September 20, 2021

Is there a more accurate satirical creation in all English literature than Mrs Jellyby, the humanitarian imperialist of Dickens’s Bleak House? Mrs Jellyby’s “telescopic philanthropy”, mocked by Dickens, saw her neglect both her own family and the widespread poverty of Victorian London in pursuit of her utopian Borrioboola-Gha scheme for “the general cultivation of the coffee berry — and the natives — and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population”. To which end, when she is introduced as a character in the novel, she hopes “by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”

Writing in 1852, Dickens was satirising the dramatic failure of the 1841 Niger Expedition, the brainchild of the Quaker abolitionist Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. Like other liberal abolitionists of the era, Buxton believed that the only way to stamp out the slave trade in West Africa was to penetrate the continent’s unexplored interior to establish model villages and trading settlements, where, under the influence of free trade and Protestant Christianity, African kingdoms whose economies had depended on slavery for centuries would be civilised into liberal modernity.

Yet like the fictional Borrioboola-Gha scheme, “which turned out a failure in consequence of the King of Borrioboola wanting to sell everybody — who survived the climate — for Rum”, the expedition, which departed with high hopes, popular acclaim and the fundraising efforts of British dignitaries from Prince Albert to Lord Palmerston, was an abject failure, with the “staggering cost of £79,143… borne by taxpayers”, the historian Richard Huzzey notes, “largely because the Whig prime minister, Viscount Melbourne, wanted to associate his faltering ministry with a popular anti-slavery project”. A quarter of the participants died of fever shortly after setting out, yet, “commissioned in the final gasp of public anxiety over slave-holding in Britain’s own West Indian colonies and as a desperate attempt to revive the current ministers’ anti-slavery credentials,” the precedent it set established the pattern for Britain’s later conquest of most of the African continent, an irony of history that does not seem to have entered the public consciousness today.

There is a timely lesson for us about mission creep and the unintended consequences of moral crusades in distant lands that the Victorian campaign against slavery highlights. For all that the topics of slavery, colonialism and imperialism have been discussed endlessly in the culture wars of the past few years — usually by conflating the three very different processes — the archetypal British colonialist in the crucial mid-19th century period was not the sneering pith-helmeted figure of legend, but rather idealistic liberal and evangelical abolitionists, often Quakers, middle-class liberal women and free trade advocates, who genuinely saw British imperial might as a means to right the moral wrongs of distant societies of which they knew little.

As the recent outpouring of commentary demanding that the United States prolong its 20-year military intervention in Afghanistan for the continuance of liberal humanitarian ends reminds us, the Mrs Jellybys, endlessly demanding that something should be done, are still very much with us. In the conquest of much of Africa, liberal humanitarianism and imperialism strode hand in hand into the forested interior: an accurate understanding of how this happened is more timely than ever.

The process of Britain’s growing political entanglement with the African continent took place in three very different stages. In the first, a product of the early modern period, British traders enmeshing themselves in the new, globalising capitalist economy discovered that rich profits could be made buying slaves from African coastal rulers and transporting them to the New World as forced agricultural labourers, paying for them with the products of the new factories. It would be more accurate, then, to characterise the Atlantic slave trade as a product of capitalism or even of globalisation than of either colonialism or imperialism, yet our newly-woke global corporations seem curiously loath to make this connection.

It was the second phase, the idealistic and humanitarian imperialism of the abolitionists, that set the stage over the course of the mid-19th century for the acquisitive, high imperialism of the Scramble for Africa. This story, for both Britain and Africa, curiously enough begins with the American Revolution, when British forces offered liberty to any enslaved African-Americans who were able to escape their rebellious masters. When Britain lost the war, the freed slaves were evacuated north to Nova Scotia as refugees, where the question of what to do with them troubled British policymakers. The abolitionist lobby, led by Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce and prominent members of the evangelical Clapham Sect, devised the plan of transferring freed African-Americans and Jamaican Maroons to the British outpost of Sierra Leone, where they would form the nucleus of a civilising mission to convert the natives away from their slave-trading ways, and towards the light of capitalist free trade and Christianity.

