With Britannia’s Embrace: Modern Humanitarianism and the Imperial Origins of Refugee Relief, Caroline Shaw has written a timely and important book. From the seventeenth century onward, the heartfelt embrace of refugees was a “nation-defining act” that proved central to the development of political liberalism and British identity (43). Employing a wide range of sources, from literary works to parliamentary papers, Shaw charts Britons’ changing attitudes toward refugees across three centuries. In her early chapters, she uncovers an early modern culture in which refugees were welcomed to Britain as “model liberal individuals” (78). Typical refugees, usually men, were depicted as heroic, self-acting freedom fighters. In her later chapters, however, Shaw accounts for the gradual “hardening of the humanitarian heart” in the late nineteenth century as Britons redefined refugees as economic liabilities (helpless women and children) or as potential security threats (205).
Shaw’s early chapters skillfully integrate British domestic politics with European and global developments. Early practices of refuge were rooted in religious asylum. [End Page 566] As Protestants fleeing Catholic absolutism, French Huguenots were readily integrated into British society. But the refugee category gradually expanded to new groups: United Empire Loyalists and French Revolutionary émigrés in the eighteenth century, and those displaced by Polish independence, Italian revolution, Ottoman and Russian oppression, and various other conflicts that threatened the Congress of Vienna’s (1815) conservative equilibrium. Shaw’s expertise is especially evident as she navigates the wide and ardent appeal of refugee relief across Britain’s party-political spectrum. Radicals hoped their association with foreign dissidents would spark reform in Britain, while conservatives enshrined refugees as victims of heinous foreign tyranny. Some refugees provoked early efforts (like the 1793 Aliens Act, later revoked) to regulate immigration, laying the foundations of a modern security state. The fear that refugees from the Jacobin Terror were themselves terrorists in disguise is familiar to anyone in the age of ISIS. Despite these fears, however, Britain forged a new liberal geopolitics framed by moral imperatives rather than the self-interest of realpolitik. According to scholars like David Cesarani, Britain in the twentieth century was xenophobic and inward looking. But by returning our interest to an earlier period, Shaw unearths an era of surprising and impressive toleration.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, Shaw argues, there emerged a powerful “narrative genre” that cast refugees as sympathetic and deserving figures. Some readers might be skeptical, however, of Shaw’s claim that “broader humanitarian norms” were “robust enough to include foreigners of all political, social, religious and racial backgrounds” (74–75). The most interesting, though perhaps most problematic, claim is that fugitive African slaves could be considered refugees—and hence “full-fledged liberal individuals”—alongside French aristocrats and other European exiles (115). Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was indicative, Shaw suggests, of a normative conviction that escaped slaves exhibited essential commonalities with European political exiles. There is no doubt that abolition evinced powerful moral sentiments in Victorian Britain, but did Stowe’s pamphlet really embody a norm, or was it a work of political activism written against prevailing attitudes? Instead of spotlighting a so-called standard narrative or “normative” stance, refugee politics might be better understood as a contest between multiple narratives and counter-narratives. Readers might also welcome an earlier and more vigorous engagement with race. As it stands, the claim that liberal humanitarianism was powerful enough to “override … racial prejudice” is not entirely convincing (94). And the settlement of African slaves in imperial outlets rather than in metropolitan Britain—the subject of chapter 4—is surely indicative of more than the “practical short-coming[s]” to which Shaw alludes (94). Concepts like émigré, exile, and fugitive might also be more clearly distinguished from the seemingly all-embracing refugee category. Slaves were often termed fugitives rather than refugees, while French monarchists were normally referred to simply as émigrés. Terminology matters, as debates about defining migrants versus refugees demonstrate in our contemporary world.