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Press release

  • 1 February 2005
  • Research to throw new light on nature of colonialism

    Research into British colonial history at the University of Sussex should throw new light on continuing land disputes in New Zealand and Australia.

    Dr Alan Lester, a Reader in Geography at the University, will conduct a three-year study of how the experiences of these two countries, as well as that of South Africa, were part of an Empire-wide struggle between two opposing sets of colonisers - the "humanitarian" lobby and the migrant settlers. The project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will include research trips to Australia and New Zealand and will result in a book.

    Dr Lester says: "The movement away from a "benevolent" idea of colonialism to the race-driven rule of white settlers that took place in each country was the result of a complex international web of relationships between settlers, humanitarian campaigners, British public opinion and government, as well as contests between coloniser and colonised."

    The humanitarians, inheritors of the anti-slavery movement, were represented by politicians, reform campaigners and religious missionaries. They thought the best way to colonise people was through the "civilising" influences of education and religion. The settlers, looking to establish themselves as landowners, justified their ambitions by arguing that that they were entitled to take over the new territories because they were intellectually, morally and spiritually the superiors of those they dispossessed. This led to conflict between the two sides as they fought to dictate colonial policy.

    This broader picture should also highlight national debates over the idea that modern Australia and New Zealand were founded at the expense of indigenous peoples, and recent anti-colonial criticism in Africa, as in South African President Thabo Mbeki's recent attack on "racist" Winston Churchill.

    The study will focus on the period 1820-60, which saw a surge in migration from Britain to the New Worlds of South Africa's Cape colony, New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia. Sources will include key government documents, such as the Select Committee on Aborigines (1836-7), settler newspapers and letters to family back in Britain and letters from campaigning missionaries recording atrocities perpetrated by settlers against Aborigines.

    Dr Lester also hopes to show how British public opinion of colonial life was shaped by the views of settlers and humanitarians, and how settler communities in all three colonial sites exhibited a common purpose and intent in their propaganda newspapers and communications.

    Dr Lester says that he intends "to help explain why a humanitarian belief in the fundamental equality of coloniser and colonised was undermined during the mid-19th century by a settler-derived belief that the different 'races' were inherently unequal". This can be done, he argues, "only by looking at multiple sites of colonisation within the same framework of analysis".


    Notes for editors 

    The Leverhulme Trust makes educational and research awards for original work in all subject areas. For more information, see 

    For more information on Dr Alan Lester and his research visit to Australia in August and September this year (a research assistant will be conducting research under direction in New Zealand), please contact Maggie Clune in the University of Sussex Press office, tel: 01273 678 888 or email


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