Skip to content

Response to Review of Britannia’s Embrace: Modern Humanitarianism and the Imperial Origins of Refugee Relief

I want to thank Tehila Sasson for her thoughtful, engaged review of my Britannia’s Embrace. I particularly appreciate her careful attention to my account of the origins of modern refuge in its largely 19th-century context and her interest in drawing out connections with histories of refugees in the 20th century and the present day. I want to take this opportunity to engage with several of her suggestions. Broadly, I’ll divide my response into two parts: first, the underdeveloped role of religion in my account; and, second, the inclusions and exclusions of the refugee category.


Sasson wonders about religion’s contribution to the refugee narrative. While researching the book, I too had anticipated that I would be able to make more of the religious roots of refuge. After all, refuge providers themselves often searched for religious precedents, from Biblical references to the Good Samaritan, to the story of Exodus, to ‘cities of refuge’ in Leviticus.

As it turns out, however, religion did not directly give rise to the refugee narrative, nor did it feature consistently in the narrative. Modern patterns of refuge contrasted with the earlier, explicitly confessional refuge granted to the Huguenots; it emerged after the French Revolution, the event that decisively realigned European politics from a confessional to ideological axis and allowed Britain to position herself as the safe middle between the Scylla and Charybdis of revolutionary radicalism and reactionary despotism. Activists still made references to religion, of course. But these were far from the only connections to a longer tradition of asylum. They appeared alongside appeals to international law, natural rights, Magna Carta, and the British constitutional tradition more generally. Sometimes, too, religious appeals backfired. Anti-refugee commentators were just as likely to mention ‘cities of refuge’ as were supporters, for some assumed that these cities attracted none but the worst sort of criminal. This connection made ‘cities of refuge’ anything but an easy comparison to make when hoping to highlight the virtue of the suffering refugee.

That said, there are other aspects of religion that I could have undertaken in a more sustained way and that we might profit from in future research. Though the central drive behind modern British refuge was political, religion undoubtedly provided a moral framework for activists. I like Abigail Green’s term ‘fusion,’ for it captures the activists’ cosmopolitanism and the difficulty of separating the threads of politics and religion.(1)

Even more important from the point of view of explaining variation in humanitarian practice is religion’s influence on the organization of charitable action. In part, this is Green’s call for attention to different religious traditions, Jewish and Catholic especially, as a means of seeing better the ‘cross-fertilization’ in modern humanitarianism and rights activism. But engaging more directly in comparison would also help to illuminate the role of religion in shaping the form charitable relief took in different contexts.(2) For example, one can find significant differences in the role of the Anglican hierarchy in refugee relief between the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1790s, activists drew upon the Anglican hierarchy to raise funds. Through the sovereign and the Archbishop of Canterbury, they used the then-common charity brief in which the King issued a letter and each parish raised funds after sermons on the crisis at hand. While this mode of raising funds did not last into the 19th century, dissenting Protestantism’s more general legacy of voluntary (i.e., self-forming) associations, as Max Weber argued, may have provided a distinctive organizational vehicle and repertoire for the expression and mobilization of popular humanitarian sentiment in countries where that religious tradition was strong. These sorts of factors can be tested when one adopts a comparative approach. Here, the best comparison would be to Catholic, statist nations like France.


Liberated Africans and Hannah Arendt

Sasson asks in her review for more about the distinction between liberated Africans and fugitive slaves. She later uses Arendt’s observations from the 20th century to note that the public’s dominant mental image of refugees shifted from political refugees (those who have taken action) to helpless victims in the wake of the world wars. Sasson also interestingly asks whether any earlier difficulties in categorizing foreigners – émigré v. refugee v. migrant or immigrant – still bear on the tensions we see today between immigrant/migrant and refugee. Each is a separate point; yet, together they invite further inquiry into the parameter of the refugee category and its exclusions.

I do think that earlier difficulties in maintaining the separation between the refugee and other categories – migrant/immigrant and criminal – help us to understand better those of the 20th and 21st century between the same categories. (I keep émigré separate as I don’t think it was instable in the ways the other terms were.(3)) Given Britain’s famously open borders, there had been little need to distinguish legally between different categories of migrants for much of the 19th century. Despite this, the British routinely distinguished refugees from run-of-the-mill migrants and immigrants when they called for charitable assistance to refugees. This observation was the inspiration behind Britannia’s Embrace and is at the heart of the book’s divergence from an earlier historiography that alleged British indifference toward refugees. The refugee narrative was a story about why refugees were particularly worthy above and beyond the broader category of the needy, which could include Britons’ own poor. This narrative, which underscored refugees’ heroism and liberal individualism, gave way by the end of the 19th century.

