Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance

lester book cover

Alan Lester, Fae Dussart. Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance: Protecting Aborigines across the Nineteenth-Century British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. x + 283pp. £65, US$99.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781107007833.

Reviewed by Richard Batten (University of Exeter)
Follow on Twitter @Richard_Batten

Through the early to mid-nineteenth century, the suffering of Aboriginal populations that resulted from violent settler colonization would provide the impetus for some individuals to endeavour to reconcile colonialism with ‘humanitarianism’. The endeavours that represented the project of ‘humane’ colonial governance towards indigenous peoples, like the Aborigines of Australia and the Māori of New Zealand, are the subject of this ambitious and important monograph. Published as part of the Cambridge University Press Critical Perspectives on Empire series, Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance explores how British colonial actors such as missionaries and governors attempted to reform colonial rule through the integration of ‘humanitarian’ aims into various colonial government initiatives. The authors, Alan Lester and Fae Dussart, suggest that humanitarian governance – the administration and regulation of colonial societies through a range of ‘humane’ approaches – became a key imperative in the mission to spread ‘Civilization’ across the British Empire.

The six chapters of this book chart the evolution of the ‘humane’ interventions towards Aboriginal populations, which were expressed in broad temporal succession as projects of amelioration, conciliation, protection and development. The examination of these various projects reveal the strategies that practitioners employed in an attempt to translate humanitarian governmental discourse as advocated by missionaries and governors into humanitarian interventions towards the plight of Aboriginal populations in colonial settings. However, these projects proved difficult to implement in reality because these ‘humanitarian’ initiatives were challenged by, and faced criticism from the settler communities in Australia and New Zealand.

Indeed, many settlers resisted humanitarian calls for restraint against further dispossession of indigenous populations and resorted to coercion to further extend, seize and establish their authority over colonial territories. Lester and Dussart emphasize how, eventually, the agenda of ‘humanitarian’ governance was utilised as a justification to extend the influence of British law and order across colonial territories which thereby ushered in a greater ethical imperative to regulate the conduct of Aboriginal populations. Accordingly, in the authors’ view, the governance of the British Empire became more ‘humanitarian’ due to a ‘process of practical “empirical investigation” and recommendation concerning the securing of governmental order in unfamiliar places’ [22].

At the same time, the authors also fashion this sequence of developments with a collection of individual biographies of colonial actors and aborigines. These include Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, George Arthur, Chief Protector of the Port Phillip District, George Augustus Robinson, and Aborigine, Beernbarmin otherwise known as Thomas Farmer. The application of these portraits to direct the narrative of their research provides the reader with important insights into humanitarian governance as one of a number of projects that was ‘worked out through encounters and relations with diverse actors in a range of richly complex settings and configurations across the globe’ [275].

Whilst some historians have focused on the various failures of these different projects such as the constraints and difficulties experienced by some Protectorates of the Aborigines, the authors reassess these projects to provide a more nuanced picture of colonial humanitarianism that takes into account the agency of colonial actors and Aborigines. In their consideration of the experiences of the practitioners and the recipients of ‘humanitarian’ governmentality, Lester and Dussart reinforce how the agency of individuals did play a crucial factor in the role and effectiveness to instigate colonial humanitarian projects on a local and individual level. Practitioners such as George Augustus Robinson were crucial intermediaries who arbitrated upon projects of colonial humanitarian interventions and endeavoured to facilitate the reformation of the recipients under their authority into ‘civilized’ colonial society.

The consideration of the recipients of these projects, including Beernbarmin, is vital as the use of individual biographies from indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand reaffirms that Aboriginal populations were not a monolithic structure and possessed their own dynamic agency to respond in various ways towards the interventions of ‘humanitarian’ governance. To focus on the agency of individuals in the various projects that represented the agenda of ‘humanitarian’ governance is one of the key strengths of this book. It is also interesting to note that the authors contend that rarely has the ‘relationship between dynamic individual agency within imperial networks and the shape and function of those networks been explicitly theorized’ [27]. This monograph remedies this position as their appraisal of humanitarian governance is corroborated with a great engagement with the theories surrounding governmentality and humanitarian networks.

Overall, there is much to commend Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance as a study that evaluates the relationship between humanitarianism and colonialism. It imparts a deeply considered analysis of the intricacies, inconsistencies, causes, courses and consequences of the attempts to introduce various projects that constituted ‘humanitarian’ governance towards Aboriginal populations in British colonies during the early to mid-nineteenth century. Specialists and post-graduate students will find this monograph to be both a compelling and intellectually stimulating history of colonial humanitarianism as well as an important dimension of colonial governmentality and the ‘civilizing’ mission of the British Empire.