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2019 | The University of Sydney will be hosting their biennial lecture in Australian history with guest speaker Professor Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History at the University of Western Australia on “Imperial Emotions: The Politics of Empathy


What does empire have to do with emotion?

This lecture explores the place of empathy in relationships between Britain, her Australasian colonies and Indigenous people. It argues that emotions are not universal, but historical: experienced and expressed in diverse ways in different cultures and times. Emotional narratives of the British empire in the early nineteenth century told readers who to care about, whose lives were ‘grievable’ and whose were not.

Exploring the sentimental narratives and visual representations that defined imperial identities, the lecture reveals the politicised nature of emotions and reminds us of their high stakes and moral intensity at a troubling period in our colonial past.

The anti-slavery movement of the period fuelled efforts by humanitarians to ameliorate the plight of white convicts or to address Aboriginal oppression. But while the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act through British Parliament in 1833 seemed to mark the triumph of humanitarianism, within a decade stirrings of a racist backlash had appeared.

Critics attacked the humanitarians’ exaggerated concern for the distant black at the expense of the local white waif; Charles Dickens famously took aim at such ‘telescopic philanthropy’ in his novel Bleak House. When colonists in Australasia sought to apply a comparable logic, they paradoxically reserved their sympathy for the distant white waifs of London, while ignoring the sufferings of Indigenous people beneath their eyes.


Professor Jane Lydon is the Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History at The University of Western Australia. Her research centres upon Australia’s colonial past and its legacies in the present. Her books include the co-edited (with Lyndall Ryan) Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre (NewSouth, 2018), and edited Visualising Human Rights (UWA Publishing, 2018) which examines the cultural impact of the framework of human rights through visual culture. Her forthcoming book Imperial Emotion: The Politics of Empathy Across the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2020) examines the role of emotions in creating relationships across the British empire.


When |     Thursday 26th September 2019 | 5:00pm for 6:00pm to 7:30pm
Venue |    The Sibyl Centre, Women’s College, Western Avenue, (Closest Entry: Carillon Avenue), Camperdown Campus, The University of Sydney

Free | RSVP