Roundtable: Empire, Race, Humanitarianism as Contexts, Chronologies and Categories

Dr. Simon Jackson (University of Birmingham)

The following blog post is part of “Humanitarianism: continuing the conversation” an occasional series Past & Present is running on its blog, developing and jumping off from the points raised during Past & Present’s recent humanitarianism conversation published online alongside (Past & Present #241).

A round-table debate was held at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Modern and Contemporary History and co-organised by the Institute of Historical Research’s Rethinking Modern Europe seminar, as part of its regular series of ‘roving seminars’ that seek to move the seminar’s activities away from London and into other institutional and intellectual contexts through a variety of partnerships.

The theme in Birmingham was ‘Empire, Race, Humanitarianism,’ responding in part to a recent Past & Present conversation on the theme of history and humanitarianism. This short post presents a synthesis of the debate and some of the key avenues along which the historiographies in question might progress .

Poster advertising event: date, time, black and white early to mid twentieth century image, IHR and Modern and Contemporary research centre logos

Event flyer: image provided by Simon Jackson, 2018

Opening comments by Simon Jackson (Birmingham) set out some initial leads, drawing on the experience of archival research in a family archive in Beirut and on the conceptually challenging role of brokers in the humanitarian relief politics in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1918-1920. More specifically, Jackson raised three main questions.

First, the historiography on humanitarian practice, ideology and intervention is regularly organised around the binary of over-studied, relatively archivally accessible, external and often Western/imperial protagonists on one hand, and understudied, archivally challenging local recipients and resistance in the colonized world or Global South, on the other. But how useful is the binary presentation of these groups, even when this presentation of matters acts as a necessary prompt to seek out more diverse voices and different archives or research strategies? While doing those latter things, should we not also reflect on how the constitution of the line between external donor and local recipient is itself a historically specific object of study quite as much as, or more than, a methodological shorthand?

Second, and related, how should historians of humanitarianism, as they develop their field, think about the varied conceptual tools and historiographical evolutions that the new imperial history and colonial and post-colonial studies have developed? For example, can debates in imperial and global history over analytical scale and over the disciplinary limits of history help historians of humanitarianism to range more widely? More specifically, the sense of scale operative in recent attempts at global micro-histories comes to mind here. Equally, as Emily Baughan noted in referring, during the Past & Present Conversation, to her engagement with work by Africanists such as Benedetta Rossi and Kara Moskowitz, the productively tempestuous broader relationship of imperial and global history to the inter-disciplinary and multi-lingual strengths of area studies is a fruitful inspiration. How can such pre-existing and well-established debates help historians of humanitarianism to find a balance between the structural and institutional emphasis of recent work on international or non-governmental organisations, and the productively intimate and imaginatively engaged histories of subjectivity increasingly at large in both modern and medieval research agendas?

Third, how might historians make intersectional use of the category of race to link concepts of empire and humanitarianism? How might the category of whiteness, for instance, help illuminate military humanitarian practices?


Sarah Frank (St Andrews) opened the debate with a discussion of her research on French colonial subjects who were interned in France after the Nazi defeat of the French Army in 1940. Frank showed incisively how the racialisation of the colonial prisoners of war (POWs) had deep pre-1939 roots but also took on new valences in the accelerated tempo of post-armistice wartime emergency. These logics saturated the blended humanitarian-military-imperial logics to which the POWs were subject. Thus, colonial POWs were interned in France by the Nazis instead of being deported to Germany for racial reasons. But once interned they also became the object of international, (Vichy) national-state and even individual humanitarian measures in ways that reflected established patterns of cultural stereotyping. Simultaneously, different actors sought to use humanitarian endeavour towards the colonial POWs to shape future political outcomes. Thus, the Vichy state tried to make its paternalist and increasingly professionalised and bureaucratic provision of humanitarian food parcels to colonial POWs a vector to retain the loyalty of its colonial territories. Accordingly, it tried to shut down individual relief efforts by French citizens living in proximity to internment camps. Meanwhile, the colonial POWs’ rights under the 1929 Geneva Convention were recognised, unlike those of Soviet POWs in the East, whose death rate was catastrophically worse. Frank paid valuable close attention to the everyday use of foodstuffs and to the rhythms and logistics of relief delivery, showing how unequal and culturally stereotyping racial logics were baked into the choice of foodstuffs provided (Tet or Eid holidays were marked in relief deliveries, Moroccan parcels were superior to Tunisian or Algerian ones). With multiple networks providing relief to the internment camps, problems of logistics became problems of morale for particular groups, another source of inequalities. In terms of race, Frank showed how the ways in which white familial relationships were fostered by relief efforts – while the state positioned itself as the ‘father’ to POWs of colour, refusing the primacy of social and familial networks of colour, even as it banked on those same networks to transmit the gratitude it hoped the food parcels would elicit in individual colonial POWs.

