School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences

Following the Dictates of Humanity: The British East India Company, Enslaved Children, Famine Relief, Native Hospitals, and Smallpox Vaccination, 1770s-1840s

During the mid-1780s and early 1790s, British East India Company (EIC) officials in India repeatedly expressed their concern that the enslavement, sale, and exportation of Indian children from the subcontinent contravened “the dictates of humanity,” sentiments which the company’s Court of Directors in London readily supported. The company’s humanitarian policies and practices were not limited, however, to seeking to ameliorate the plight of enslaved Indian children at a time when many Britons sought to abolish the British transatlantic slave trade. Recent research reveals that these policies and practices encompassed other important aspects of the human experience including famine and famine relief, the creation of charitable institutions such as orphanages, insane asylums, “native” hospitals, and public dispensaries, and the vaccination of millions of men, women, and children against the horrors of epidemic smallpox in South Asia and elsewhere in an oceanic world that extended to Sumatra, the Philippines, and southern China. This research reveals, moreover, that the articulation and implementation of these beliefs, policies, and practices began earlier than previously supposed, continued well into the mid-nineteenth century, and were often closely intertwined with each other.

The complexities of EIC endeavors to alleviate various forms of human misery between the 1770s and the 1840s challenge not only commonly held views about the nature and dynamics of company rule in India, but also the meaning and purpose(s) of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British imperial and colonial humanitarianism. In so doing, the company’s activities to end slave trading and slavery, to foster the well-being of the wider Indian public, and to lift the scourge of smallpox from humankind underscore the need to examine such endeavors in more fully developed social, economic, political, and historical contexts.