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  • Slavery, Settlers and Indigenous Dispossession: Britain’s empire through the lens of Liberia
  • Zoë Laidlaw

A Sidelong View of British Colonialism

Long recognised as a high point of humanitarian influence over British imperial policy, the 1830s saw major advances in combating slavery and publicising the plight and rights of indigenous peoples. However ultimately flawed and incomplete these interventions proved, and however carefully humanitarians reminded themselves of the magnitude of the task ahead, the future seemed alive with the possibility of improvement. The humanitarians’ goal was a form of colonisation that could be reconciled with Christian principles and conscience, and many were convinced that such an endeavour would be rewarded not just by new converts, but also with Britain’s material wellbeing. Following emancipation, meeting halls around the nation resounded to the sound of ambitious (and often impractical) schemes to end the global slave trade, challenge slavery in India and the United States, and “civilise” the empire’s indigenous peoples. The triumph of free labour, free trade and missionary activity would usher in a more prosperous, peaceful and Christian world.

Yet, as is equally well known, this optimism proved misplaced. In the thirty years after emancipation, divisions within Britain’s anti-slavery movement opened up, while disillusionment with economic decline and social stasis in the sugar colonies set in. Racist assumptions and attitudes soared, fuelled by settler encounters with indigenous peoples and uprisings against British rule across the empire, most notably in India, Jamaica and New Zealand. By the 1870s, on the cusp of the scramble for Africa and the Far East, Britons found it harder to conceive that autonomy, or even more limited self-determination, for indigenous populations was possible. Although chattel slavery in the United States had finally been abolished, Britain’s former slave colonies languished socially and economically, and humanitarians knew that the empire-wide system of indenture sustained many of the old iniquities. The dispossession and subjugation of indigenous peoples by European settlers accelerated, and was aided within the British Empire by swelling settler populations and the transfer of political control to the colonists themselves. Humanitarians and missionaries, once advocates of the unity of mankind (if ethnocentric paternalists) now looked inwards, fretting about domestic affairs, criticised for ignoring the poor at home in favour of the heathen abroad,1 and absorbing, despite themselves, the tenets of biological racism.

This article takes these decades of disillusionment as its canvas, exploring particularly humanitarians’ loss of faith and focus. It argues that our understanding of the mid-nineteenth century crisis in universalism, and the concomitant narrowing of the national imagination, will be enhanced by an exploration of humanitarians’ worldviews. Early nineteenth-century humanitarians placed different types of British colonialism in the same frame, seeing connections between new settler societies, tropical plantations and India—connections that were underpinned by a universal conception of human nature and potential. It was possible, for example, to argue in the 1830s that boosting India’s cotton industry was a means of simultaneously reforming imperial rule, improving sub-continental living standards, increasing metropolitan prosperity and undermining US slavery.2 By the 1870s, the vision of world-weary humanitarians was far more circumscribed. The empire and its inhabitants were divided into ever more rigidly demarcated categories, with each thought amenable to particular forms of colonial rule, which in turn determined future opportunities.3

Alongside this narrowing of humanitarian horizons, a great imaginative erasure of indigenous peoples in settler colonies took hold. Settlers sidestepped acknowledging the violence and dispossession they visited on aborigines by claiming that indigenous populations were anyway on the cusp of extinction.4 As Alan Lester has argued, settlers perverted the humanitarian discourse of the 1830s in order to legitimate their own “antithetical interests.” The humanitarians’ promises of native “improvement” and their efforts to place indigenous peoples in an expansive global framework were turned against them, as natives proved resistant to the intrusions of colonialism.5 Imaginatively and bodily, indigenous Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, were, in Lorenzo Veracini’s phrase, “transferred out” of settler spaces.6 In the process, their lands fell victim to the rapacious demands of white agriculture, pastoralism, mining and industry. In Britain, both the government and the public were complicit...

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