Anti-Slavery, European Imperialism, and Paternalistic ‘Protection’ (1880s to 1950s)

Colonial Global Economy - Lecture 6

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:


Questions for Discussion

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?