Nina Wardleworth (Leeds) developed a related set of points by examining how and why women from the French Caribbean (Guadeloupe, Martinique) resisted the reactionary regime introduced into the Caribbean under the French Vichy regime of WW2. These women joined the Free French forces, and later their wartime service drew them into subsequent humanitarian, political and educational roles in the ambit of a (partially) decolonising French imperial formation. Wardleworth’s path-blazing analysis not only underlined the almost complete absence of women from the archival taxonomy of the French state military archives in question most notably its photographic holdings (ECPAD), but also innovatively placed the wartime hunger of the French Caribbean and the emergency and humanitarian politics of that moment into a longer run history, surely a key insight for humanitarian history at large. Wardleworth showed how the women’s lives were often rooted in the activism of the 1930s (including the Negritude movement), proceeded through their volunteering for wartime service to the Free French and went on to bloom again in the struggles of Caribbean women of colour to claim leading roles in the post-war politics of social and economic rights and anti-colonial independence. These were years when labour migration to the French metropole brought many Caribbean women into domestic service in France, a little known story in contrast to the North African workers who staffed many of the factories of what Herrick Chapman has lately called ‘France’s Long Reconstruction’. Wardleworth thereby re-lit the scenes of hunger, disaster and isolation that are a familiarly bleak frame for humanitarian histories by deploying a medium-term chronology that traversed separate colonial-political regimes to productive effect.

Wardleworth also emphasised how the Dissidentes women who joined the Free French from the Caribbean, for instance joining its ‘Services Feminins’ (Women’s Auxiliary Service) were both racialised themselves and also deployed in racializing social services and humanitarian relief activities in Allied North Africa in the closing years of the war. She also traced the archival and individual afterlives of her story, noting how archivists in the Caribbean have steadily sought out donations of material even as metropolitan state archives both occlude and are haunted by the women’s stories. Again here, the inspiration for historians of humanitarianism seemed clear, in terms of a focus on the political afterlives, archival politics and memory studies of humanitarian work long after emergency moments have passed.

Claire Eldridge (Leeds) moved the chronological focus from the Second World War to the First World War but continued to spotlight the intersection of military institutions with logics of racial hierarchy and colonial rule. Through a deep exploration of French military judicial records, Eldridge also showed how the records of a mass institution such as the military can produce a mosaic of testimony from fragments of the texture of everyday experience, an insight that is potently available for wide methodological application in humanitarian historiographies where the recovery of subaltern voices is at a premium. Eldridge showed the potential of military justice archives to provide a history from below of the half million colonial troops that served in the French Army, diversifying histories of soldiery in the First World War and contesting the assumption of whiteness through which such sources are often handled – the ‘white gloves’ with which historians too-often grasp documents.

The cases Eldridge examined allowed a valuable portrait of everyday military life and its racialised logics to appear in the details of the evidence adduced. Social practices of food and alcohol consumption provided notably rich pickings, showing how the tactics soldiers used to manage fear and fuel their resilience at the same time drew on and exposed them to the reproduction of colonial hierarchies. As in current research in other contexts by scholars such as Judith Surkis, these were hierarchies in which individual and political sovereignty were expressed notably in bodily practices and repertoires. As in Wardleworth’s and Frank’s interventions, Eldridge showed how the temporal practices of a specific emergency moment (wartime) were revealed in everyday military social rituals: as Paul Lawrie has put it in another context, ‘every time has its times’. For instance, a card-game, in which time was whiled away and thoughts of death perhaps cloaked, also crystallised racialised social tensions and built up a dangerous potential for shame and insult between, say, a white officer with a weaker hand and an Algerian ‘Zouave’ soldier who momentarily held some literal aces. The ensuing offences were sanctioned down a colonial racial hierarchy, but sentences were often suspended in order to maintain the fighting strength (in at least two senses of the term) of the units concerned.


Overall, the debate pointed up the value of setting humanitarian historiography more thoroughly into key broader debates, including those that take place in colonial and post-colonial studies and in Area Studies. The archival value of large institutions such as the military, of spaces such as internment camps, or of the networks and rituals through which sustenance was delivered, contested and criticised, came into particularly clear focus. As Eleanor Davey put it in the roundtable discussion, this showed

…the value of discovery work in new or very neglected archives, and the important rescue work that archivists are doing, but also the value of reading more familiar sets of sources with new lenses.

Moreover, as Davey further emphasised, the benefits of thinking intersectionally with the category of race were clear and the papers showed especially how, when combined with an attention to gendered experiences such as the dissidentes.

treatment or the politics of military masculinity, new lines of questioning arose. Finally, the value of longer chronologies through which to grasp humanitarian histories was pointed up most clearly by Wardleworth’s intervention, which cast new light on the dynamics of a given humanitarian arena by treating it within a medium-term framework. The future of the history of humanitarianism as a discreet sub-field is exciting, therefore, especially so when it is able to engage with the insights and debates of cognate fields.

Past & Present welcomes additional perspectives that continue the discussions begun in the journal’s pages. Any scholars who have organised events such as the above, or who have their own reflections upon the questions and historiographical matters raised during the Humanitarianism Conversation; are invited to get in touch with Josh (Past & Present Digital Engagement) in the first instance, with their ideas for blog posts.  

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