Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Imperial Emotions: The Politics of Empathy across the British Empire

Jane Lydon

As clashes over race have become pressing in many countries around the globe, the challenge of understanding the legacies of slavery, colonisation, and exploitation has only sharpened. In 2017 Australian First Nations people issued the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ – the outcome of a major Indigenous forum which seeks recognition and empathy from mainstream Australia. Specifically, the Statement seeks constitutional reforms, and the establishment of a Makarrata (reconciliation) Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between government and First Nations, and ‘truth-telling’ about Australian history. This plea ‘from the heart’ follows centuries of conflict and alienation caused by the invasion of Indigenous country from 1788.

My recent monograph, Imperial Emotions: The Politics of Empathy across the British Empire explores the ways that emotional ties allowed the British empire to make and re-make itself across vast spatial distances. Today, emotions are often dismissed, or relegated to the private domain, as if they are simply peripheral, trivial aspects of the real business of politics, law-making, and public debate. Yet emotions scholars have demonstrated how emotions are inevitably politicised, and shape social life – for example by creating and aligning communities with one another, or, conversely, against others.

From an Australian perspective, it often seems puzzling that ties with Britain remain so strong, despite continuing heated debate regarding a proposed republic, and the enduring relationship with Queen Elizabeth II, the Australian monarch. Australian citizens ceased to be British subjects only in 1984. Republicans have often sneered at the ‘royal-watchers’ for being overly emotional, even hysterical, in terms that feminise and trivialise such interest, but clearly many Australians still cherish feelings of identification and respect for the monarchy, and for British culture.

My book attempts to historicize these emotional ties, which gave meaning to many aspects of the imperial relationship, as well as to colonization itself. Familial relations, once captured by referring to Britain as the ‘Mother Country’ or ‘Home’, provided an important reference point. However these affectionate relations entailed the exclusion of Indigenous people. Violence against Aboriginal people, or the attempt to ‘protect’ or ‘civilise’ them, was justified by powerful emotional narratives, images, and embodied practices. Many colonists, for example, were fearful of the ‘treacherous’ and ‘savage’ Aboriginal, constructing themselves as victims, or as brave and manly crusaders.

Children provided a key focus for these competing sympathies, as Aboriginal children who succumbed to disease within Christian missions were said to have died a ‘happy death’, by contrast with the pathetic white waif. Local meanings were given to best-selling novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, occasionally invoked to critique the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents in the pursuit of assimilation policies, known as the Stolen Generations. Usually, however, empathy was directed away from Aboriginal people as unworthy, and their grief was denied.

By understanding these persisting emotional dynamics, we may better recognize Indigenous calls for recognition in the present.

Imperial Emotions By Jane Lydon
Imperial Emotions By Jane Lydon

About The Author

Jane Lydon

Jane Lydon is Professor of History and Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History at the University of Western Australia. Her research centres upon Australia's colonial past and its le...

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