There were two changes to the narrative; Sasson summarizes these well. I highlight them again because both require us to revise Arendt’s comments on the history of refugees mentioned in Sasson’s review. First, Arendt assumes that all modern-day refugees, no longer heroes, are victims. While this was the dominant image of refugees after the Second World War, it obscures the decades-long discussion of new types of political revolutionaries in the later 19th century and into the 20th, among them, anarchists, communists, and colonial nationalists. While the British had no wish for other countries to harbor their colonial nationalists, Britons were unsure of whether they could provide refuge for this new breed of political offender themselves. The second shift was indeed a turn to seeing other refugees – the non-revolutionary sort – as passive victims. This was comforting, perhaps. It was easier to make public calls for relief for these persecuted foreigners than it was for anarchists, for example (though relief efforts for the latter did exist!). While Arendt is correct that this becomes the dominant image, she places the shift to these non-political refugees too far into the modern era. Indeed, it is this shift that threatened to collapse refugee with migrant/immigrant in the second half of the 19th century and brought with it a franker skepticism about of the broad refugee category that had built up such moral momentum in earlier decades. In an important way, I see earlier non-‘refugees’, the liberated Africans, as harbingers of this change, a connection that I did not draw out specifically in the book.


The obligation in law to protect liberated Africans (forced under anti-slave-trade treaties) and the imperial model of refuge (pioneered in Sierra Leone) were critical developments for the practice of British refuge, as I argue in the book. And, yet, liberated Africans never fit comfortably into the mid-19th-century understanding of ‘refugee’ as liberal freedom fighter. ‘Refugees’ were independent actors; liberated Africans were passive victims, saved by heroic British sailors.

While stories of dramatic rescue abound, there were fewer appealing stories of liberated Africans in British care: refuge in Sierra Leone was beset by failures from the start. Seeking to raise awareness of the plight of all slaves and the possibilities of freedom, abolitionists and missionaries capitalized on stories of refugee slaves. To an extent, they sought to elide assumed differences between slaves as passive victims and slaves as heroic individuals. Like all refugee narratives, refugee slaves’ sensationalized tales of escape helped would-be supporters of their cause envision the plight of those still facing persecution overseas, in this case those still in bondage. The heroism and determined individualism of these refugees helped would-be supporters to identify with them, to see in them the ideals they sought to attain themselves. In this, the parallel between these slaves’ tales and the tales of white refugees importantly helped to overcome obvious racial difference. Harriet Beecher Stowe makes this move explicitly in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when she compares the fictional runaway slave George Harris – who must fight for his freedom in the course of his flight – to Hungarian noblemen. Slavery, abolitionists implicitly argued, was too repressive to permit space for organized political activism on the part of slaves, but even so, an ardor for freedom worthy of any European liberal revolutionary could be discerned among the noblest souls trapped in bondage.

Making connections to refugees in this way was problematic for abolitionists, even as the very same connections helped them to publicize their cause. On the one hand, providing relief to refugee slaves seemed to some to be a diversion from the greater goal of ending slavery. This was a concern in the 1850s especially. On the other hand, any comparison threatened to accentuate the contrast between heroic refugees and passive ex-slaves. The refugee narrative itself had space for dependent victims so long as they remained at home. Refugee slaves bemoaned the fate of their wives and children still in slavery; for European revolutionaries like Lajos Kossuth it was often the mother’s sufferings that spoke to both the miseries of exile and oppression overseas. Liberated Africans might have been the equivalent to the families of the refugee narrative, only they were no longer at home. They required refuge too. Not only did they require refuge, they seemed to require constant supervision and assistance to survive. Abolitionists’ and missionaries’ public relations task was to argue that their charitable charges were deserving of such relief and that their relief efforts worked, that they were ‘civilizing [their] subjects’.(4) In this way, liberated Africans risked disappearing into a broader population whose entitlement to relief required ongoing proof. Their ill fit with the refugee narrative, which definitively categorized refugees as deserving, made it easier for the British public to forget them, leaving many to a disastrous fate.

