Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-2qt69 Total loading time: 0.393 Render date: 2022-08-18T05:44:41.739Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 November 2014

Brasenose College, Oxford
Brasenose College, Oxford OX1


This article surveys the wave of new historical and political-science literature exploring humanitarianism and the ‘pre-history’ of human rights in the long nineteenth century, noting the presentist assumptions underpinning much of this literature. On the one hand, histories of humanitarianism have focused on the origins of present-day humanitarian concerns, paying particular attention to the anti-slavery movement. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of this literature has explored Anglo-American (and usually Protestant) humanitarianism to the exclusion of the humanitarian campaigns and ideologies of other nations and faith traditions. A more properly historical approach is required, which would pay greater attention to the fusion of religious and secular traditions of activism, to the particular role of women in constituting these traditions, and to the different national contexts in which they bore fruit. Such an approach would also expand our understanding of ‘humanitarian’ activity to incorporate causes with less obvious present-day relevance, such as the temperance movement and Josephine Butler's campaign against the state regulation of prostitution. It would certainly prompt deeper reflection on the contingency of humanitarianism as a topic of historical inquiry, at least as currently constructed.

Historiographical Reviews
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



I would like to thank the Historical Journal anonymous reviewers, as well as Ruth Harris, Derek Penslar, and Anne Summers, for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.


1 Moyn, Samuel, The last utopia: human rights in history (Cambridge, MA, 2010)Google Scholar.

2 Reprinted as Cmiel, Kenneth, ‘The recent history of human rights’, in Iriye, Akira, Goedde, Petra, and Hitchcock, William I., eds., The human rights revolution: an international history (Oxford, 2012), pp. 2751Google Scholar.

3 Barnett, Michael, Empire of humanity: a history of humanitarianism (Ithaca, NY, 2011), p. 5Google Scholar.

4 Bass, Gary J., Freedom's battle: the origins of humanitarian intervention (New York, NY, 2008)Google Scholar.

5 Rodogno, Davide, Against massacre: humanitarian interventions in the Ottoman Empire, 1815–1914: the emergence of a European concept and international practice (Princeton, NJ, 2012)Google Scholar.

6 Tusan, Michelle, Smyrna's ashes: humanitarianism, genocide and the birth of the Middle East (Berkeley, CA, 2012), p. 7Google Scholar.

7 Simms, Brendan and Trim, D. J. B., eds., Humanitarian intervention: a history (Cambridge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Klose, Fabian, ed., The emergence of humanitarian intervention: concepts and practices from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries (Cambridge, forthcoming)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Hunt, Lynn, Inventing human rights: a history (New York, NY, 2007)Google Scholar.

9 Moyn, The last utopia, p. 6.

10 Besides Hunt, Inventing human rights, see Ishay, Micheline R., The history of human rights: from ancient times to the globalization era (Berkeley, CA, 2004)Google Scholar.

11 Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold's ghost: a story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa (2nd edn, London, 2006)Google Scholar.

12 See Hunt, Inventing human rights, ch. 1, and the contributions to Wilson, Richard Ashby and Brown, Richard D., eds., Humanitarianism and suffering: the mobilization of empathy (Cambridge, 2009)Google Scholar. On global civil society see, for instance, Keane, John, Global civil society? (Cambridge, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Chandler, David, Constructing global civil society: morality and power in international relations (Basingstoke, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 See above all Simms and Trim, eds., Humanitarian intervention.

14 Moyn, The last utopia, ch. 1.

15 Rodogno, Against massacre, p. 6.

16 Rodogno, Against massacre, pp. 54–62.

17 Ashby Wilson, Richard and Brown, Richard D., ‘Introduction’, in , Wilson and , Brown, eds., Humanitarianism and suffering, p. 11Google Scholar.

18 Wilson and Brown, ‘Introduction’, pp. 11–12.

19 Ibid., p. 12.

20 Laqueur, Thomas W., ‘Mourning, pity and the work of narrative in the making of “humanity”’, in , Wilson and , Brown, eds., Humanitarianism and suffering, pp. 3157Google Scholar.

21 Reddy, William, ‘Sentimentalism and its erasure: the role of emotions in the era of the French Revolution’, Journal of Modern History, 72 (March Journal of Modern History), pp. 109–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Bew, John, ‘‘From an umpire to a competitor’: Castlereagh, Canning and the issue of international intervention in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars’, in , Simms and , Trim, eds., Humanitarian intervention, p. 137Google Scholar.

23 See for instance Bass, Freedom's battle, chs. 5 and 6.

24 Bew, ‘“From an umpire to a competitor”’, p. 136.

25 Contrast this approach with that taken in Barnett, Empire of humanity, chs. 2–3.

26 Moyn, The last utopia, p. 29.

27 See Bayly, C. A. and Biagini, Eugenio F., eds., Giuseppe Mazzini and the globalisation of democratic nationalism, 1830–1920 (Oxford, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Isabella, Maurizio, Risorgimento in exile: Italian émigrés and the liberal international in the post-Napoleonic era (Oxford, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Mazzini, Joseph, ‘Faith and the future’, in Life and writings of Joseph Mazzini, iii: Autobiographical and political (London, 1891), p. 99Google Scholar.

