Anna Bugge-Wicksell and Education at the Permanent Mandates Commission

As part of VIDA blog’s series on humanitarianism and internationalism, Fiona Paisley explores how Scandinavian Anna Bugge-Wicksell promoted the cause of education in Africa and the Pacific within the League of Nations.

Anna Bugge-Wicksell, Argus, February 4, 1927. Image via Trove, National Library of Australia.

In 1921, Anna Bugge-Wicksell became the first woman appointed to the newly formed Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) of the League of Nations. A Norwegian feminist and lawyer who also worked in Sweden, Bugge-Wicksell would seek to bring the commission’s attention to the question of women and children in mandated colonies. The PMC was to monitor the progress achieved by mandated powers, member nations like Australia tasked with governing former colonies in Africa and the Pacific. These mandated territories were classed according to their supposed level of advancement: for example, C territories like Nauru and New Guinea required the greatest levels of ‘trusteeship’. Employment conditions, health and development were key issues discussed by the PMC. However, as reflected in the published minutes of annual PMC meetings in Geneva, education was less central to ensuing interrogations of representatives of the mandated powers.

Already a leading woman internationalist, Bugge-Wicksell had previous experience as a League delegate. While not an education expert, as the only woman member of the PMC, she would be allocated that topic as one of her areas of special responsibility. Despite general lassitude on this area of reform, Bugge-Wicksell would work assiduously to underline its importance for the future of ‘native’ women and their communities. Near the end of her appointment, this quest would take her to the southern United States.

Bugge-Wicksell’s main impact on the question of education in the mandates was through a series of reports she contributed to the annual publications of the PMC. Thus she made her case not only to the other members of the PMC, dominated by ex-colonial administrators and representatives of the mandated powers, but beyond them the public at large. Her reports were published and widely distributed alongside the minutes of the PMC. But, as time would show, her fellow commissioners proved little interested in the issue of education. Education was never near the top of their agendas, which were focused mostly on the question of labour.

Bugge-Wicksell was also effective in establishing a thematic focus for the commission, thereby replacing the original plan for deliberations based on the individual mandated territories with one that sought a more explicitly comparative perspective. Through this means, Bugge-Wicksell raised the status of ‘education’ to an issue in its own right. As such, education would feature among those reported on at annual meetings with representatives of the mandatory powers in Geneva.

As critics of the PMC remind us, advocates of the mandates system promoted it as a model of modernised imperial rule with application globally in the formation of efficient, and humane interracial relations. But while it supposedly predicted the future end of colonialism, in fact the PMC oversaw the continuation of European rule in Africa, Asia and across the Pacific. Self-rule under the tutelage of the member nations of the League, as Lord Lugard had explained in 1922, was designed to enable development in the tropics for the benefit of the whole world. Development would supposedly also benefit those living under mandated rule, whose territories and resources were being exploited but whose populations, societies, cultures and traditions were negatively impacted. Throughout its operation, the PMC would respond to reports of injustice and violence perpetrated by European powers against mandated peoples (sometimes through native petitioners protesting directly to the commission) in ways that aligned its larger remit to encourage rather than enforce international standards of behaviour.

On the other hand, historian Susan Pedersen and others have pointed out that we need to look beyond questions of success or failure in assessing the influence of the League or the PMC. The humanitarian talk circulating through these international bodies contributed inevitably to various rights discourses articulated by, or on behalf of, colonised peoples. While the commission aimed to influence positive change through published minutes and reports, negative press and publicity concerning a variety of crises and injustices taking place in the mandates necessarily confounded efforts to limit controversy. Debate surrounding the mandates contributed to the campaigns of various networks and movements active around the world – including anti-colonial and Indigenous rights groups. For example, in 1938, when Australian Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs appealed to the League of Nations for support in regards to the conditions of her people, she considered the federal territory of Australia (the Northern Territory) sufficiently akin to a mandate to argue that international oversight should apply there also.

This talk about reform in the mandated territories (such as promoted in Samoa through local leadership) was mobilised by many white progressives active in non-government networks and organisations who sought a more just relationship between the races. In the process, they were also intent in promoting the international role of white women and men like themselves in the reform of empire. Many of them, including Australian networks, sought to collaborate with the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society headquartered in London, but also influential at the League in Geneva.

