Cosmopolitan and International: Interwar Networks in the Australasia-Pacific

by Fiona Paisley

In my chapter in our joint book Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire, I look at some of the ways in which liberal internationalism enabled forms of faith-based cosmopolitanism. With India and Australia as my focus, I consider the role of international conferences as embodied sites that enabled the cosmopolitan aspirations of mobile subjects and encouraged forms of mobility along routes of exchange and affect. At the same time as these routes and pathways were anchored in imperial, colonial and gender relations that ascribed to hierarchical notions of development and progress, by the interwar years they were challenged by new ideas about cultural difference and the problem of industrialization and mechanisation in the west.

One liberal international concern in this era was for the conditions of industrialization in relation to the Indian diaspora in the Australasia-Pacific region. In response to concern within the Indian National Congress about the conditions of Indians in Australia and the Pacific following the official end of indenture to Fiji, or living in White Australia, Kotanda Rao, a leading member of The Servants of India, embarked on a tour that saw him lecturing in Australia in 1936. Rao had recently attended a major conference-seminar on education convened in Honolulu that considered among other topics the legacies of imperial education in India. Rao’s speaking engagements as reported in the Australian press reflected contemporary debate about the proper treatment of Indians as British subjects yet non-white subjects in White Australia. Rao spoke also on the relative advancement of the west and the impacts of industrialization in his own country as elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific.

Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 10 November 1936 p10
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW 1842 – 1954), Tuesday 10 November 1936 p10

Indeed, the urgency of humanising (western) modernity was a common topic of discussion in these circles. Following a brutal world war, in the face of globalisation, along with hopes for new gender relations based on social justice, the reconfiguration of international relations was considered by their participants as an essential element in world peace. The humane management of modernisation rapidly taking place around the world would entail also the rehumanisation of modernity more broadly. To this end, conferences in the Pacific region (like the education conference in Hawai’i in 1936) aimed to bring together internationalists, activists and professionals to discuss some of the most pressing questions of their day. Thus numbers of Australian and South Asian, as well as Pacific Islander, delegates debated the future of world government, the emergence of cosmopolitan race relations; education and employment; and the devolution of empire. Pan-African and Pan-Asian networks have been rightly identified as central in formulating these questions over previous decades, including with European allies in the World Missionary Movement and Young Men’s and Women’s Associations.

By the interwar decades, the Institute of Pacific Relations and the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association emerged as two key venues originating in Y and Christian missionary networks into Asia and South Asia. Here women and men performed ‘interracial cooperation’: they engaged in the exchange of information, the sharing of reform agendas, and the formations of ‘friendship’.[ India and Indians featured in both, as South Asia was considered a pressing example of how British rule (or more broadly colonial relations) should be urgently reformed in cooperation with local leadership. More specifically, India’s Dominion status within the British Commonwealth should be managed peacefully. At both the local and global level, a faith-based ethics (Christian and ecumenical) along with the social sciences was to enable new respect for difference while ensuring the (supposedly) positive impacts of development along culturally-appropriate lines. Settler colonialism would not end, nor would colonial authority where it was deemed necessary (for now): such was the racializing perspective of the white liberal internationalist informed by the latest in the social science of race relations.

White Australian women in these cross-cultural networks were supporters of Indian Dominion status within the British Commonwealth. Some were inspired also by the non-violence espoused by Mohandras Gandhi, the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, and the theosophical movement of Annie Besant. Bessie Rischbieth provides a case in point. As the president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, she embraced the idea of Eastern influence in world civilization as a humanizing force in an increasingly mechanistic age. Reforming race relations – with other civilisations in Asia but also with the ‘lesser’ races in the settler colonies – were central to her Christian social science worldview. Rischbieth was international and national critic of the status and conditions of Aboriginal people in interwar Australia, advocating an end of white violence and abuse, and Commonwealth oversight over Aboriginal lives.

Active in the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association, Rischbieth attended a conference of the All-India Women’s Association held in Madras in 1930. The association was led by the British theosophist Margaret Cousins and conferences were attended by leading women from around the world. Important among them were Indian women. For example, at the conference that year was Sarojini Naidu, the Civil Disobedience activist involved in forming the Women’s Indian Association. Naidu, who had been the first Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress and president of the East Africa Indian Congress of 1929, gave a keynote at the India Women’s Conference in London in 1930 and Rischbieth was in the audience. She later described her speech as ‘revolutionary’ in its resolute assertion of Indian independence. While in India, Rischbieth visited also the Sabarmati Ashram, established by Gandhi in 1915. On her return to Australia, Rischbieth presented a lecture in which she reminded her audience that ‘the British Empire is not the White Empire’ and expressed her hope that in future, India within the British Commonwealth would offer ‘the greatest link’ between East and West.


See Paisley, ‘Cosmopolitan Modernity and Post-Imperial Relations’ in Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire.

For more on the international education conference held in Honolulu in 1936 see Julie McLeod and Fiona Paisley, ‘The Modernization of Colonialism and the Educability of the “Native”: Transpacific Knowledge Networks and Education in the Interwar Years’, History of Education Quarterly, 56:3 (2016): 473-502.

And for more on the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association see Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific: Cultural Internationalism and Race Politics in the Women’s Pan-Pacific ,(University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).

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