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The triumph of the laws and the rights humanity?

‘The men of Saint Domingue ... do not deserve, because they lack the refinement that comes with education, to form a group separate from the rest of humanity and to be confused with the animals ...’ [Toussaint Louverture, 1797].31

Following Fabian Klose and Mirjam Thulin’s works, it is now necessary to briefly clarify the terminology and explore the meaning the ‘malleable concept’ of ‘humanity’ had in international relations and European culture through the nineteenth century.32 First of all, we should, like Martti Koskenniemi, Antony Anghie, Davide Rodogno, Mark Swatek-Evenstein, or Michel Erpelding, look at the concept of ‘civilisation’ and ‘civilised nations’ from a legal point of view because it had a decisive influence on the notions of ‘humanity’, ‘laws of humanity’, ‘rights of humanity’, and humanitarian intervention.33 ‘Civilisation’ and ‘civilised nations’ actually were two key legal terms used in numerous international treaties between 1815 and 1945.34 They not only served to oppose ‘civilised nations’ to ‘uncivilised nations’ but also helped the self-proclaimed ‘civilised nations’ to impose the rest of the world their moral, legal, and religious norms among which ‘laws of humanity’ and ‘rights of humanity’ were prominent.35 According to Rodogno, ‘laws of humanity ... meant the right to life, property, security, and equality before the law’.36 But, as Angie and Rodogno noted, ‘laws of humanity’ were used to exclude ‘non-civilised societies’ from international law and international relations.37 Rodogno demonstrated that the Ottoman Empire was, for instance, excluded from the ‘Family of Nations’ as a result of his alleged ‘uncivilised’ nature and showed that it was the basis upon which European powers justified humanitarian intervention into its territories.38 Koskenniemi adds that many influential nineteenth century international lawyers equally justified colonial expansion and sovereignty thanks to ‘the distinction between civilised and non-civilised communities’.39 Moreover, as Erpelding pointed, the repression of the slavetrade played a key role in this complex process.40 Starting in 1815, the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna made the slave trade a universal offense according to the law of nations in establishing that it was repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality’. The Act insisted this was so because ‘the public voice, in all civilised countries, calls aloud for its prompt suppression’ thus acknowledging the importance of abolitionism in this process.41 Nations who adopted anti-slavery laws and policies consequently considered themselves as ‘civilised’ by opposition to those who did not.42 The concepts of ‘civilisation’, ‘civilised’, and ‘humanity’ thus encouraged all powers to engage with the repression of the slave trade whether by the means of treaties or interventions.

Thanks to the repression of the slave trade Britain could, therefore, position herself as ‘the most civilised of all nations’ because she was the undisputed leader of the abolitionist movement.43 This gave her an alleged moral superiority over her rivals and justified the use of naval power against both ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilsed’ nations, just like in the case of France and Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean.44 However, while Britain only challenged French sovereignty in imposing the right of visit to dhows flying the French flag, she exercised a much greater degree of interference in forcing ‘the savage little state of Zanzibar’ to abandon the slave trade in 1873 as seen in Chapter Five.45 The French President, Adolphe Thiers, had himself found Britain’s demonstration of naval power lawful and legitimate. He argued that Zanzibar was not only ‘uncivilised’ but also considered the slave trade ‘contrary to the laws of humanity’ as he himself wrote to the Sultan.46 However, ‘laws of humanity’ were not only adopted by ‘the most civilised nations’ in the context of the slave trade but also during wars between European powers described as ‘civilised nations’. ‘Laws of humanity’ were designed to ‘humanising’ wars as it appeared at the second Hague Conference (1907). Humanising wars was, with anti-slavery, another major branch of humanitarian activities as it is well illustrated by the history of the Red Cross during the second half of the nineteenth century.47