By 1791, the Sierra Leone Company, run by liberal humanitarians including Wilberforce, had taken over governance of the nascent colony, initiating a process described by the historian Bronwen Everill as one where  abolitionists had adopted a worldview “defined by this loose coalition of ideas: the ‘civilization’ of Africa via an end to the slave trade, adoption of standards of western life, material culture, and institutions; Africa’s conversion to Christianity; and the introduction of ‘legitimate’ commerce to simultaneously replace the slave trade, enrich the colonies and the metropoles, and inspire ‘civilized’ consumption.”

As with the humanitarian interventions of our own era, ideals of free trade, globalised capitalism, military intervention and the conversion of downtrodden natives to liberal Western ways were intertwined from the start. For Sierra Leone’s governor, Charles MacCarthy, the division of the colony’s unexplored forests into parishes run by the Church Missionary Society was the beginning of a process that would make “Sierra Leone the base from whence future exertions may be extended, step by step to the very interior of Africa”. As Everill notes, “colonisation was a developing anti-slavery ideology,” which “disrupted local economies, power structures, ideologies, and religions in much the same way that settlers in Australia or North America overcame the aboriginal peoples.”

Yet the failure of the Niger expedition radically altered the process by which the British conquest of West Africa took place. Instead of leading through example, the British Foreign Office and Admiralty found themselves drawn into an ever-widening series of military interventions to eradicate slavery at its source, which would lead inexorably, though unintentionally, to direct colonial rule. Firstly, the anti-slavery campaign of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron turned out to be almost wholly ineffective: the trade in enslaved Africans boomed over the course of its deployment as American and Spanish merchantmen, backed by their governments, refused the Royal Navy’s authority to board their slaving vessels.

Instead, the Royal Navy settled on a policy of eradicating the slave trade on the ground, sailing into coastal towns and villages to pressure their kings and chieftains to sign agreements banning the sale of slaves, and bombarding them and replacing their rulers when they did not. Bit by bit, driven by the unintentional logic of humanitarian intervention, Britain found itself the master of much of the West African coastline.

Similarly, in the forested interior, Sierra Leone’s “Afro-Victorian” middle-class descended from freed American slaves pushed the boundaries of their settlement into unexplored regions, dragging London’s writ behind them. As historians such as Philip D. Morgan have noted, the freed African-Americans who became Sierra Leone’s elite had acquired a frontier mentality of rugged individualism and capitalist enterprise from their American sojourn, and applied the same logic to Africa’s interior. For all the misgivings of politicians and civil servants in London, the boundaries of the Sierra Leone colony expanded as its black elites — who had, in Morgan’s phrasing, “rediscovered in Africa their true American selves” — pursued their manifest destiny into the forests, bringing them into conflict with as yet-unconquered peoples, and dragging the British state into military intervention on their behalf.

Over the course of the 19th century, the modest humanitarian goals of the Sierra Leone colony for freed slaves had evolved into the conquest of much of Nigeria, from the naval bombardment of Lagos in 1851, followed by its annexation in 1861, to the conquest of the mighty slaving kingdom of Benin in 1891 (whose spectacular looted bronze sculptures, the fruit of the Atlantic slave trade, remain in contested British custody today), and then the defeat of the country’s Muslim, slave-trading north towards the end of the century. Driving these conquests was the desire not just to bring Christianity but also the creed of anti-slavery.

Many Africans were bewildered by the shift in British policy, and the destruction of their traditional ways of life. As late as 1897, the Nigerian historian Philip A. Igbafe observed, the deposed Oba or ruler of the Benin kingdom pleaded from his jail cell for permission “to catch some Urhobo slaves for sacrifice as the rains were falling too incessantly for the good of the people and their crops,” a request the new British rulers denied. In what is today Ghana, the Asante king or Asentehene asked of the British “‘But if they think it is bad now, why did they think it was good before?’” and continued the trade in humans that had for so many centuries underpinned the kingdom’s existence, little thinking that it would lead to its downfall.

