Historian Uncovers the Dark Colonial Roots of Humanitarianism

porters carrying supplies for construction of Congo-Ocean Railway

During building of the Congo-Océan Railway, men working in forced labor as porters carried supplies over difficult terrain. Stanford historian JP Daughton says that what was intended as a project to lift people out of poverty cost the lives of tens of thousands of indigenous laborers and dislocated communities. Archives nationales d’outre mer

The Humanities at Stanford

Modern humanitarian endeavors are generally perceived of as works by good-willed people, selflessly striving to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

We have little reason to think that these individuals might be motivated by the same hubris that led 19th-century Europe to establish empires across the world.

Stanford historian JP Daughton wants to change that.

An associate professor of modern European history, Daughton’s research interests span imperialism and the history of humanitarianism. His latest work traces the roots of modern humanitarianism to a set of colonial development projects in the early 20th century.

Most histories of humanitarianism jump from international efforts to end slavery in the early 19th century to post-World War II humanitarian and refugee efforts. But Daughton says this approach misses a key point: Defenders of empire in the 19th and 20th centuries regularly saw imperialism as a fundamentally humanitarian enterprise. Continue reading