New Works in the Field

The 19th Cent: When Humanitarianism Meant Something Different

Editors’ Note: Below, Abigail Green discusses some of the central claims in one of her most recent academic pieces, “Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context: Religious, Gendered, National(The Historical Journal, Dec. 2014).  In a subsequent post, Amanda Moniz responds to Green’s article

Teaching at Oxford, I’m familiar with the idea that ‘you have to understand the past to understand the present’: it’s the main reason high-school students give for wanting to study history. But what does it actually mean? Thinking about the history of humanitarianism raises this question in an acute form, because this is a field which hardly existed fifteen years ago. Its current popularity speaks quite clearly to the concerns of our own era and, more specifically, to the place of human rights at the heart of twenty-first century politics.

Here, I plead guilty. I first began thinking about the history of humanitarianism when I stumbled across newspaper reports of the Spanish-Moroccan war of 1859 and the refugee crisis that followed. Reading heart-rending accounts of displaced families cowering in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar, dependent on international food-aid and protected from the elements by a few make-shift tents, I was struck by the parallels with our own era. These parallels underpin much of the recent work on the history of humanitarianism by scholars like Michael Barnett, Gary Bass and Davide Rodogno. From the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century, new media and communications technologies have fostered sympathy across borders, facilitating the mobilization of large numbers of people through transnational voluntary associations, which lobby for state intervention, raise large sums of money to relieve the suffering of distant others, and organise international relief efforts. From the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century, such mobilizations and interventions have been framed in terms of two parallel and interconnected discourses: a discourse of ‘rights’ and a discourse of ‘humanity’. Persisting difficulties in relating these professedly universalist claims and discourses to the realities of Western political, cultural and economic hegemony reinforce the sense of connection between the patterns that emerged in the nineteenth century and those of our own era. With this in mind, it is easy to see calls for ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the late Ottoman empire or in contemporary flash-points like Syria or Libya as different points on a single, overarching continuum.

Dig a little deeper, however, and these parallels begin to look rather superficial.

Nineteenth century humanitarianism was in fact the meeting ground for two very different political traditions: on the one hand, the religiously motivated social activism of the evangelical revival; on the other hand, the radical politics of self-determination and the rights of man. Historians of human rights have mostly paid attention to the latter, and we can see why. We may differentiate in English between human rights and the older revolutionary tradition of the rights of man, but this distinction does not exist in languages like German and French which refer to both as Menschenrechte or droits de l’homme. Yet if we really want to understand the pre-history of modern humanitarianism, we need to focus at least as much on the politics of anti-slavery and Christian mission. When British humanitarians sought to influence imperial politics through the General Acts of Berlin (1885) and Brussels (1890), they targeted what they saw as the triple evil of trade in arms, slaves and liquor. The latter may not seem very important to us, but organisations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were major players in the nexus between humanitarianism and America’s ‘moral empire’. They too have left their mark on the present-day politics of human rights.

We can understand this best by thinking about the role of women in humanitarian activism. Human rights history has tended to address the question of ‘women’s rights as human rights’, but not the formative role of women as activists in their own right. This is perfectly understandable. On one level, religion operated as a powerfully conservative discourse, limiting the role of women in society and public life. And yet, paradoxically, this discourse could also be liberating. Religiously-motivated female activism lay at the heart of humanitarian politics from the beginning: from Elizabeth Fry’s prison reform initiatives, through Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Egglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, and Eleanor’s Roosevelt’s role in steering the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Thinking about female motivations and modes of humanitarian action – particularly during the nineteenth century when women were ostensibly excluded from politics –helps us see the role of women in shaping the ideology of human rights that lies at the heart of our contemporary world order. It suggests new ways of conceiving the inter-connections between humanitarian activism and rights discourses – past, present, and future.

-Abigail Green

Abigail Green is Tutor and Fellow in History at Brasenose College, Oxford. She has written widely on international Jewish philanthropy and humanitarianism. Relevant publications include Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero (Harvard UP, 2010), which was a New Republic and TLS book of the year, and (with Vincent Viaene) Religious Internationals in the Modern World: Globalization and Faith Communities since 1750  (Palgrave, 2012).

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