Monday, February 8, 2016

Caroline Shaw's "Britannia's Embrace"

Caroline Shaw is Assistant Professor of History at Bates College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Britannia's Embrace: Modern Humanitarianism and the Imperial Origins of Refugee Relief, and reported the following:
From page 99:
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British were well versed in refugee affairs. A coherent narrative instructed the public how to recognize and respond to persecuted foreigners. Yet, there was a practical problem at the core of their template for refuge. British responses to refugee crises were built on sensation. As Italian exile Count Pecchio wryly noted, once a particular crisis was old news, refugees were in danger of being forgotten entirely.

Few relief societies, formed in the moment of crisis, were prepared for the longue durée of exile. What would happen to the refugees when the crowds dispersed? When the powerful narrative that obscured differences of class, race, and religion found new heroes to lionize? When refugees began to look more like paupers than independent freedom fighters? Or when they found work at the alleged expense of native-born Britons? There were few cases where refugees could be repatriated before relief offers were depleted. Impoverishment could follow quickly for those who were not poor already. Writing in 1853, Chartist George Julian Harney deplored this dark reality. Harney noted that foreign refugees were free to come to Britain; once there, they were “free to starve.”

The prospect of integrating large and diverse groups of foreigners into British society on a more permanent basis was daunting from the start. As time passed, popular commentaries on refugee affairs became suffused with the very politics of class, race, and religion that was set aside in the excitement of the initial turn to refuge. Given these difficulties, why did philanthropists and public commentators remain optimistic about the prospects of British refuge? Why…
The Page 99 Test works well for Britannia’s Embrace: Modern Humanitarianism and the Imperial Origins of Refugee Relief. Page 99 is the first page of chapter four, “Taking Refuge in Empire,” a chapter that draws out and explores a critical development to the argument of the first half of the book.

The book as a whole argues that the British refuge emerged as a powerful humanitarian norm by the early nineteenth century as a means of defining what it meant to be liberal on the global stage. In contrast to continental conservatives, Britons committed themselves to parliamentary rule; in contrast to slave-based economies, the British increasingly prided themselves on abolitionism. Where intervention in the affairs of other nations was not possible or not desirable, care for their refugees provided a way for the British to assert their liberal values, as the book’s first three chapters examine.

Chapter four begins with Italian Count Pecchio’s wry observation (in an epigraph that appears on page 98) that refugees, quick to be made into celebrities, were equally quick to disappear in London’s “omnivorous maw” as the public sensation over new refugees faded. His observation illustrates the “practical problem” that lies at the “core of their [activists’] template for refuge” (from page 99). The longue durée of refuge brought with it the challenge of enabling the refugees – carefully distinguished in British cultural politics from ordinary immigrants – to become successful, even ideal, immigrants. Setting up this central conundrum, the chapter argues that activists stressed refugees’ willingness and ability to work hard in their exile. In cases where the refugees’ presence seemed likely to strain the social fabric, activists and officials turned overseas as they often did for the British poor as well. The outposts of empire provided a critical, if sometimes problematic, site for long-term refugee resettlement. Distanced from these places of refuge, metropolitan activists could celebrate the success of their endeavors on refugees’ behalf.

The remainder of the book examines the dynamic relationship in the moral politics of refuge between resources, imperial and local politics, law, and a powerful normative claim to intercede on refugees’ behalf. Moving through the nineteenth century and peering into the twentieth, Britannia’s Embrace highlights the origins of the politics of refuge with which we are all too familiar today: refuge, always a second-best to the ending of persecution overseas, depends perilously on the short-term sensation of rescue as well as on the willingness of the hosts to engage in the longue durée of asylum.
Learn more about Britannia's Embrace at the Oxford University Press website.

Cover story: Britannia's Embrace.

--Marshal Zeringue