By the time of her appointment, Bugge-Wicksell was a leading lawyer in Sweden in her late fifties. She had been a member of the first Swedish delegations to the League and active in the international women’s movement. Already a long-standing vice president of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, she became one of the many women appointed to national delegations to the League. In Australia’s case, women were alternate delegates – for example, Bessie Rischbieth in 1935. Like other women at the League, Bugge-Wicksell was involved in the Social Section while in Geneva. Prior to her appointment to the PMC, she had been shortlisted for the headship of Traffic in Slavery, a job that went to Dame Rachel Crowdy of Britain. By the time of her death only six years later, Bugge-Wicksell was considered by the Australian women’s press to be one of the world’s leading woman internationalists.

In her letter accepting the appointment to the PMC, Bugge-Wicksell openly acknowledged her lack of experience as a colonial administrator. This was hardly surprising, given she was a woman. But perhaps more unexpected, given the profile of women involved in the League’s Social Section, she also confessed to having no expertise in education. On the other hand, as a woman internationalist, Bugge-Wicksell would have been very aware of the cause. In 1924 at the League, the Council for the Representation of Women expressed its support for the PMC, optimistically asserting its important role in improving conditions for native peoples including through providing them with ‘education and enlightenment on health matters as a means of promoting moral progress’.

Anna Bugge-Wicksell (1862-1928), 1912 carte de viste. Photograph by Albert Wilhelm Rahmn. Image via National Library of Norway.

Health and education would be important to modernising the social fabric of native societies, as well as helping to protect them from exploitation by whites, especially those most vulnerable among them: women and children. In her letter of acceptance, Bugge-Wicksell expressed in similar terms her expectation that the PMC should include ‘one member, who can feel as a woman for other women as well as for children and who will make it her special business to care for and speak for that part of the native population…’ But she added that, beyond her womanly feelings of solidarity, she was committed to the mandate system in the name of humanity as a whole.

Responsibility for education at the PMC was automatically allocated to Bugge-Wicksell, despite her admission. The implication of this gendered division of labour was soon revealed by the fact that the commission, along with the representatives of the mandated powers that appeared before it, was little concerned with educational reform and less so with the empowerment of native women and girls. And yet, education was widely mobilised beyond the PMC in progressive discourse during this era. It was widely considered a crucial feature in the modernisation of colonial relations – the question of what kinds of education and how it should be delivered reflected exactly the larger problematic underlying the PMC of when and how ‘native’ peoples would become self-ruling.

Education was widely promoted by progressives of this generation as one of the most powerful adjuncts to creating new kinds of native subjects who would carry out the project of modernising colonialism. Education would also carry much of the weight of the purportedly humanitarian purpose of reform in the colonial world. But it might also seed resistance and anti-colonialism. Calls for independence by native petitioners made to the PMC were often blamed upon the supposedly ‘wrong’ kinds of education.

Of particular concern to many of Bugge-Wicksell’s contemporaries was that education might empower individuals and communities in the wrong way. Given the dangers they saw in decolonisation from the ground up, with its likely rejection of western authority, access to education would have to be carefully managed. Thus ‘applied’ education was widely considered appropriate to native subjects in the mandates and more broadly in the colonised world. This form of education envisioned literacy based on ‘vernacular’ languages (in some cases also in English, but only insofar as was necessary for agricultural training), training in village industries, and tutelage in western-style regimes of health and hygiene. Some among the natives might be encouraged to further their education in order to become intermediaries in the modernisation of their own communities. Women and girls were strategic figures in this vision of an educated native labour force in village settings amenable to European capital.

Needless to say, education was not so easily contained. As Patricia O’Brien has shown of the Mau movement in Samoa, for example, European administrations in the colonies and mandates routinely blamed what they saw as the wrong kind of education to the formation of political unrest, or through the influence of supposedly overly-educated agitators. And so, while in one sense education was a lesser social aim assigned to the PMC’s only woman member, it was also one that revealed only too clearly the limits of the PMC and humanitarian imperialism itself. Perhaps the sidelining of education – and thus of Bugge-Wicksell herself – reflects exactly its disruptive potential, as well as her own.

Something of Bugge-Wicksell’s enthusiasm for her new role may be implied from her early readiness to speak for what she considered to be the inherent needs of mandated peoples. In a bumpy start to the first formal sitting of the PMC in 1922, Bugge-Wicksell quickly became embroiled in criticism of Australia’s representative following his evidence before the commission. Following his report on Australia’s first two years as the mandated power in Nauru and New Guinea, the PMC criticised Australian High Commissioner Joseph Cook for having provided insufficient information on labour conditions in the phosphate mining industry on Nauru, which was monopolised by a consortium of British, Australian and New Zealand companies.

