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“The international turbulence of the late 1760s and 1770s strengthened interventionist sentiment in Europe. In the 1770s no fewer than three German imperial counts were taken into custody for ‘abuse of power’. In Britain, prominent writers and parliamentarians such as James Boswell and Burke championed the cause of ‘liberty’ in Corsica, which the French had occupied in 1768 after expelling the charismatic patriotic leader Pasquale Paoli, and in Poland. Many such interventions, of course, were driven by self-interested motives. Indeed, the effective defence of minority rights depended on a synergy between sentiment and strategy; the two were not always easy to separate. Sympathy for the cause of ‘liberty’ in Corsica, for example, was part of a broader concern for British freedoms and the containment of France on which these ultimately depended. On the other hand, it was also true that states intervened in defence of rights which they routinely violated themselves either at home or abroad. The French guarantee of the imperial constitution and Russia’s professed concern for Polish ‘liberties’ are the most prominent examples. Many European states, or populations, could therefore be forgiven a certain ambivalence about interventions in the name of ‘liberty’ and ‘toleration which were transparently designed to keep them in a condition of permanent dependency.

All the same, humanitarian concern was not simply a matter of attacking the mote in the neighbour’s eye, while ignoring the beam in one’s own. This was demonstrated by the case of the Caribs of St Vincent, an island which had been annexed by the British from the French and was used for victualling Barbados. Some claimed that the Caribs were in league with the French on Martinique. Under pressure from local planters to colonize the island, London considered exterminating the Caribs, but rejected that as unethical. They accepted that deportation was impractical, and so recommended that the natives be decanted into what was effectively a reservation. When the Caribs resisted, a major campaign was launched against them in 1772. News of atrocities by crown forces provoked extensive parliamentary protests and demands for an inquiry into what was widely regarded as a cruel and unnecessary operation. The MP Barlow Trescothick spoke for many when he condemned war against ‘innocent and inoffensive people’. That same year, the Mansfield judgment effectively abolished slavery in Britain itself, though it remained widespread in British colonies and British ships continued to ply the slave trade across the Atlantic. Shortly afterwards, a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of the Caribs was set up. A recognizably ‘humanitarian’ sentiment was abroad.”

p. 124-5 – Europe, Brendan Simms, 2013.