29 Ibid., pp. 111, 115.

30 Bayly, C. A. and Biagini, Eugenio, ‘Introduction’, in , Bayly and , Biagini, eds., Giuseppe Mazzini, p. 3Google Scholar, and the following articles also published in this collection: Eugenio Biagini, ‘Mazzini and anticlericalism: the English exile’, pp. 145–66, and C. A. Bayly, ‘Liberalism at large: Mazzini and nineteenth-century Indian thought’, pp. 355–74.

31 Summers, Anne, ‘British women and cultures of internationalism, 1815–1914’, in Feldman, David and Lawrence, Jon, eds., Structures and transformations in modern British history (Cambridge, 2011), p. 195Google Scholar.

32 Ibid., p. 192.

33 Schwegman, Marjan, ‘Amazons in Italy; Josephine Butler and the transformation of Italian female militancy’, Women's History Review, 17 (2008), pp. 173–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 On this see Summers, Anne, Female lives, moral states: women, religion and public life in Britain 1800–1930 (Newbury, 2000)Google Scholar, ch. 1.

35 Midgley, Clare, Women against slavery: the British campaigns, 1780–1870 (London, 1992)Google Scholar.

36 Sklar, Kathryn Kish and Stewart, James Brewerr, eds., Women's rights and transatlantic antislavery in the era of emancipation (New Haven, CT, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 On this see Summers, Anne, ed., ‘Gender, religion and politics; Josephine Butler's campaigns in international perspective (1875–1959)’, Women's History Review, 17, 2 (special issue) (2008)Google Scholar.

38 Barnett, Empire of humanity, pp. 20–1.

39 See Summers, Female lives, moral states, chs. 3 and 4.

40 Tyrrell, Ian, Reforming the world: the creation of America's moral empire (Princeton, NJ, 2010), pp. 21–3Google Scholar.

41 Tusan, Smyrna's ashes, pp. 35–9, ch. 4.

42 Ibid., p. 116. On Lady Strangford's activities see pp. 85–7.

43 Tyrrell, Reforming the world, ch. 2.

44 Barnett, Empire of humanity, pp. 83–6.

45 On the female contribution to Buxton family politics, see Gleadle, Kathryn, Borderline citizens: women, gender and political culture in Britain, 1815–1867 (Oxford, 2009), especially ch. 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Hunt, Lynn, The French Revolution and human rights: a brief documentary history (Boston, MA, 1996), pp. 26–9Google Scholar.

47 Pateman, Carole, The sexual contract (London, 1988)Google Scholar.

48 Ishay, History of human rights, pp. 160–5.

49 Iriye, Goedde, and Hitchcock, eds., The human rights revolution.

50 Black, Allida, ‘Are women “human”? The UN and the struggle to recognize women's rights as human rights’, in Goedde, Iriye and , Hitchcock, eds., The human rights revolution, p. 151Google Scholar.

51 Summers, Female lives, moral states, p. 121.

52 Summers, ‘British women and cultures of internationalism’.

53 Tyrrell, Reforming the world, p. 99.

54 Ibid., p. 106.

55 See for instance Ibhawoh, Bonny, Imperialism and human rights: colonial discourses of rights and liberties in African history (New York, NY, 2007)Google Scholar, and the discussion in Cmiel, ‘Recent history of human rights’, pp. 34–6.

56 Moyn, The last utopia, pp. 37–41.

57 See Haskell, Thomas L., ‘Capitalism and the origins of the humanitarian sensibility, Part 1’, American Historical Review, 90 (1985), pp. 339–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Haskell, Thomas L., ‘Capitalism and the origins of the humanitarian sensibility, Part 2’, American Historical Review, 90 (1985), pp. 547–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hunt, Inventing human rights; Wilson and Brown, eds., Humanitarianism and suffering.

58 See for instance the issues covered in Barnett, Empire of humanity; Simms and Trim, eds., Humanitarian intervention; Wilson and Brown, eds., Humanitarianism and suffering.

59 Hunt, French Revolution and human rights, pp. 24–6; Hunt, Inventing human rights, pp. 160–7; Sepinwall, Alyssa Goldstein, The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: the making of modern universalism (Berkeley, CA, 2005), ch. 8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Viaene, Vincent, ‘Nineteenth-century Catholic internationalism and its predecessors’, in Green, Abigail and Viaene, Vincent, eds., Religious internationals in the modern world: globalization and faith communities since 1750 (Basingstoke, 2012), p. 104Google Scholar. On papal attempts to assert moral leadership through humanitarian activism, see especially Viaene, Vincent, ed., The papacy and the new world order: Vatican diplomacy, Catholic opinion and international politics in the time of Leo XIII, 1878–1903 (Leuven, 2005)Google Scholar, part iv: the servant of humanity.