Yet the unwillingness of African rulers to go along with the newfound abolitionist crusade of the British middle classes had set the stage for a reinterpretation of Britain’s mission from one of education and negotiation to one of military conquest and direct enforcement of liberal mores. As Huzzey notes, “blunt bigotry and frustration at African slave-dealing led the Spectator, in 1853, to moan that ‘British lives are lavished on the African coasts to negotiate and treat with the Black babies who can’t keep from selling each other and cheating us.’ The paper concluded that it was impossible to educate West Africans as ‘moral observers of the Anti-Slavery faith.’” Instead, the perceived intransigence of African rulers “moved Britain to kindle freedom with force”, setting the stage for the expansionist, racialised imperialism of the later 19thcentury.

After a series of bloody Anglo-Ashanti wars, the historian Marika Sherwood notes, “The Asantehene was forced to sign a treaty, giving up any claims to the coastal forts and territories, and to his vassal states. The British thought this would be the end of Asante empire-building, but on his accession King Prempeh I slowly began to resuscitate his country and mobilise his troops. The British asked him to accept ‘Protectorate’ status. The King refused. The British invaded the kingdom, burnt down the capital city of Kumasi and looted it of all its treasures.” From Ghana to Nigeria, from its modest utopian Quaker roots in Sierra Leone, the logic of humanitarian intervention had led, step by unintended step, to the destruction and looting of native kingdoms and their replacement by direct British rule.

Yet by this point, whatever appeal direct humanitarian intervention on the African continent had held for Britain’s governing classes had long since evaporated. As the Colonial Secretary, the Duke of Newcastle, observed in 1861, “the ‘suppression of the Slave Trade’ is leading us into serious Territorial complications, on the whole W. Coast of Africa.” Prefiguring anti-interventionist voices today, the Times in 1863 demanded with exasperation,

“Who ever heard of a war in Gambia? What do we know of the King of Bedaboo, and why should we rejoice at having taught him a “severe lesson!” What harm has he done us and why should we be anxious to pay an additional income tax for the pleasure of killing . . . his sable subjects? As it stands it looks as much like a piratical inroad as any exploit we ever read about. . . . who ordered it? And who will pay for it? . . . Can it be possible after all the lessons we have received of the inflammatory character of little wars we can find ourselves in the thick of a ‘war upon Gambia’ without notice, and so far as we know, without reason?”

By 1865, the parliamentary select committee chaired by Charles Adderley was strongly advising against any further extension of direct control and urged British withdrawal from Africa, though only once the slave trade had been finally extinguished, an exit strategy whose conclusion seemed to stretch further and further out of reach. The financial benefits accruing to Britain were, contrary to modern perceptions, negligible: throughout the early and mid-19th century, trade with the entire African continent made up less than 2.6% of Britain’s trade balance.

As even James Stephen, described by the historian Seymour Drescher as “the Colonial office’s most influential abolitionist undersecretary” warned, “[If] we could acquire the dominion of the whole of that continent, it would be but a worthless possession.” As the Times complained in 1873, “why do we retain or even extend what we call a Protectorate over this pestiferous coast?” And yet, as Huzzey notes, “Anti-slavery policies locked an unwilling state into obligations toward African colonies.” And then as now, it was the moral crusading of journalists that drove Britain into its next wave of imperial expansion.

The British military conquest of West Africa had led to the extinction of the international trade in enslaved Africans — British governors, wary of enraging local populations, still turned a blind eye to the institution of domestic slavery — yet the pacification of the coast pushed the focus of the slave trade deeper into the interior. “Arab” slave traders from the Sultanate of Zanzibar — often in fact Islamised Swahili-speakers — penetrated deeper and deeper into the unexplored regions of Central Africa in pursuit of forced labour for the clove plantations of Zanzibar and the date groves of Basra and Arabia, focussing the attention of British liberal abolitionists on the continent’s east. Into this situation strode the crusading figure of David Livingstone, whose mission into the continent’s unexplored interior, and lurid and harrowing depictions of Arab slave raids, awoke a new wave of popular abolitionist fervour.

Just as the British government was losing its taste for humanitarian intervention in Africa, letters from the long-lost Livingstone republished by his “discoverer”, the Welsh journalist Henry Morton Stanley, demanded to a captivated audience that the successes of the West African campaigns be reproduced “on the opposite side of the continent”, so that “no reasonable expense, that preserves us from contamination, should be esteemed a sacrifice” in extirpating “the open sore in the world”.

