Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Recall to Life: Imperial Britain, Foreign Refugees and the Development of Modern Refuge, 1789-1905


The dissertation that follows offers the first historical examination of the nineteenth-century origins of the "refugee" as a modern humanitarian and legal category. To date, scholars have tended to focus on a single refugee group or have overlooked this period entirely, acknowledging the linguistic origins of the term "refugee" with the seventeenth-century French Huguenots before skipping directly to the post-WWI period. I find that it is only through the imperial and global history of British refuge in the nineteenth century that we can understand the sources of our contemporary moral commitment to refugees. Through most of the eighteenth century, "refugees" were understood to be Protestants fleeing persecution on the Continent. The refugee category expanded during the French Revolution and the decades that followed, as British philanthropists, officials and civil servants defined their nation in contrast to oppressive governance across the globe. By the mid-nineteenth century, "the refugee," although nowhere defined in British law, was recognized from the political fringes to the heights of the imperial government as a foreigner who had been persecuted overseas and hence required special philanthropic attention. The British media and a broad contingent of supporters from all social classes celebrated refuge as a national moral imperative. They applied the category to any foreigner who fit the now standardized refugee characteristics regardless of his or her religion, race, or politics. This high moral aspiration encountered two distinct difficulties in the years after 1870, however. First, while the British routinely assumed that they were more liberal than other powers, imperial rule bred pockets of resistance and created its own political refugees. This raised troubling questions of ethical consistency, as British politicians and philanthropists themselves recognized. Second, Britain's ability to harbor foreign refugees depended on its imperial reach. The increasingly obvious limits to Britain's international power after 1870 made it more difficult to resettle refugees throughout the Empire or to persuade foreign powers to protect refugees at Britain's behest. Ironically, these limitations also drove British philanthropists and officials to pursue refugee relief on an increasingly international basis, the legacies of which remain with us today.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View