In this context, the long standing debate on what was humanity and what it meant to be a part of it, took a new and decisive historical turn.48 An active minority of scholars, poets, musicians, and humanitarians described all people on earth as equally human regardless of their cultural or physical differences while arguing that one could only be a part of humanity if one acted humanly towards all human beings. To borrow Claude Levi Strauss’s words, this possibly was one of the steps which eventually led to ‘a notion of humanity encompassing without distinction of race or civilisation all the forms of the human species’.4’ The abolitionist movement in Europe and the United States, as well as other powerful humanitarian organisations such as the Red Cross, contributed to portray humanity as one single family in which all humans had to be cared for.50 Born in the eighteenth century Freemasonry also probably played a role in this movement since it professed ‘a belief in the fundamental unity of mankind’.51 Meanwhile, major

Anti-slave trade policies 199 poets and writers, like Victor Hugo in France or William Blake in Britain, applied as well the word humanity to ‘humankind’ as a whole.52 Hugo’s inclusive vision of humanity mirrored his commitment - and those of many other fellow philanthropists or humanitarians - to humanitarian causes such as the abolition of slavery, child labour, prostitution, or the death penalty.5’’ Hugo and his contemporaries acted by humanity and for humanity, ‘a feeling of goodwill toward all men’ as Diderot and D’Alembert had put it in the Encyclopédie.54 First performed in 1824, Schiller’s Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony magnificently embodied this powerful vision of humanity in proclaiming: ‘You millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world’.55 The nineteenth century decidedly was ‘the Age of Emotion’, as Richard J. Evans highlighted it, and humanitarianism as well as the concept of ‘humanity’ fitted perfectly its ‘Zeitgeist’ or the ‘spirit of the age’.56

According to humanitarians, one could only be human if one acted humanely towards humankind without any exception. The movement behind abolitionism and the Red Cross completely followed this almost unattainable ideal.57 In an age believing in progress, benevolence towards all men soon became a synonym of the greatest of all causes. Reflecting the spirit of the age, the French philosopher Auguste Comte had the ambition to substitute ‘la religion de l’humanité’ - the religion of humanity - to all the religions of the world.58 Like Comte, Pierre-Henri Leroux, one of the fathers of French socialism, argued that humanity was the most sacred of all human principles on earth.59 Leroux even believed that the nineteenth century was the age during which humanity would triumph. In this light, it is not surprising that Jean Jaurès, founding a newspaper for the French socialist party in 1904, called it [’Humanité.60 The word implied that the socialist party was fighting for the triumph of humanity or, in other words, the universal advancement of human welfare and mankind. This was a point quite similar to what abolitionists had advocated in pushing treaties and interventions against the slave trade across the world throughout the Victorian age. Much like Voltaire before them, abolitionists contributed to placing humanity above all other ethical references and integrated it into natural law.61 Indeed, anti-slavery campaigners had made the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother’ one of the most famous mottos of the century.62

For those engaged in the repression of the slave trade at sea, this new vision of humanity was not theoretical. Navy officers followed an old custom long established among seamen throughout the world: the obligation to assist or rescue those found in distress.65 Navy officers fighting the slave trade only acted for ‘humanity’ and by ‘humanity’ or ‘those duties, to which men are reciprocally obliged as men’ as the eighteenth century philosopher Emer de Vattel had put it.64 However, this did not mean that abolitionists were any ‘saints’ as the traditional historiography once wanted us to believe. Defending ‘the cause of humanity’ certainly did not prevent them to fall under the influence of the dominant racism that prevailed against Africans during the nineteenth century as we have seen with G. L. Sulivanin Chapter Three.65 Many philanthropists, humanitarians, and freemasons did not manage to overcome this dominant aspect of their era although it clearly was in a complete contradiction with the ideal of humanity they professed.66

