Decolonization, Humanitarianism, and a Vocabulary Problem

When I started working at the National History Center of the American Historical Association about a year ago, I expected my new job would be stimulating, but I was not sure it would stimulate me intellectually in terms of my own scholarship. I knew I would gain or deepen skills as I worked to master organizational finances, expand our social media engagement, and supervise a team of interns. I also looked forward to what I would learn at the Washington History Seminar, the center’s quarterly Congressional Briefings, and the International Seminar on Decolonization about areas and eras beyond my chosen field of early American history. The center’s mission is bringing history into public conversation about current events, and most of our programs focus on 19th- and especially 20th-century history. I considered these topics remote from my work on humanitarianism in the 18th-century Anglo-American world. Recently, though, as I worked on this year’s Decolonization Seminar, I found myself mulling a question about the vocabulary I use: Why, I wondered, do I readily use the word “humanitarianism” in my work, but would never use the word “decolonization”?

Each summer the Decolonization Seminar brings 15 early career historians to Washington for four weeks to research, discuss, and write about the dissolution of European empires in the 20th century. Hosted by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, it is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. With the 10th and final seminar coming up in July, I looked again at the list of this year’s participants. The Decol 2015 cohort includes early career historians at institutions in Australia, France, India, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (A couple of the participants will be familiar faces at the Kluge Center, where they held fellowships.) Their scholarship probes the implications of the end of European empires for Algeria, Britain and its commonwealth, Congo, Egypt, India, Kenya, Korea, Libya, Portugal, the United Nations, the United States, the global South, and beyond. The projects the participants will be working on this summer range from politics, citizenship, and law to race and transnational movements and more. Several projects focus on humanitarianism and development.

As I thought about the various projects, I found myself considering the terminology of beneficence. Eighteenth-century men and women in the Anglophone world used words and phrases including “benevolence,” “charity,” and “cause of humanity” to refer to their projects to improve the lots of people in distress. They also increasingly used the word “philanthropy,” or “love of mankind,” to refer to the sentiment that motivated their efforts. Some of those efforts, as a fellow historian of the 18th century pointed out to me recently, were far removed from the kind of transformational undertakings we today identify as humanitarian. Moreover, the word “humanitarian” was not part of the vocabulary of beneficence in the 1700s. Used rarely, it was a theological term referring to the belief that Jesus’s nature was human, not divine. In the 19th century, the word did apply to efforts to meliorate suffering, but it often connoted excessive or inappropriate do-gooding. It is only in recent decades that “humanitarianism” has come to be used positively to refer to charitable activism. “Humanitarianism,” then, is an anachronistic word for 18th-century activities, yet I’m comfortable using it. I study the impact of American independence on transatlantic philanthropic endeavors—in other words, with the end of empire and its implications—so what’s wrong with discussing “decolonization” for my time period?

The answer I’ve been turning over in my head has to do with the relation between developments in the different eras. Developments in 19th- and 20th-century Anglo-American beneficence built on the norms and institutions that their predecessors had left. Later generations have tweaked, expanded, or rejected earlier practices, but whichever it was, they have had some familiarity with their predecessors’ endeavors and, not infrequently, their predecessors themselves. By contrast, decolonization in the 20th century does not seem, to me at least, to be related to the experiences of citizens of the new United States, and indeed there is a case to be made that the story is not of the United States as a post-colonial nation, as some would have it, but of the new republic as an expanding empire. As a result, the word “decolonization”—a neologism of the developments our seminar examines—seems too closely tied to the era that gave it birth and not suitable for discussing the American revolutionary period.

A year or so ago, I had not expected to be able to relate much to the projects pursued by the Decol participants, but the seminar has expanded my horizons, and I appreciate that it helps me to think through the concepts I use. Perhaps the participants in this summer’s seminar will persuade me otherwise, but for now the word “humanitarianism” stays in.

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