By the last third of the 19th century, asylum-seekers increasingly looked like liberated Africans of the first two-thirds of the century. Refugees increasingly came from a broad cross-section of the population, not simply a very select few who had rebelled and/or escaped. Like the liberated Africans, their strength, fortitude, and willingness to work in their new homes was less taken for granted by their British hosts. They were passive victims, still perhaps romantic in their sufferings, but no longer heroic. Faced with more would-be refugees than they thought they could handle, British officials began to constrict the category itself. Fugitive slaves, once refugees like revolutionaries, lost this status. Just being a slave did not entitle someone to refuge; according to a final Admiralty circular on fugitive slaves in June of 1876, only those who fled persecution in hot blood – under immediate threat of death – had a right to asylum.

Eastern European Jews met a similar fate, and with them all would-be refugees to metropolitan Britain. The 1905 Aliens Act, rightly known for its severity, was somewhat oddly an important step in making refuge a universal right. For the first time, the Act wrote into law a right to asylum for those fleeing persecution. Nevertheless, the Act’s definition of a refugee was already narrower than it had been earlier in the 19th century. Members of Parliament considered – and dismissed – the idea that simply fleeing for a better life entitled one to refuge. Anti-immigrant politicians minimized the degree of systemic persecution faced by Ashkenazi Jews, an argument that bore much resemblance to the implication in the 1876 Admiralty circular that slavery was not so bad that it forced someone to flee. The language of the 1905 act, like that used in the Fugitive Slave Circular, thus emphasized a right to refuge for those who fled ‘in hot blood’ with immediate fear for ‘life or limb’.

The debate today, as in the 19th century, is over the breadth of host nations’ responsibility for welcoming persecuted foreigners. Typically, the right of ‘genuine’ refugees to shelter is conceded in debate – an important legacy of the humanitarian pioneers of the long 19th century. The devil, of course, is in the details of exactly whom to accord the status of refugee. At base, this question turns, as in the 19th century, on the extent of the resources available and our willingness to allocate them to strangers rather than co-citizens. Rather than arguing in those terms, we more generally hide behind quibbles over what constitutes persecution. The dispute over migrants v. refugees is the latest episode in this long tradition. Because the provision of refuge is now a matter of law and public policy, however, the day–to-day decisions about whom to welcome has become a matter of bureaucratic protocol carried out by agencies, airlines, shipping companies, border control officers and detention center officials. Sasson asks about this shift towards the close of her review.

This innovation of the late-19th century, further formalized in the 20th, cuts both ways. In the book, I argue that enshrining refuge in law and as a right was intended to protect asylum-seekers from the vicissitudes of public opinion. Law is supposed to eliminate any reliance on popular or political ‘favor,’ which, as Didier Fassin argues, is selective. In practice, however, public demobilization tends to make us complacent and, at worst, resentful. This renders us less likely to notice the degree to which the application of the refugee category has in practice long been overshadowed by larger political pressures toward more or less generosity.(5) As Sasson emphasizes via Arendt, rights lost the undergirding of compassion (and pride, I would add) once they were posited as legal problems.


  1. Abigail Green, ‘Humanitarianism in nineteenth-century context: religious, gendered, national’, The Historical Journal, 57, 4, (December 2014), 1157–75, 1163.Back to (1)
  2. Green, ‘Humanitarianism in the nineteenth-century context’, 1169–71. This sort of comparison is more common in histories of migration and citizenship. See, for example, Andreas Fahrmeir’s edited volume Migration Control in the North Atlantic World: The Evolution of State Practices in Europe and the United States from the French Revolution to the Inter-War Period (New York, NY, 2005).Back to (2)
  3. Émigrés were generally immigrants/migrants unless specifically referring to the French Catholic émigrés of the 1790s who were refugees and called refugees in the official and humanitarian outreach. The British also used exile and fugitive along with refugee without necessarily implying a value judgment about the foreigners’ flight (whereas the term refugee implied approval of the person’s reason for flight). Strictly speaking, an exile was someone who had been banished, but the term was not always used with such precision.Back to (3)
  4. Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830–1867 (Chicago, IL, 2002).Back to (4)
  5. While Fassin titles his piece ‘from right to favor’ this seems to be his point too. European openness to refugees in the 1950s and 1960s was, on the one hand, a matter of an expanded right to refuge. But, even then, these rights were not divorced from the political climate of the time – they were not, in other words, immune to ‘favor.’ As Fassin describes, economic expansion and a need for workers drove Europeans greater acceptance of foreigners in the mid-20th century. Didier Fassin, ‘From right to favor: the refugee question as moral crisis’, The Nation, 5 April 2016.Back to (5)