61 See for instance Moyn, The last utopia, pp. 54–5, 74–6, although Moyn stresses the Catholic church's well-established opposition to the language of rights before this time.

62 Green, Abigail, ‘The British empire and the Jews: an imperialism of human rights?Past and Present, 199 (May 2008), pp. 175205CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Green, Abigail, ‘Intervening in the Jewish question, 1840–1878’, in Simms, and Trim, , eds., Humanitarian Intervention, pp. 139–58Google Scholar; Green, Abigail, ‘The limits of intervention: coercive diplomacy and the Jewish question in the nineteenth century’, International History Review, 36 (2014), pp. 473–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Galchinsky, Michael, Jews and human rights: dancing at three weddings (Lanham, MD, 2008)Google Scholar; Samuel Moyn, ‘René Cassin, human rights and Jewish internationalism’,

63 Preston, Andrew, Sword of the spirit, shield of faith: religion in American war and diplomacy (New York, NY, 2012)Google Scholar.

64 Grant, Kevin, A civilised savagery: Britain and the new slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926 (Oxford, 2005)Google Scholar, and Tusan, Smyrna's ashes, are good examples.

65 Tyrrell, Reforming the world, pp. 24–5.

66 See Drescher, Seymour, ‘Women's mobilization in the era of slave-emancipation: some Anglo-French comparisons’, in Sklar, and Stewart, , eds., Women's rights and transatlantic antislavery, pp. 98120Google Scholar, and the other essays in this volume.

67 Summers, ‘Gender, religion and politics’.

68 Bass, Freedom's battle; Rodogno, Against massacre; Donald Bloxham, The great game of genocide: imperialism, nationalism, and the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford, 2005). See also Part ii of Simms and Trim, eds., Humanitarian intervention, on the Great Powers and the Ottoman empire.

69 See Rodogno, Against massacre, ch. 4, and Davide Rodogno, ‘The “principles of humanity” and the European powers’ intervention in Ottoman Lebanon and Syria in 1860–1861’, in Simms and Trim, eds., Humanitarian intervention, pp. 159–83.

70 Caesar Farah, E., The politics of interventionism in Ottoman Lebanon, 1830–1861 (London, 2000)Google Scholar; Leff, Lisa Moses, Sacred bonds of solidarity: the rise of Jewish internationalism in nineteenth-century France (Stanford, CA, 2006)Google Scholar; Green, ‘Intervening in the Jewish question’.

71 On the mission civilisatrice, see Conklin, Alice, A mission to civilize: the Republican idea of empire in France and west Africa, 1895–1930 (Stanford, CA, 1997)Google Scholar, and Conklin, Alice, ‘Colonialism and human rights, a contradiction in terms? The case of French west-Africa, 1895–1914’, American Historical Review, 103 (1998), pp. 419–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the complex relationship between Catholicism and secular republicanism in the French empire, see Daughton, J. P., An empire divided: religion, republicanism, and the making of French colonialism, 1880–1914 (Oxford, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

72 Loth, Heinrich, Kolonialismus und ‘Humanitätsintervention’: Kritische Untersuchung der Politik Deutschlands gegenüber dem Kongostaat (1884–1908) (Berlin, 1966)Google Scholar, and Willequet, Jacques, Le Congo Belge et la Weltpolitik (1894–1914) (Liège, 1962)Google Scholar, represent a partial exception here, but were published some fifty years ago and consequently fail to engage with more recent historiographical concerns.

73 Clark, Christopher and Ledger-Lomas, Michael, ‘The Protestant International’, in , Green and , Viaene, eds., Religious Internationals in the modern world, pp. 2352Google Scholar.

74 Smith, Helmut Walser, German nationalism and religious conflict: culture, ideology, politics, 1870–1914 (Princeton, NJ, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, sets the parameters for recent work on German nationalism and Protestant culture. Conrad, Sebastian and Osterhammel, Jürgen, Das Kaiserreich transnational: Deutschland in der Welt 1871–1914 (Göttingen, 2004)Google Scholar, captures the flavour of recent transnational approaches.

75 Laqua, Daniel, ‘The tensions of internationalism: transnational anti-slavery in the 1880s and 1890s’, International History Review, 33 (2011), pp. 705–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 Brown, Christopher Leslie, Moral capital: foundations of British abolitionism (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006)Google Scholar.

77 Grant, A civilised savagery.

78 Mazower, Mark, Governing the world: the history of an idea (London, 2012)Google Scholar. See also Geyer, Martin H. and Paulmann, Johannes, eds., The mechanics of internationalism: culture, society, and politics from the 1840s to the First World War (Oxford, 2001)Google Scholar.

79 Clark, Christopher and Kaiser, Wolfram, eds., Culture wars: secular–Catholic conflict in nineteenth-century Europe (Cambridge, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *