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Stanford Humanities Center Fellow Q&A: Historian J.P. Daughton

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J.P. Daughton
J. P. Daughton explores the central role human suffering in the rise and fall of French imperialism.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo
J. P. Daughton is an associate professor of modern European history at Stanford who studies imperialism and the history of humanitarianism. A 2014-2015 Stanford Humanities Center Internal Faculty Fellow, Daughton is working on his book project, Humanity So Far Away: Violence, Humanitarianism, and Human Rights in the Modern French Empire, which contextualizes the development of European sensibilities regarding violence, global suffering, and human rights.
 
Based on research in archives on five continents, the project explores the central role that human suffering played as an experience, a moral concept, and a political force in the rise and fall of French imperialism from the late 1800s to the 1960s.
 
Daughton's previous publication, An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press), explores the story of how troubled relations between Catholic missionaries and republican critics shaped colonial policies.
 
Here, Daughton shares his research process and findings.
 
What is the focus of your current research? 
The research I’ve been doing over the last few years looks at the intersection of violence and humanitarianism that has been such a central, if troubling, feature of modern imperialism. Starting in the late nineteenth century, many Europeans viewed their empires as places where they believed they could do real good – by developing economies, teaching children about science and technology, and implementing political reforms in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. What they were far more reticent to admit was that the programs that they devised to implement major social change came at a very high price.  Colonial rule often caused extraordinary suffering for the alleged beneficiaries of European “humanitarianism”; many colonial subjects faced terrible working conditions, food shortages, violence, and murder. My research explores how Europeans and non-Europeans understood and came to terms with this great paradox.
 
During my stay at the Humanities Center, I’ve decided to draw on the research I’ve done over the past few years to write a number of studies. The first will be a kind of microhistory of one particularly tragic incident in the French Congo where, in the 1920s and early ‘30s, the colonial regime built a railroad from Brazzaville, in the interior of the country, to Pointe-Noire, on the Atlantic Coast. While the French championed the effort as one that was essential to pulling the Congolese people out of poverty and, as the French put it, “savagery,” the construction of the railway devastating social dislocation, horrific labor conditions, and ultimately caused over 20,000 African deaths.
 
What drew you to this topic?
I was drawn to the story of the Congo-Océan Railroad for a number of reasons. First, despite the devastating impact it had on the people of Equatorial Africa, it is today an almost entirely forgotten chapter of modern history. There are very few studies of it – and none in English. This is all the more striking considering the discussion it generated in the interwar years. It fed a growing debate about the benefits of colonial development schemes, as well as calls for greater human rights for colonial subjects.  Some of the most prominent writers of the day, as well as organizations like the League of Nations, investigated, condemned, and in some cases defended the brutality of the construction project. 
 
Another facet that led me to want to write about it is that it makes for a compelling narrative. The story is full of interesting characters, such as violent overseers, megalomaniacal colonial administrators, outraged French journalists and writers, including the future Nobel-Prize winner, André Gide, and eloquent African men and women who reached out to international organizations to express their outrage. These characters were driven by a range of motives, from greed to sympathy to concerns about the meaning of humanity.
 
How do you conduct research? 
Most of my research comes from private and public archives from around the world.  Researching violence and humanitarianism in modern empires has taken me to archives in Europe – France, Switzerland, and the UK – as well as the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of islands in the Pacific, such as New Caledonia and Vanuatu. With the help of colleagues here at Stanford and in Dakar, I’ve been able to consult remotely collections at the National Archives of Senegal. As my focus now is on the Congo-Océan railroad, I will be going to the Republic of Congo this summer for some final research.
 
What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?  
The most surprising aspect of the story of the building of the Congo-Océan is that it might well have played an important role in the early spreading of AIDS. Microbiologists have tracked the cross-species transmission of the HIV virus, from chimpanzee to human, to the region of the railway in the 1920s or ‘30s. A French doctor, who conducted numerous autopsies of railroad laborers around 1930, found that a large percentage of his subjects had died of a disease he could not identify. His descriptions of the states of their bodies, which included severe wasting and other symptoms associated with AIDS, suggests the possibility that the crowded railroad construction sites may have been perfect environments for early spread of HIV. So in addition to being responsible for atrocities, grave suffering, and forced labor, the building of Congo-Océan might have unwittingly led to the early spread of the virus now responsible for a deadly global pandemic.
 
Is there a specific finding you think is particularly valuable? 
I think my research is directly relevant to a number of issues facing global humanitarianism today. We often think, especially at a place like Stanford, that technology is the answer to all that ails the world. My research suggests that Western ideas about development and humanitarianism often have very unintended consequences and can potentially do as much harm as good. The history of humanitarianism is inextricably linked with imperialism and with beliefs that liberal capitalism offers the only route to modernity. The Congo-Océan project was an example of European hubris every bit as murderous as the worse forced labor regimes of the Soviet Gulag. We can only learn from looking at events such as this and see the ways in which men and women before us have defined, defended, and critiqued efforts to remake non-Western societies.