Magazine article Geographical

Responsible Imperialism

Magazine article Geographical

Responsible Imperialism

Article excerpt


Responsible imperialism



James Heartfield

HURST, HB, 25 [pounds sterling]

Throughout the 19th century, stories of abuse and exploitation flooded in from the far-flung corners of Empire. One organisation, the Aborigines' Protection Society (APS), founded in England in 1836, worked hard to identify these outrages and to encourage a more responsible brand of imperialism. It lobbied the Colonial Office, published journals, organised speaking tours, and sought to improve the lot of indigenous populations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Pacific and South Africa. As Thomas Hodgkin, one of the society's founding fathers, lamented, 'the brutal tyranny of Holland, the ferocious bigotry of Spain, and the insatiable cupidity of England' had all been equally 'degrading and destructive':

With such bold and noble words ringing in our ears, there's an obvious risk of romanticising the society's goals and achievements. James Heartfield wisely avoids this temptation and offers a nuanced, even-handed account of one of Victorian England's most intriguing organisations.

On one level, the story of the APS is edifying. It harnessed the energies (and often the strategies and personnel) of the recent, successful abolitionist campaign, and many of its stances were progressive. But it was still very much a creature of its time. Few of its members were opposed to the colonial enterprise per se: they simply wanted to improve it. Indeed, they sometimes saw the expansion of responsible empire (particularly of the British variety) as the best way to assist local populations. There was a belief that the colonised folk ought to be 'civilised' and Christianised, and it's easy to detect a paternalistic strain in the APS's pronouncements.

The heftiest clue is in the society's name: it was all about 'protection', which encapsulated the idea that local populations were probably not capable of defending their own interests. This isn't to denounce the APS; it was, in the context of its time, decidedly well intentioned, but it's important to remember that its time was very different from our own.

One conclusion is secure--the APS achieved a great deal. Its fortunes waxed and waned according to the political climate (the sailing was always plainer with the Liberals in power), and it often struggled to secure funds, but this didn't dent the society's enthusiasm. …

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