Berny Sèbe (Keble College, Oxford University

Spreading Universality: British and French Imperial Heroes, 1850-1950

The ‘civilizing mission’ was one of the major reasons behind the conquest of the third of the world by Britain and by France. This concept arose from the assumption that certain Western values were universal and had to be shared with or imposed upon the rest of the world. Although British policy-makers never considered turning local populations into fully-fledged British subjects, they followed a set of Christian beliefs which they considered universal. In particular, these principles led them to do their best to put an end to the slave trade in Africa. The French had an even more ambitious colonial program, as they sought –at least in principle– to turn the colonized into Frenchmen, through intensive French language teaching and the promotion of the universality of French principles. At various degrees and for different reasons, the two countries claimed and believed that their mission was to spread universal values.

These universal values had to be taught to those who still ‘ignored’ them (to coin a phrase in use at the height of the colonial era), and no-one could undertake this task better than the ‘man on the spot’. Many of these ‘envoys of civilization’, such as Dr Livingstone, General Gordon, Mgr Lavigerie, Charles de Foucauld or later Dr Schweitzer, were given a hero’s welcome when they returned home, alive or dead. For their part, skilful military officers were paramount in expanding and securing the two empires and, as a consequence, the values they stemmed from. Military heroes such as Sir Henry Havelock, the Sirdar Kitchener after the 1898 Sudan campaign, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, or Marshal Lyautey were seen as the defenders and promoters of the universal values their respective countries sought to expand. At home, they were iconic examples who provided exemplary guiding principles to the society, while on the spot they intended to turn the Western dream of universality into reality.

The proposed paper will show how various imperial heroes –missionaries, military leaders, empire builders, colonial administrators– contributed to the universalization of Western values, and how their role was described to the Western public as an attempt to enlighten the world with indiscussible principles. Using printed sources (biographies, hagiographies, newspaper articles) and archives (private correspondence, official papers, records of religious missions) from both Britain and France, the paper will throw light upon the complex connection between the universal belief system behind imperialism and the state policies, lobbies and financial and commercial interests which supported it. Through the case-study of imperial heroes, the paper will also explore the encounter between the universal beliefs of the center and the local ways of thinking of the periphery. Lastly, the Franco-British comparison allows to compare two different attempts at universality, and to show how two contenders meet, compete and often agree with each other.

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