Driven by popular pressure that something should be done, “the Liberal government under Gladstone — a longstanding skeptic of anti-slavery violence — reluctantly sanctioned a mission to Zanzibar”, Huzzey observes. “In August, his ministry declared war on the East African slave trade in Queen Victoria’s speech opening a new session of Parliament. The cabinet approved negotiations for concessions that would allow the Royal Navy to suppress the slave trade effectually,” setting the scene for the conquest of East and Central Africa by first Britain and then the other European powers.

The modern fixation on Rhodes’s more nakedly imperialist power grabs conceals the awkward truth that from Livingstone to Baker, Gordon to Lugard, Britain’s exploration and conquest of Africa took place under the banner of humanitarian intervention against slavery. From Zanzibar into Uganda, the Sudan and the depths of Central Africa, British abolitionist activism and rhetoric dragged British generals and administrators into wars against local rulers more or less against the government’s express orders, driven by popular fervour and the moralising exertions of what the British assistant secretary at Zanzibar termed “the period of cheap journalism”, wherein, as Huzzey notes, “complex political and economic struggles with African leaders could be easily reduced in reports home to stories of British officers fighting villains addicted to slave trading”; meanwhile the cruelties of the “Arab invasion,” and the conquest of nations could be chivalrically framed by its practitioners as “those of a gentleman defending a woman or child from an abusive ‘ruffian.’”

By the time of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, called by Bismarck, and now seen as the beginning of the Scramble for Africa and the highpoint of European imperialism in the continent, the popular clamour by liberal and evangelical activists for anti-slavery conquests had established the principle that military intervention against African states and their replacement with European governance was not just legally permissible, but an overriding moral duty.

Where before anti-slavery activism had driven colonial expansion, now the veneer of anti-slavery action was cynically applied to win popular support for nakedly imperialist power grabs. When even as sinister an actor as King Leopold of Belgium framed his conquest of the Congo as a mission to extirpate slavery from the Dark Continent’s darkest reaches, he was lauded as a hero by the liberal press and abolitionist activists in Britain. As late as the early 20th century, British anti-slavery activists were applauding the Italian conquest of Libya and Ethiopia, both ostensibly carried out to rid the countries of the stain of slavery. As Drescher notes, “antislavery became a major rationalisation for the legitimising and creation of European spheres of dominion” in Africa, whose effects have defined the continent’s subsequent history. As one anti-imperialist MP, Sir Wilfred Lawson, observed in opposing Lugard’s conquest of Uganda, “formerly we stole Africans from Africa, and now we stole Africa from Africans.”

It is noteworthy that the recent historiographical reassessment of British and European colonial expansion in Africa in this crucial, mid-19th century period is a direct product of historians observing the exact same processes at work during the past 30 years of American military hegemony and humanitarian intervention. As Hegel famously declared, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, and perhaps it is only now that this strange period is itself passing into history that we can reassess the humanitarian impulses of our forebears, who were driven by similar noble aims into ever-widening and counterproductive moral crusades. As historians have noted, liberal women activists like the fictional Mrs Jellyby were central figures in establishing the current of moral indignation at home that pressured the British government into reluctant colonial expansion, in India as well as Africa, a parallel that can be clearly seen today in the reshaping of America’s Afghan war as a feminist cause.

It is worth remembering then, when we are lectured via Instagram stories or the lobbying of activist groups about the evils of slavery, colonialism and imperialism for which we must all now make penance, that much of the interplay of these three quite separate historical processes was carried out at the moralising behest of their direct forebears.

Unlike the moral clarity of propaganda, history is a series of ironies and ambiguities; in this case, the irony that, entirely contrary to the dominant popular narrative, the fervent moral certainties of today’s activists reflect precisely the same dynamics which led the British state, initially reluctantly, into the conquest of much of Africa for what seemed noble, humanitarian ends.

Like the poor, the Mrs Jellybys will always be with us: perhaps, now the second historical wave of humanitarian crusading is drawing to a close, we can limit the future unintended consequences of their activism, for our sakes as well as those of the unwitting objects of our imperial mercy.