Testing Toleration in Britain’s Imperial and Post-Imperial World

The question of the nature and limits of toleration is now as pressing as it has ever been.  We live in turbulent times with increasingly polarised – and perhaps intolerant – public debate as perceived differences between people become a site of controversy and values become oppositional.  The problems of defining and testing toleration are not new. They have both roots and precedence in a world of empires. How did questions of toleration emerge in Britain’s empire and how were they dealt with? Who and what was, or was not,  being tolerated and by whom? What is the legacy of these issues in the post-imperial world?

This doctoral and ECR conference at Birkbeck, University of London on Friday 15th June 2018  aims to explore the concept and limits of toleration in the attitudes and interactions between the people, religions and cultures of the nations which once constituted the British empire.

The conference will be particularly, but not exclusively, focused on the encounter between the people, cultures and religions of Britain and its empire in situ and in migrant communities in Britain from c. 1750 to the present day.

Wider themes include: assimilation, tolerance, relativism, universalism, empire, integration, religion, secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism, liberalism.

Keynote speaker: Professor Andrew Thompson



9am: Coffee and registration

9.15: Welcome and orientation

9.30 – 11: Panel 1 and 2 (parallel)

Panel 1: Religious toleration and imperialism

  • Dr Justin Biel (Minnesota), Circulating Subjects: The Political Economy of Pilgrimage Promotion (and Permanent Settlement) in Bihar and Bengal, 1785-1793
  • Sue Blunn (Birkbeck), The role of the abolition of sati in defining and circumscribing toleration in British policy in the mid-late 19th century 
  • Conor Meleady (Oxford), Embracing Islamic Pluralism in the Census of India, 1871 – 1911

Panel 2: The colonised and the limits of cultural toleration 

  • Ann Cotterrell (Birkbeck), Toleration, Intolerance and Rejection: Ghanaian Coastal Elites at end of the C19th
  • Tom Wilkinson (LSE), The Intolerance of Indian youths: “purity” and “pollution”

11-11.20: Coffee

11.20- 12.50: Panel 3 and 4 (parallel)

Panel 3: Identity and toleration in post-imperial Britain

  • Sue Bishop (Leicester), Examining toleration of inter-ethnic romance in post-imperial Britain, 1960-1985
  • Satya Gunput (Birkbeck), Southall Black Sisters and black political identity
  • Helen Carr (Birkbeck), Muslims and British education in the 1980s (title tbc)

Panel 4: Philanthropy and imperial power

  • Oscar Webber (Leeds), The intolerance of idleness: disaster relief in the 19th century British Caribbean
  • Nathan Goh (UCL), The Straits Chinese and British colonial hierarchies in Singapore in the mid 19th century
  • Mrunmayee Satam (Leicester), Partnering with the government: role of local philanthropy in the creation of public health infrastructure for Bombay city, 1914-1945

12.50 -1.40: Lunch

1.40 -3. 30: Panel 5: Testing toleration: British public engagement with imperial and post-imperial policy

  • Melanie Burkett (Macquarie), Needed, But Not Accepted: Intolerance Towards Government-Assisted Emigrants to 1830s New South Wales
  • James Watts (Bristol), ‘They claim the homage of a certain sympathy’: The tolerance of two Imperial Enthusiasts
  • Liam J Liburd (Sheffield), Intolerance and Empire: The British Radical Right response to Decolonisation, 1945-1968
  • Emil Sokolov (Exeter), Immigration and the 1964 General Election 

3.30- 3.50: Tea

3.50-4.50 Keynote and Q&A : Professor Andrew Thompson on the concept and limits of toleration with regard to post-colonial immigration to Britain and France

4.55 – 5pm: Closing remarks


Booking (free) is now open for Birkbeck students, students at non-BPSN universities and members of the public on this link: 


Students at UCL, SOAS, LSE and KCL can book free tickets through the Bloomsbury Postgraduate Skills Network

If all tickets have been booked, or you have any queries, please contact the conference convenors.

Conference convenors: Sue Blunn and Helen Carr, Birkbeck. We can be contacted at : testingtoleration@gmail.com

This conference is funded by Birkbeck Graduate Research School


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