Slavery, settlers and indigenous dispossession: Britain's empire through the lens of Liberia

Zoë Laidlaw

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Despite growing interest in the relationships between Britain’s different colonial territories, historians remain likely to use well-established geographical frameworks when studying nineteenth-century settler colonialism, or to focus on a single issue across multiple locations. This article argues that humanitarian critics of imperial policy possessed flexible understandings of both empire and human difference, allowing them to deploy a far wider range of comparators and connections. By focusing on a single well-connected individual, the article challenges orthodox constellations of both imperial issues and colonial territories.
Thomas Hodgkin founded the Aborigines Protection Society in 1837. Under Hodgkin, the London-based Society protested against the harmful effect of settler colonialism on indigenous peoples, arguing on moral, religious and scientific grounds for the recognition of land rights, an end to settler violence, and the promotion of ‘civilisation’ among indigenous peoples. Through his work as the Society’s secretary, but also as a medical doctor, ethnologist, abolitionist, investor and Quaker, Hodgkin sat at the heart of an extensive epistolary and personal network. Connections across the United States, West and North Africa, the Caribbean, India, and the Pacific, as well as Britain’s settler colonies, fostered Hodgkin’s knowledge of the adverse impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples and shaped his proposals for overcoming them.
By examining Hodgkin’s willingness to compare disparate types of colonies and to look beyond the Empire – particularly to Liberia – in developing schemes to combat slavery and to secure the rights of indigenous peoples, this article offers a reappraisal of early Victorian conceptions of empire. It asserts the importance of acknowledging that those who made and carried out colonial policy were aware of, but chose to ignore, ‘humanitarian’ schemes to minimise or reverse the harm inflicted on indigenous peoples and emancipated slaves. Finally, in an era when the perspective and experiences of colonised subjects are rightly emphasised, it considers what life stories – and in particular, the life stories of dead white men – contribute to our understanding of the history of colonisation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5
JournalJournal of Colonialism and Colonial History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012

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