Introducing a special issue of JCCH on colonialism, violence, and humanitarianism: Penelope Edmonds, Anna Johnston, ‘Empire, Humanitarianism and Violence in the Colonies’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 17, 1, 2016


Excerpt: There is now a burgeoning scholarship at the intersection of new imperialism and the history of humanitarianism. Scholars have not only pointed to the continuing need to historicise humanitarian developments, but, importantly, argued for more consideration of humanitarian developments outside of Europe and the “Third World.” As Alan Lester and Fae Dussart have recently argued, we must reassess entrenched understandings of the development of humanitarianism as originating from an “anti-slavery mother” and “European battlefield father,” especially in the “light of trans-imperial governmental experiments in violently colonised settler colonial spaces.” The diverse forms of imperial humanitarian history, and their entanglements with violence in colonised regions such as Australia, New Zealand, North America, India and the Pacific, demand attention.

This special collection takes up this challenge to consider the diverse and contested relationship between humanitarianism and violence in the Anglophone colonies, and the experiences and impact of humanitarians from the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries who sought to ameliorate various forms of colonial violence, advocate for non-violence and/or engage in anticolonial and humanitarian activities. We are particularly interested in exploring the various conceptualisations of colonial conflict by humanitarians: their written accounts “on the ground” and assessments of both epistemological and physical violence; their appeals, strategies and interventions to arrest violence and protect suffering subjects; the local and transnational protests against violence; the politics of witnessing; and the economies of affect and sentiment, and narratives of humanitarianism and violence that circulated with personnel and though text within imperial networks. Interrogated here too are the ways that humanitarians, protectors and others could simultaneously be implicated in or oversee various forms of violence; indeed, the refutation of outright conflict or brutality could sometimes lead to other forms of harm and organised coercion of colonised, unfree and convicted peoples alike. Early cross-cultural contact resulted in explicit and undeniable physical conflict and indeed acts of colonial terror, associated with the classic frontier of European invasion, but a consequence of colonial state formation and the extension of European-style laws and other “civilising” regimes was that while violent interpersonal conflict may have subsided (or have been more easily hidden), methods for identifying, representing and managing Indigenous and unfree populations rose with the development of colonial state infrastructure. Over time, such tensions only increased in many colonial cultures. These forms of social management, which may be described as infrastructural or bureaucratic violence, could have highly destructive effects upon Indigenous communities, even if the everyday practices of protection and surveillance were apparently benevolent in intention.

“The history of humanitarianism importantly is also the history of those who suffer,” writes Michelle Tusan. Crucially important, therefore, are the experiences of humanitarianism’s recipients—Indigenous peoples, enslaved and convicted peoples, and other unfree labourers—and their political engagement with or refutations of colonial humanitarian endeavours. Scholarship which posits humanitarianism as a unilinear, beneficent alleviation of the suffering of its putative objects can also be delimited. As Tusan remarks, comprehending the humanitarian response to violence, atrocity and genocide “necessarily requires considering the relationships of power that inevitably shadow any thinking about intervention on behalf of persecuted populations.” In analysing these complex imperial and multidirectional power relations, we seek to foreground subversions of power on the ground and also the ways that the precepts and rhetoric of liberal humanitarianism might be received and actively reworked by colonised peoples. Further, as Sean Scalmer’s essay in this collection shows, such discourses could be effectively harnessed to anticolonial struggle, despite the implicit limits and disjuctures of an imperial humanitarian discourse of nonviolence.

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