Activism in the Antipodes: Transnational Quaker Humanitarianism and the Troubled Politics of Compassion in the Early Nineteenth Century

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British Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, have been described as the world’s first ‘transnational human rights movement’ because of their long involvement from the late-sixteenth century in European and trans-Atlantic international mediation and their foundational role in the anti-slavery movement. Despite this prominence, critical scholarship concerning Quakers as particular networked and highly travelled ‘global activists’ and their humanitarian and antecedent ‘human rights’ advocacy in the Australian and other antipodean colonies is a neglected sphere. This chapter examines the nine-year multi-colony tour of Quakers James Backhouse and George Washington Walker (1832–1841) in the furtherance of their particular moral empire across Australia, Mauritius, and South Africa. Broadening historical consideration of what constitutes transnational human rights activism and the INGO or international nongovernmental transnational activist, it considers the witnessing practices of Quakers as a significant precursor of modern transnational humanitarian activism, in an era when global governance was driven by empire and its close engagement with dispossessed and colonised peoples. Taking insights from sociology, the article argues that the Quakers’ relationship with the state, similar to that of contemporary INGOs, was as ‘institutional opponents,’ both fraught and symbiotic, and reveals the ambiguities of humanitarian sentiment and the troubled moral economy of compassion as entwined vectors of humanitarian governance and imperial power.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Transnational Activist
Subtitle of host publicationTransformations and Comparisons from the Anglo-World since the Nineteenth Century
EditorsStefan Berger, Sean Scalmer
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages29
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-66205-3
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements
ISSN (Print)2634-6559
ISSN (Electronic)2634-6567


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