There is nothing more adverse to nature and reason than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations, in opposition to their inclination and interest. [Gibbon, 186]

Critical literature about the British Empire and its legacies is diverse and vast in extent, and it has been changing gradually in emphasis and evaluation. Recent publications reveal a greater interdisciplinary co-operation and highlight the ambiguities and contradictions in various discourses of colonialism, imperialism, civilisation, progress, humanitarianism and institutional benevolence.

Burden or Benefit? Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies, edited by Helen Gilbert and Chris Tiffin, pp. 229, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008, contains thirteen meticulously researched and wittily written essays which provide captivating insights into the evolution of the rhetorics and practices of institutional benevolence in the colonial and postcolonial contexts from the late 18th century to the present time. The imperial rhetoric of benevolence propounded paternalism, a strategy that subordinated indigenous peoples and their traditional cultures to British civilisation. The basic assumption that lay in the imperial rhetorics of benevolence was the belief that colonisation was inherently good to colonised peoples. The volume’s underlying proposition is that “benevolence has been a rather expansive and even ambiguous concept over centuries, as benevolent practices and principles have been adapted to respond to particular cultural, political, social, religious, and economic imperatives.” (7) In the course of time the concept and practices of benevolence gradually evolved from acts of individual philanthropy and charity to some forms of public responsibility for others.

The book begins with the Editors’ introduction which asks: “What’s Wrong with Benevolence?” Although the roots of benevolence can be traced back to Greek and Roman times, its modern meaning was developed by the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith. Their notions of economic benevolence were synonymous with beneficence, i.e. not “willing well” but “doing well”. The Scottish philosophers believed that the principles of democracy and free enterprise cannot be implemented without acts of benevolence. As a matter of fact, Britain often saw its imperial and colonial policy as essentially benevolent. With a growing British colonial expansion in India, it was necessary to build an ideology behind it. Referring to the India Question, Charles Wenthworth Dilke (1843-1911), a Victorian liberal politician, stated that

The two principles upon which our administration of this country might be based have long since been weighed against each other by the English people, who, rejecting the principle of a holding of India for the acquisition of prestige and trade, have decided that we are to govern India in the interests of the people of Hindostan. [5]

Britain’s subjugation of the subcontinent in the late 18th century followed the disclosure of the East India Company’s monstrous corruptions and misdemeanours by Edmund Burke during the Warren Hastings impeachment trial in 1788. Britain’s presence in India was then proclaimed as a morally-justified civilising mission. This new self-perception of the benevolent empire was expressed by Anthony Trollope.

It should be our greatest boast respecting India that we hold that populous country to the advantage of the millions by whom it is inhabited; but we do not hold it for the direct welfare of our own race, although greatly to the benefit of our own country. [6]

The belief in the benevolent British Empire lasted until its end. In general, Britons thought of their empire as a positive force which contributes not only to the economic and cultural development of their own country but also to that of uncivilised nations.

The history of the nineteenth-century practices of institutional benevolence are elegantly discussed by Patrick Brantlinger in his essay “A Short History of (Imperial) Benevolence.” The author draws the reader’s attention to some rhetorical strategies of British imperial humanitarian benevolence in action. The author convincingly demonstrates that benevolence has always been strongly linked to the concepts of political economy and utilitarian philosophy.

Benevolence was a major factor in ending slavery in part because it found an ally in the new science of economics. But — Brantlinger continues — there was no such fit between benevolence and economics concerning either how Aboriginals were treated or how the Irish Famine was dealt with. On the contrary, in those situations, the principles of political economy overruled humanitarian intentions. [14]

Although the London-based Aborigines’ Protection Society aroused the public attention in the early 1840s to its benevolent and humane rhetoric, the real effects of the protection of the Aboriginals in the colonies were meagre because indigenous population failed to be economically productive. Another instance of the failure of the doctrine of institutional benevolence was the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850, which was caused not only by the blight that destroyed the potato crop, but primarily by the small and belated intervention of the British government, which followed the dogmas of classical economics and Malthusianism and was reluctant to increase famine relief.

