The British Empire and the Geopolitics of Human Rights in the Nineteenth Century

This research project investigates a crucial new perspective on the history of British humanitarianism and intervention, exploring how nineteenth-century consuls and commissioners promoted abolitionist and free-labour ideologies within the territories of rival powers and the informal empire, how they influenced rights discourses, contributed to a British humanitarian-imperial self-image, and impacted great-power relations. This work seeks to contextualise the 1904 British report into abuses in the Congo Free State within a wider pattern of engagement from the 1830s, and explore how middle-ranking actors began exerting ideological influence and shaping the geopolitics of anti-slavery decades before the Berlin and Brussels conferences of the 1880s.


About the project – key questions and themes

How did consuls and commissioners engage with British humanitarian and free-labour ideologies and interventions in the ‘informal’ empire and in the territories of foreign powers, and in what ways were these activities important for the development of contemporary discourses and the geopolitics of Africa and the Americas?


We still know far too little about the ideological and humanitarian activities of consuls and other overseas agents of the British Empire. Historical research in this space remains highly fragmentary, and is often siloed as political, legal or economic history. This research project will break new ground in forming a clearer picture of the interaction of Britain’s consuls, commissioners and other middle-ranking agents of empire with the evolving ideological, and ultimately geopolitical agenda of the century. Drawing on feminist and postcolonialist approaches, and pulling together themes of geopolitical, economic, legal, and social history, this work will explore how Britain used the information-gathering, jurisdictional and interventionist mandates of ‘the man on the ground’ to legitimise and drive gendered, racialised, ideological and geopolitical goals that fed directly into the late nineteenth-century great-power carve-up of the continent of Africa. It will also provide an important new perspective on British information-gathering as a means of constructing a post-intervention, humanitarian self-image and ethnological world-view.


The aim of this research is not simply to fill the clear scholarly gap in this subject area, but rather to alter the frame of reference in the existing literature, and conceptually to connect Victorian Britain’s flurry of searching social inquiries of the 1810s-40s (into, for example, the condition of lunatic asylums, convict transportation and the exploitation of indigenous peoples) with a more internationalised, geopolitical construction of the problem of slavery and unfree labour. Domestic and imperial policy, action and identity are closely intertwined and cannot be separated from each other in this period, and there are important implications for nineteenth-century British history in exploring the reciprocal relationship between this spirit of social inquiry, prompted by rapid domestic social change, and patterns of British involvement in the rights-based discourses of foreign powers, and their ultimate significance for British international relations and the development of the empire.


The project is designed around four areas of investigation, focusing on the years 1830-1890:

  • British consular activity in African locations of ‘informal empire’. Zanzibar is the primary case study.
  • British commissioner activity in the territories of rival powers party to the slave trade treaties. The primary case study will be the Spanish colony of Cuba.
  • The performance of structured official commissions of inquiry, comparing the methods and narrative outputs of the 1904 Foreign Office Congo Free State inquiry, investigating abuses in the African territories of the Belgian King Leopold II, with approaches Britain used in its own territories, including the West Indies’ inquiries of the 1820s, the Commission of Eastern Inquiry and the West African inquiries of the 1810s, 1820s and early 1840s.
  • The implications of the above for our understanding of geopolitics and empire at the Berlin and Brussels Conferences of the 1880s.


About the researcher

I am an Early Career Fellow at the School of History, University of Leicester. My research interests lie in the intersections between empire, interventionism, geopolitics and the development of discourses of humanitarianism and human rights. Previously, I was a doctoral student at Trinity College Dublin, working on the Liberated African Department of Sierra Leone and the implementation of abolition policy from 1808-1863. Prior to that, I completed an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Cambridge and a BA in History and English Literature at Trinity College Dublin.



This project has been made possible by the Leverhulme Trust, who awarded me a three-year Early-Career Fellowship at the University of Leicester from 2015-18. I am enormously indebted to Prof. Clare Anderson, whose advice was invaluable in securing a successful application, and who continues to provide invaluable support to this project.


At the conclusion of this 36-month fellowship, I aim to publish a monograph. Over the three years, I will also produce several articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals. I also intend to convene an international conference in 2017 on the Geopolitics of Humanitarian Intervention and Human Rights.

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