Thursday, January 28, 2016

Cover story: "Britannia's Embrace"

Caroline Shaw is Assistant Professor of History at Bates College. Her new book is Britannia's Embrace: Modern Humanitarianism and the Imperial Origins of Refugee Relief.

Here Shaw explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
In 1812 Benjamin West completed his portrait of John Eardley Wilmot. The portrait was two paintings in one: it depicted its subject, Wilmot, lawyer and former Chief Justice of Common Pleas, in the foreground; in the background was a painting within a painting, a scene of American loyalists, including Native Americans, African slaves, women, and children. The refugees were met with the judicious relief of British magistrates, a process overseen by the allegorical Britannia herself, accompanied by guardian angels and the Virgin Mary. It is this inset painting that appears on the cover of Britannia’s Embrace.

By 1812, when West finished his portrait, the British prided themselves on the welcome they had provided to refugees of all sorts. For the Wilmots, refugee relief was a family vocation. John Eardley Wilmot directed governmental relief efforts in the wake of the American Revolution. His son John Wilmot assisted with loyalist relief and went on to oversee official aid for French Catholic Clergy and Laity at the height of the Revolutionary Terror of the 1790s. British concern for the persecuted trumped divisions of race and of religion.

Few could have anticipated that the British would set aside deep-set confessional prejudices at this moment. Until the late eighteenth century, stridently Protestant Britain saw refugee relief as part of a confessional battle. The Huguenots, Protestants banished from France by Louis XIV, found shelter in Britain and other Protestant countries and introduced the term refugee into the English language around 1685. That the British would admit let alone celebrate the protection of French Catholics represented a fundamental shift. Refuge would no longer be about religion. Now, it centered around ideology and a shared liberal vision that transcended deep political divisions within Britain itself. At the time, Britain stood alone in her openness to foreign refugees. By the dawn of the twentieth century, humanitarians across the globe fought for the relief of refugees of all stripes.

The book examines these transformations in the emergence and universalization of the refugee as a category for humanitarian action. It argues that refuge became a powerful humanitarian norm because it helped Britons define what it meant to be liberal on a global stage. The resources of empire made such humanitarianism possible, providing officials and activists the means for securing shelter for these charitable subjects, often outside the British Isles. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the welcoming hospitality depicted in Benjamin West’s 1812 painting had come to symbolize British liberal humanitarianism. While this memory remains, British preeminence in the realm of refugee relief does not. And yet, although Britons can no longer claim to offer a refuge par excellence, the moral politics of refugee relief, pioneered in the context of the long-nineteenth-century, remain palpable today.
Learn more about Britannia's Embrace at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue