophone humanitarianism from the late 18th to the end of the 20th century, in order to debunk common misconceptions about humanitarian action. By adopting a transnational perspective on the history of humanitarianism, which mostly revolves around the transatlantic axis in the late 18th century and (post‑)imperial networks from the 19th century onwards, the different chapters all show that, paradoxically, the history of humanitarianism was intrinsically linked with violence, colonial domination and racial discrimination. In particular, humanitarian projects often served colonising agendas, as epitomised by Amanda Nettelbeck’s chapter about the way in which white settlers’ humanitarian discourses concerning Aboriginal slaves in fact contributed to the reinforcement of white supremacy in Australia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She writes: “A growing body of scholarship has revisited humanitarianism’s historical entanglements with nation-building projects to unpack how humanitarian’s long-term objectives, so often grounded in values of universal humanity, allowed new sovereign powers to flourish in ways that perpetuated rather than dismantled structural inequalities” (p. 179).

3This collective book is composed of 14 chapters, divided into 3 chrono-thematic parts. The first section of the book focuses on the period which stretches from 1760 to 1838 and revolves around the development of a “transatlantic humanitarianism”, prompted by new conceptions (and shifting perceptions) of “humanity” in the midst of debates around the abolition of slavery. The first 5 chapters concur with the idea that the emancipation of slaves not only led to renewed colonisation in the early 19th century, but was also a very selective process, leaving aside certain categories of enslaved or colonised people. For instance, Jillian Beard’s chapter examines Indigenous peoples in the New South Wales colony (Australia) in the late 18th century and shows that early humanitarian discourses determined natives’ “humanity” by normative emotional responses (i.e. whether or not their emotions and conduct aligned with European norms) and focused on natives’ attainment of Christianisation and “civilisation”. Also, Alan Lester’s excellent chapter maps in a very detailed manner the different nuances and degrees of forced labour (from slavery to indentured labour) as well as the incoherence of the anti-slavery movement, as evidenced by the limits of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act: “The act of emancipation, so often celebrated as both a foundation in the history of modern, Western humanitarianism and a matter of British national pride, was shaped and delimited by the realpolitik of imperial restructuring in the 1830s” (p. 137).

4The second part of the book concentrates on the British Empire, from 1838 to 1950, and more specifically on Australia (3 out of 4 chapters). While the development of humanitarianism in the context of empire was linked to colonial authorities’ growing sense of responsibility towards the welfare of colonial peoples, humanitarianism also largely contributed to the strengthening of the imperial project and increasingly became a way for colonial authorities to “dilute a revolutionary discourse” (p. 4). Once again, the chapters in this section shed light on the contradictory nature of humanitarianism, especially when set against the use of violence against colonised peoples. For example, Ann Curthoys’ chapter examines how the Aboriginal prison on Rottnest Island in Western Australia, conceived at first to educate, rather than punish, prisoners, came to exemplify the failure of humanitarians’ principles to translate into humanitarian action in the 19th century. In the Australian context, humanitarians, who were both driven by the desire to provide protection to the Aboriginal people but also to secure the territory so settlers could carry on with their process of colonisation, often came to do so through the enforcement of symbolically and culturally violent assimilationist policies.

5In the third and final section of the book, which focuses on the main international crises of the 20th century, the 5 chapters explore the transformation of the objects, actors and goals of humanitarian aid, characterised by a flourishing of new non-governmental organisations, increasing convergence between humanitarianism and international development in the decolonisation and Cold War contexts, as well as growing disconnection between humanitarianism and the British Empire, with the rise of new poles of humanitarian intervention, such as Australia or the United States. Interestingly, several contributions in this section analyse the complex relationship between the notions of “humanitarianism” and “human rights” in the 20th century, often presented in binary terms, with human rights’ “destabilising radical potential” (p. 5) confronted to humanitarianism’s perpetuation of an asymmetrical relation between donor and recipient countries. For instance, Jon Piccini’s chapter highlights the contradictions underlying the establishment of Amnesty International’s first section in Australia in the early 1960s, in particular when one confronts its ambition to defend human rights (through advocating for the release of non-violent political prisoners) and to reject Cold War politics with the difficulties that the organisation actually met in trying to translate universal ideas into certain local contexts (“what of oppressed minorities within states who […] were ‘imprisoned because of race’?”, the author writes on page 311). At the same time, the author argues that Amnesty International’s attempt to abide by universal human rights principles reveals the emergence of what he and other historians call “humanitarian rights” in the second half of the 20th century, i.e. increasing correlation between human rights and humanitarianism. Nevertheless, the final section of the book also challenges this duality between humanitarianism and human rights in the 20th century, by laying greater emphasis on individual trajectories. In that respect, Joy Damousi’s chapter about humanitarian workers Rosemary Taylor, Elaine Moir and Margaret Moses, who smuggled Vietnamese orphans out of the country during the Vietnam War, provides a fresh insight into the transformation of humanitarian aid after the First World War. While it is broadly accepted that humanitarianism was gradually institutionalised in the 20th century, this chapter concentrates on the role of “free agents” and reveals the existence of a form of “humanitarian activism”, based on individual decision-making and taking place outside of the realm of both humanitarian organisations and human rights declarations (p. 285).

6The originality of this book precisely lies in the importance given to these individual trajectories: several chapters adopt a biographical approach to the history of humanitarianism and place individuals at the core of their analyses. In particular, a couple of chapters focus on women’s stories, that have more often than not been written out of history books, and contribute to shedding light on the gendered and political nature of humanitarianism, as illustrated by Melanie Oppenheimer’s chapter about the first three female directors of the League of Red Cross Societies’ international nursing course in the interwar period. However, although some chapters do give a voice to individuals that we seldom get to hear, especially women in the masculinist world of humanitarianism, one would have expected to also hear the voices of those most concerned with humanitarian aid, namely its recipients. The contributions that tell the stories of Indigenous individuals, such as Kate Fullagar’s fascinating chapter about Indigenous visitors to Britain in the 18th century, always do so from the perspective of humanitarians, therefore conveying the impression that Indigenous people were fully subjected to humanitarians’ imperial agendas. But this limit, that the co-editors themselves briefly acknowledge in the introduction, is also due to their choice of writing the history of humanitarianism in its connections with the imperial project, to show how it perpetuated, rather than abolished, unequal power structures. In any case, this collective book constitutes a crucial contribution to the historiography of both humanitarianism and imperialism, and participates in shedding light on the highly complex and contradictory nature of humanitarianism in the Anglophone world.

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Electronic reference

Lauriane Simony, Damousi, Joy, Burnard, Trevor and Lester, Alan (eds.), Humanitarianism, Empire and Transnationalism, 1760-1995: Selective Humanity in the Anglophone WorldRevue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVIII-2 | 2023, Online since 02 November 2023, connection on 30 November 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lauriane Simony

CY Cergy Paris Université

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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