In fact, while a small but active minority of philanthropists and humanitarians fought, ‘in the name of humanity’, for the enhancement and the protection of the rights of all men and women without exception, a large majority rejected these conceptions. This was notably visible in the different racial theories and hierarchies, which became highly popular in the course of the century. In natural sciences and anthropology for instance, very influential scholars, like Paul Broca, George Gliddon, Arthur De Gobineau, Samuel George Morton, Josiah Nott, Armand de Quatrefage, or Robert Knox, excluded many people from ‘humanity’ in classifying them as ‘savages’ or ‘inferior races’.67 Following the infamous racial legacy of the Atlantic slave trade, this movement had fateful consequences upon world history and, above all, those men and women whose skin’s colour was labelled as black.68 Using the words of the French poetess, Andrée Chedid, one could say that ‘history’s stigma tattooed [their] memory and [their] skin’.69 But a few nineteenth century scholars, such as the Haitian scientist and diplomat Anténor Firmin, proved these theories wrong in adopting ‘a positivist scientific approach’ and establishing that ‘all men are endowed with the same qualities and the same faults, without distinction of colour or anatomical form’.70 Notwithstanding, these scholars were a small minority. As a result, many human beings were wrongly rejected ‘outside humanity’ by scholars who had allegedly dedicated their lives to the study of humanity.71 The development of so-called ‘racial science’ and ‘scientific racism’ throughout the nineteenth century was also accompanied by great surge of racist representations in popular culture across the globe.72 ‘Human zoos’ as well as popular shows, novels, and prints staging the alleged inferiority of ‘savage’ and ‘primitive races’ contributed to spreading strong racist stereotypes in western societies while colonial expansion experienced a new surge.73

The idea that some ‘races’ were ‘inferior’ and lacked ‘civilisation’ or ‘humanity’ was of great importance for international relations, especially when it came to define the status of nations or people as well as the way they should be treated as already pointed. Interventions against ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised nations’ were not set on an equal footing. For example, Britain forced Zanzibar and other West African kingdoms to abandon the slave trade - Gallinas in 1850, Dahomey and Lagos in 1852, Zanzibar in 1873 - in using military raids, naval blockades or bombardments, while, with western powers like France, she only used diplomatic pressure or the seizure and destructions of indigenous merchant vessels flying the French flag.74 In a word, the sovereignty of ‘civilised nations’ was more respected than those labelled as ‘savage’ or ‘barbaric’. Above all, it is people living in a colonial context who suffered the most from this alleged racial inferiority.

The role played by the hierarchy of races and racist ideologies in fostering colonial violence, massacres, and genocides remain today a central issue of imperial studies.75 The impact of abolitionism on these questions is still a matter of debate because this movement did not prevent the development of racism and colonial violence throughout the nineteenth century.76

Through abolitionism and official anti-slave trade policies, the concept of humanity was in fact used to defend universal rights, such as freedom, and rescue slaves at sea. However, at the same time, it was mobilised to justify, on a moral, cultural, political, and legal point of view- the violent subjugation of nations and people through colonisation. Important European political leaders, such as the Belgian monarch Leopold II, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the French statesman Jules Ferry, all justified colonisation of ‘inferior races’ and ‘uncivilised nations’ in using the humanitarian argument of the repression of the slave trade.77 As already noted, anti-slavery made their stand for colonial expansion lawful before international law and acceptable in the eyes of public opinion at home or abroad. At the crossroads of imperialism and humanitarianism, Zanzibar experienced and mirrored this key aspect of the period. The East African Sultanate’s history century shows how ambivalent the notion of humanity could be in the context of the repression of the slave trade. The concept was genuinely used by abolitionists to pressure reluctant governments to act against the Indian Ocean slave trade, as seen in Chapters One and Five, while during the 1888 Zanzibar blockade it was mobilised to conceal colonial repression. At the 1890 Brussels Conference, and during the 1905 Hague Arbitration, as Chapters Six and Seven have shown, ‘humanity’ was again used in the most ambivalent way. It served, at the same time, to forward both colonial and humanitarian interests in international relations. In looking at the rise of the concept of ‘crime against humanity’ through the nineteenth century, this chapter will now continue to point that the notion of humanity played an important part in the genesis of the ‘Humanitarian Intervention Theory’. A story in which Zanzibar certainly played again a non-negligible part.

 
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