For both officials and economists, poverty meant too many mouths to feed, while government had a scientific responsibility not to give food to the overpopulating hungry. The Famine was God’s way of rectifying the conditions that had caused the Famine in the first place: overpopulated Ireland would be depopulated, to its future benefit. [21]

Patrick Brantlinger concludes that the modern rhetoric of economic development is strikingly similar to the economic Providentialism of Malthus, Chalmers and Charles Trevelyan in the early nineteenth century: “benevolence toward the so-called underdeveloped world is supportable only if it adheres to orthodox economics.” (23)

The rest of the volume is divided into Part I, entitled “Colonial Burdens?”, which contains six essays that provide insights into the dilemmas of imperial benevolence and humanitarianism, and Part II, “Contemporary Benefits?”, which brings together five studies that analyse instances of postcolonial ambiguous benevolence as a means of mediating self-interest and public responsibility.

Alan Lester writes about Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) and the networks of British humanitarianism. Buxton was an abolitionist and social reformer, who agitated against slavery and oppression of the indigenous people in the British colonies. He had a number of correspondents, including missionaries and humanitarians, such as John Philip (1775-1851) and Lancelot Edward Threlkeld (1788-1859). The benevolent and humanitarian efforts of Buxton and his associates were generally doomed to fail due to misconceived evangelical prescriptions rejected by both Aboriginals and the majority of white settlers.

Lisa O’Connell’s essay is devoted to the activity of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862), an advocate of systematic colonisation of Australia and New Zealand. Wakefield saw colonialism “as a great philanthropic enterprise of economic and cultural improvement, emigration as a means of alleviating the condition of Britain’s poor and creating new horizons for its emerging ‘uneasy’ classes, and empire as a glorious happy, self-governing system.” (54) History has proved that Wakefield’s colonial plan was totally wrong. However, his Letter from Sidney is an interesting blend of colonial utopia and utilitarian philosophy.

In “Benevolence, Slavery, and the Periodicals”, Chris Tiffin writes about the two liberal periodicals, the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review, which promoted antislavery and benevolent sentiments in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Their rhetoric was not based merely on religious and ethical principles but also on economic premises. “Fundamentally in agreement about the abstract injustice of the slavery itself, their discussion of right remedies shows a fascinating range of skillful polemic and ingenious compromise.” (70)

Leigh Dale’s essay is devoted to Frederick Weld (1823-1891), an architect of British imperial policy and governor of various British colonies. Weld’s imperial rhetoric implied that colonisation was a benevolent and beneficial venture and a moral imperative.

[T]he material work of colonization — taking over the land, “civilizing” or eradicating or evicting the indigenous inhabitants — becomes the accepting of an invitation not merely from the ruler of Empire, but from God, whose creative powers have been co-opted to the provision of pastoral resources. Colonization, naturalized as pastoralism, comes to constitute a benevolent and beneficent project. [80]

In “Women, Philanthropy, and Imperialism in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain”, Sarah Richardson writes that the “lives of middle-class women in nineteenth-century Britain were intimately bound up with philanthropic activities” (90). In fact, many educated Victorian women were active philanthropists, whose sphere of interest was not restricted to domestic matters but also included the Empire. Charlotte Elizabeth and Margracia Loudon, who were writers and active polemicists, erroneously identified poverty in Ireland with Catholicism. “For many English Protestants of all hues, Catholicism was not just a threat to the welfare of the Irish people but also an assault on their status as subject peoples, thus endangering the stability of the British Empire” (94). The debate on the Irish Question was significantly marred by the dogmas of the laissez-faire economy. In Philanthropic Economy or, the Philosophy of Happiness, Practically Applied to the Social, Political, and Commercial Relations of Great Britain, Margracia Loudon argued that “political economy should be made subservient to ‘philanthropic economy’: a form of active benevolence to all members of society, based on the principle of equality” (97). One of the most effective exemplifications of philanthropy at work was the activity of Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), the wealthiest woman in mid-Victorian England. She strongly believed in the imperial idea, but she also implemented a number of philanthropic and benevolent projects both in Britain and overseas.

