Stanford historian uncovers the dark roots of humanitarianism

Through a study of the history of the French colonial Congo-Océan Railway, Stanford historian JP Daughton has discovered how modern humanitarianism arose from the brutality of European colonialism.

porters carrying supplies for construction of Congo-Ocean Railway

During building of the Congo-Océan Railway, men working in forced labor as porters carried supplies over difficult terrain. Stanford historian JP Daughton says that what was intended as a project to lift people out of poverty cost the lives of tens of thousands of indigenous laborers and dislocated communities. (Image credit: Archives nationales d'outre mer)

Modern humanitarian endeavors are generally perceived of as works by good-willed people, selflessly striving to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

We have little reason to think that these individuals might be motivated by the same hubris that led 19th-century Europe to establish empires across the world.

Stanford historian JP Daughton wants to change that.

An associate professor of modern European history, Daughton’s research interests span imperialism and the history of humanitarianism. His latest work traces the roots of modern humanitarianism to a set of colonial development projects in the early 20th century.

Most histories of humanitarianism jump from international efforts to end slavery in the early 19th century to post-World War II humanitarian and refugee efforts. But Daughton says this approach misses a key point: Defenders of empire in the 19th and 20th centuries regularly saw imperialism as a fundamentally humanitarian enterprise.

Many people have traditionally thought that “Western industrialized countries can come in and transform societies and make them wealthier and happier and more stable,” says Daughton. But, he argues, not only can this process be outwardly violent and destructive, it also oftentimes has very unexpected consequences.

Daughton’s project attempts to fill in the missing middle, asserting that humanitarianism, in fact, evolved out of colonial debates.

Currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, Daughton believes that his discoveries demonstrate the extent to which contemporary notions of human rights and humanitarian development “came out of this period of colonialism, which – ironically – was obviously extremely violent and based on great iniquity and domination.”

Daughton’s current book project, Cover Not My Blood: Humanitarianism, Brutality, Disease and Denial in the Building of a French Colonial Railroad in the Congo, is based on research in archives on three continents. It explores the construction of the Congo-Océan Railway in French Equatorial Africa, in today’s Republic of the Congo.

The construction of this railroad, in the years between the world wars, cost thousands of lives and lasted over a decade. It fits in well with Daughton’s research, which looks at what he describes as “the intersection of violence and humanitarianism that has been such a central, if troubling, feature of modern imperialism.”

This history, he thinks, should give Westerners today pause in their belief that they alone have the solutions to the problems of the developing world.

Because this research “suggests that European ideas about development and humanitarianism often have had very unintended consequences and can potentially do as much harm as good,” Daughton says, “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-industrialized societies.”

This project, says Daughton, demonstrates that “the history of humanitarianism is inextricably linked with imperialism and with beliefs that liberal capitalism offers the only route to modernity.”

Unexpected consequences

The Congo-Océan Railway, which stretched 512 kilometers from Brazzaville to the Atlantic coast at Pointe-Noire, was built over a period of 12 years, starting in the 1920s, under French direction.

Although colonial officials considered it a beneficent project, intended to lift “the Congolese people out of poverty,” it cost the lives of at least 20,000 indigenous laborers. Moreover, extreme deprivation followed the dislocation of communities necessitated by such a large-scale project.

“Though essentially forgotten outside of central Africa,” Daughton says, “the building of the railroad was as deadly as some of the most notorious modern examples of forced labor, such as Stalin’s White Sea–Baltic Canal project, and Japan’s use of POWs to build the Burma Railway.”

Relying on materials from collections in France and Switzerland, and archives in the Congo, Daughton has pieced together the first in-depth study of the railway’s conception and construction, and the human costs of this kind of colonial project.

As Daughton found, the railroad project and other such projects, which colonizers frequently pursued, were grounded in Europeans’ belief in the economic improvement of what they considered less “developed” peoples, specifically in their faith that “railroads would improve lives.”

Daughton says he believes “what is perhaps most striking – and tragic – is that French officials never doubted the humanity of the project, even in the face of mounting evidence that Africans regularly faced beatings, rape, disease and starvation in the process of building the railroad.”

Daughton argues, however, that the corollary to this was the equally strong belief among colonizers that “if people died, it didn’t really matter.”

In the archives where he conducted research, Daughton found “reams of letters in which powerful Frenchmen, including governor-generals and even ministers, essentially justified the deaths of thousands of men and women. European cultural and racial superiority convinced them that economic development in the long run was worth far more than the lives of Africans and their communities.”

In addition to violence and mistreatment, much of the misery suffered on the Congo-Océan construction site was due to widespread disease, including dysentery, malaria and possibly even HIV/AIDS.

Scientists have only been able definitively to trace HIV back as far as 1950s Brazzaville and Kinshasa, today the capitals, respectively, of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, in recent years epidemiologists have found evidence that many railway workers died of extreme wasting, deterioration of the brain and other symptoms today associated with AIDS. If this is true, Daughton argues, it means that the construction of the railroad, with its forced migration of African laborers, was directly implicated in the early spread of HIV.

This possibility fits the narrative he has discovered, suggests Daughton, because the spread of AIDS “seems like one of the most horrific unexpected consequences that could come from this kind of mentality.”

Informing debates

While the story offers a cautionary tale about the origins of humanitarianism, Daughton believes that modern human rights discourses also arose out of contemporary critiques of the Congo-Océan Railway.

A wide range of French intellectuals and advocates, including writer and later Nobel laureate André Gide, openly criticized labor practices in the building of the railroad in the 1930s, informing for the first time a European discussion of human rights in the colonies.

As Daughton puts it, “There’s a way in which debates over many of these kinds of imperial projects really informed ideas at the beginning of the 1930s, just as many people around the world started to talk about human rights. This language of rights in turn informed many anti-colonial leaders to demand independence from colonial rule.” In this way, humanitarianism and rights were central to the rise and fall of European imperialism.

Daughton hopes ultimately that his work will provoke people to think more deeply about the moral implications of the colonial roots of humanitarianism and human rights.

“We tend to see humanitarian impulses as being simple, apolitical and kind acts,” says Daughton. “But my research makes plain that humanitarianism has always been closely allied to ideologies and power. And humanitarian projects that aren’t thought through and carried out with oversight can actually have really devastating effects.”

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156,
Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,