The Quaker doctor, scientist and philanthropist, Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) founded the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) in 1837 in order to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the British Empire. While the Aborigines’ Protection Society had limited success, Hodgkin’s position as a humanitarian campaigner on imperial affairs and interest in human natural history gave him a distinctive perspective on the anti-slavery and missionary movements. Although Hodgkin acknowledged the importance of combating slavery and the slave-trade and was committed to missionary endeavours, his concern for the welfare and rights of indigenous peoples led him to criticize the priorities and strategies of missionaries and abolitionists.
Hodgkin made interventions in the missionary debate over whether conversion should precede or follow efforts to ‘civilize’ the heathen, favouring the latter. He criticized the emphasis of missionaries on spiritual, at the expense of material, welfare; and he was concerned that they colluded with settler interests in southern Africa, New Zealand and Canada. Hodgkin envied the missionary societies their success at raising funds and creating extensive networks through which information could be disseminated; and he despaired at their supporters’ ignorance of the APS.
Although he condemned slavery, and knew many of the leading British anti-slavery campaigners (including Thomas Clarkson and Thomas Fowell Buxton) this did not prevent Hodgkin from offering a critique of anti-slavery activity. Unfashionably, he emphasized long-term economic and social stability over immediate and unconditional freedom for slaves in the 1830s, arguing for a gradualist approach. Subsequently, while Britons increasingly made recourse to racial explanations for the Caribbean’s economic decline, Hodgkin blamed it on the colonies’ inequitable political and social circumstances. Hodgkin also argued that the development of ‘civilized’ West African communities, which engaged in ‘legitimate commerce’ rather than the slave-trade, was critical for ending slavery. He passionately supported the controversial American Colonization Society, and became involved in several similar British schemes designed to encourage emancipists from the Caribbean and the USA to colonize Africa.
Throughout his life, Hodgkin’s tendency was to universalize and generalize. His involvement in the nascent discipline of ‘ethnology’ (he founded the Ethnological Society of London), both demonstrated this tendency and bound his scientific and humanitarian concerns together. Hodgkin saw ethnology as the ‘universal history of mankind’; simultaneously proving the monogenetic origins of humanity and providing a reminder of Britain’s responsibilities to the Empire’s colonized. Yet this strength, which led him to combat racism and to promote the rights of indigenous peoples, was also Hodgkin’s weakness. He had no first-hand experience of the colonies, and, because of his reductive view of humanity, was often blind to the particularities of the colonial context. The universal ‘civilization’ that he embraced and promoted was profoundly ethnocentric. Despite their flaws, however, Hodgkin’s criticisms of mid nineteenth-century humanitarian activity provoke a reassessment of the missionary and anti-slavery movements, in particular exposing their inconsistencies, ethnocentric nature and paternalism, while illuminating the fear of failure which arose from such significant investment in the mighty experiment and missionary activity.