The final essay, contributed by Kirsten Holst Petersen, discusses the ambiguities of benevolence, racism and romanticism in the attitude of Karen Blixen, the author of the famous novel, Out of Africa (1937). In the conclusion, we read that “The Africans’ need to critique her racism is self-evident, but the Western need to rescue her from accusations of racism and praise her for her benevolence raises worrying questions about our present view of Africa and Africans” (113). Whether Blixen was a racist or not is a matter of dispute. Her patronising and benevolent attitudes to Africans were probably characteristic of many white settlers. What makes Blixen’s autobiographical writing unique is undoubtedly her sincere and avid interest in Africa and Africans.

Part Two begins with Chris Prentice’s essay “From Benevolence to Partnership: The Persistence of Colonial Legacies in Aotearoa-New Zealand”, which considers the legacy of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), as an act of imperial benevolence. Prentice points out that “benevolence was implicated in imperial expansion.” (124) The British wanted to prevent both intertribal warfare among the Maoris and maintain peace in the colony. However, those who followed the teaching of social Darwinism believed that the Maori population was on the verge of extinction. The article concludes that “paternalistic benevolence has been replaced by partnership and agency within the late capitalist economy and the bureaucratization of social, cultural, and political life” (130).

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s essay discusses how the two nationalist leaders, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), resisted colonial benevolence in their fight for India’s independence. Gandhi’s ideology and practice of voluntary poverty, inspired by Hinduism and Christianity, John Ruskin, Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, etc., was totally opposed to the utilitarian view promulgated by James Mill and other classical economists. For Gandhi, there should be no contradiction between economics and ethics. Following his mentor, Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), the “Grand Old Man of India”, Gandhi believed that the imperial system of government in India was destructive and despotic to the Indians and suicidal to Britain. Gandhi perceived poverty in India and elsewhere as “a consequence of immiseration of the people caused by colonial rule and capitalist exploitation.” (143) Therefore, Gandhi believed that subaltern response to acts of imperial benevolence would not be reciprocated by gratitude and respect. In turn, Nehru’s idea of postcolonial identity of India was shaped in part by Gandhi’s teaching and in part by the specifically British legacy of democracy. The British form of colonisation significantly affected the political institutions in post-independence India. Nehru was in favour of Western-like civic/liberal citizenship, but instead of institutional benevolence he proposed an ethics of public responsibility.

Wairimú Ngarúiya Njambi’s essay focuses on the cultural, moral and political aspects of the circumcision of African women. Drawing upon the polemical rhetoric of some postcolonial feminism, she argues that cultural practices related to female genital practices should not be interpreted out of their social, political, and historical contexts.

In his essay “Benevolence, Humiliation: Thinking Migrants, Integration, and Security in Europe”, Prem Kumar Rajaram presents an original and lucid analysis of the dilemmas of the European integration policy. He states that “The policies of integration that exist to Europeanize the migrant are not simply benevolent: they are also humiliating” (180). The shortcoming of coherent European identity based on commonality is caused, amongst others, by the fact that the migrant is seen “as an inherently untrustworthy foreigner.” Rajaram concludes that “ the integration of migrants in Europe is run through with a discourse of benevolence that conceals an antecedent humiliation. Integration is seen as benevolent insofar as the pre-given community is conceived metaphorically as an invitation or gift afforded to foreigners” (193).

The final essay in the volume, contributed by William E. O’Brien, deals with a case of modern, international benevolence aimed at the restoration of Iraq’s marshes in Mesopotamia destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. For many the destruction of the marshes, one of the biologically richest wetlands in the world, was a catastrophe of global significance.

The above-outlined analyses of the rhetorics and practices of benevolence are important contributions to the study of the various discourses of colonialism and its legacies. The book is persuasive on the ambivalence that surrounded imperial benevolence, but it does not give an unequivocal answer whether institutional benevolence was progressive or regressive. “Perhaps — as the Editors conclude — the validation of benevolence comes from the retrospective assessment of its effects and outcomes, and perhaps also we need to accept, with Shaftesbury, that self-interest and public virtue are not incompatible in the quest for a better world” (11). In the light of the above reflection, Burden or Benefit: Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies will prove of interest to many students and scholars of British imperialism who will welcome this impressive work that reinterprets the complexities of the imperial past and sheds light on the present legacies.


Gibbon, Edward. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 6. London: John Murray, 1862.

Gilbert Helen and Chris Tiffin, eds. Burden or Benefit? Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.

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Last modified 24 January 2010