Anti-Slavery, European Imperialism, and Paternalistic ‘Protection’ (1880s to 1950s)
Lecturer: Professor Joel Quirk, University of the Witwatersrand
10 May 2021
The main role of organized anti-slavery during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to both legitimate and reinforce deeply rooted hierarchies which saw European states and their peoples position themselves at the moral and racial apex of ‘civilization’.
Centuries of death and destruction associated with Transatlantic slavery were firmly dispatched to the past, despite their ongoing and catastrophic effects, thereby enabling Europeans to be reborn as abolitionists, rather than enslavers. The foundational premise of organized anti-slavery – no one should be enslaved – would come to be primarily understood in terms of paternalistic ‘protection’, with ‘civilized’ Europeans justifying unprovoked wars of colonial conquest as ‘humanitarian’ missions to prevent ‘savage’ and ‘backward’ peoples in other parts of the globe from enslaving each other.
Appeals to moral and religious enlightenment (the ‘civilising mission’) and altruistic sacrifice (the ‘white man’s burden’) proved to be hugely important. By treating their non-European subjects as ‘backward children’ who were said to be unable to make decisions for themselves, Europeans were able to both justify and excuse any number of external actions and interventions.
Tragically, these actions included countless examples of death, exploitation, extraction, violence and abuse, thereby exposing the fundamental hollowness of European pretentions towards moral superiority. Slavery would be banished symbolically via legal abolition while many of its defining features continued alongside everyday forms of violence and exploitation.
In case after case, governments who congratulated themselves on abolishing slavery would continue to justify and defend numerous acts of exploitation and coercion directed against ‘inferiors’ and ‘outsiders’.
The material presented here is primarily based upon the following paper:
- Joel Quirk, ‘Political Cultures’, A Cultural History of Slavery and Human Trafficking in the Age of Global Conflict, Henrice Altink (ed.) (London: Bloomsbury, in press). Minor changes in language are possible prior to publication.
Other useful reading materials include:
- Joel Quirk, Uncomfortable Silences: Anti-Slavery, Colonialism and Imperialism, Historians Against Slavery, 13 February, 2015.
- Joel Quirk, Reparations are too confronting: Let’s talk about Modern Slavery instead, openDemocracy, 7 May 2015.
- Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, (New York: Monthly Review Press 1972). Originally published in French in 1955.
- Binyavanga Wainaina, How to Write About Africa. Granta, 92. 2005.
- Teju Cole, The White-Savior Industrial Complex, The Atlantic, March 21, 2012. Toby Green, How the End of Atlantic Slavery paved a path to colonialism, Aeon,
30 March 2021.
- Emily Burrill, State of Marriage: Gender, Justice and Rights in Colonial Mali (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015).
- Martin Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
- Eric Allina, Slavery by Any Other Name: African Life under Company Rule in Colonial Mozambique (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012).
- Robert Burroughs, African Testimony in the Movement for Congo Reform : The Burden of Proof (Abington: Routledge, 2018).
- Alice Bellagamba, Sandra Greene, Martin Klein (eds.) African voices on slavery and the slave trade, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
- Slave Voyages (essential starting point for the history of Transatlantic enslavement)
- UNESCO General History of Africa (free downloads, multiple languages).
- Basil Davidson, Africa Episode 5 The Bible & The Gun, and Episode 6 The Magnificent African Cake.
- Liberated Africans (database on enslaved Africans freed in the nineteenth century).
- Stanford, Africa South of the Sahara (online database of primary sources)
- Bouillagui: A Free Village (multimedia platform on slavery and abolition in Mali, in both French and English).
- Imperialism/Colonialism in Africa Resource Links.
- Africa is a country (essential starting point for African politics and history)
Questions for Discussion
- Colonialism was primarily driven by economic and political interests, yet was frequently justified and defended using appeals to a ‘higher purpose’. What does the close relationship between anti-slavery and European colonialism say about the politics and prospects of humanitarianism and altruism more broadly?
- What are the defining features of paternalism as both an ideology and practice? How do these defining features pave the way for systems of violence and coercion?
- What does the history of legal reforms targeting enslavement say about the limits and possibilities of legal solutions to complex problems? What should we make of the introduction of various laws which were designed to reconstitute and extend core features of enslavement after slavery had been legally abolished?
- How does the history of slavery and abolition in the late ninetieth and early twentieth century influence how we think about slave resistance, both individual and collective?
- Where and how do models of hierarchy and ‘supremacy’ which were dominant during the age of high imperialism continue to have effects upon politics and society today?