The Changing Moral Justification of Empire: From the Right to Colonise to the Obligation to Civilise

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This paper argues that the moral legitimating reasoning of terra nullius assumed an under-recognised, different guise in the later years of colonial justification in the form of trusteeship. The idea of terra nullius has a central place in the political thought of thinkers such as Grotius and Locke. Although terra nullius, consolidated in European colonial thought in the early modern period, differed conceptually from the doctrine of trusteeship as the colonial legitimation for Africa, both instituted a moral justification for the appropriation of native land, and of empire itself.The contention is that the trajectory from the one doctrine to the other was aligned with the change in the underlying moral framework of the rights and duties of Europeans and non-Europeans. In the early days of colonisation, there was a certain permissiveness on the part of the colonisers to appropriate the land of American Indians. By the late nineteenth century this seemed to change into a moral requirement for civilising the native Africans. Edmund Burke's conceptualisation of trusteeship illustrates the way in which traditionally conceived natural rights were transformed into fundamental social rights, and central to this idea was the expansion of European 'civilised' moral communities on which rights now depended.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)335-353
Number of pages19
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2013


  • British Idealism
  • Edmund Burke
  • colonial political thought
  • terra nullius
  • trusteeship

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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