Australian High Commissioner Joseph Cook, c. 1914. Photograph by Crown Studios. Image via National Library of Australia.

According to Cook, the PMC had been hostile to his evidence and accused its members of unfairness. Worse still, he accused it of deliberately omitted from its minutes the additional information he had provided in response to their questions. Cook had made assurances that Australia’s administrator on Nauru was fully empowered to investigate labour conditions, despite the mining monopoly in which Australians were directly involved. Standing outside the annual public meeting that September, Bugge-Wicksell offered her thoughts to newspaper reporters asking about the dispute. She asserted the PMC’s ostensible purpose to advocate for those unable to represent themselves on the world stage. Bugge-Wicksell would be quoted in the Australian press as defending the actions of the PMC on ethical and humanitarian grounds. ‘[W]e feel it is our duty to be watchful, as we have safeguarded the interests of men and women who are not capable of defending themselves,’ she said. ‘We must look with their eyes and feel with their hearts, and sometimes their eyes and hearts are suspicious.’

At the same time, it is important not to interpret Bugge-Wicksell as a spokesperson for mandated subjects, or as a woman driven by her identification with their suffering. The reality was more complex. For example, numerous controversies erupted during her time at the PMC: New Zealand’s aggressive handling of the Mau resistance movement in Western Samoa and the Anti-Slavery Society’s claims that the right to petition had been obstructed by the nation’s authorities; the 1922 Bondelswart rebellion in South West Africa and the Union of South Africa’s use of bombs and machine guns to quell it; and petitions from elite Togolanders calling for the end of French mandate on the grounds of maltreatment and unjust taxation. Bugge-Wicksell was tasked with assessing the veracity of some of these claims and fulfilled her role with the required critical distance. In doing so, she adopted a very moderate position that was in step with the PMC’s concern that resistance in the mandates was the result of mishandling by the mandated power rather than any inherent expression of rights claims. For example, she advised the commission to reject the Togoland petition on the grounds that it was, in her view, thinly grounded in evidence.

Similarly, Bugge-Wicksell agreed with the proposition that only certain kinds of education should be provided to natives. Education, she agreed, should be adapted to their supposed needs and capacities. As the provision of schooling and training for non-white peoples was framed in this era by racialised notions of relative capacity, the majority of natives in the B and C mandates (C being considered the least advanced) should receive, at most, a ‘practical’ or ‘applied’ education of the sort appropriate to their anticipated futures in village or rural life. Such ideas and their practical applications were influenced by current practice in British colonial Africa.

Nonetheless, over the six years of her appointment to the PMC, Bugge-Wicksell sought to educate herself and her colleagues on the most up-to-date ideas about educational reform in the English-speaking world. By their very nature, these ideas held within them fractures and possibilities that would be useful to rights movements from within the mandates, colonial and, indeed, settler colonial world. Bugge-Wicksell set herself to read key texts, and sought out experts, on the modernisation of colonial administration and educational reform. She then used these to inform a series of PMC appendices she wrote that were circulated internationally along with PMC minutes, thus potentially reaching vast and diverse readerships worldwide. She was influenced by a genealogy in the field of adaptive education that had emerged in the 1910s. It had been led by progressive missionaries, educationalists, and colonial administrators in Britain and the United States through organisations like the International Missionary Congress. These ideas were also increasingly shaped by the modern sociology of education and social anthropology.

In seeking to learn more about the most recent developments in applied education, Bugge-Wicksell turned also to contemporary studies of education in African American schools in the southern United States. In 1912, J.H. Oldham, on behalf of the International Missionary Congress, had travelled to Alabama to visit Tuskegee Institute, a school established by Booker T. Washington that had promoted basic literacy and agricultural training for African Americans since the nineteenth century. Such was the widely-assumed capacity of his pupils. When a British Educational Mission travelled to the United States in 1918 with the aim of furthering these ties, their itinerary also included Tuskegee. By the early 1920s, the New York-based Phelps-Stokes Fund, long involved in ‘negro’ education in the South, was invited by the Colonial Office to carry out African Education Commissions to study educational reform in East Africa. These commissions were led by Thomas Jesse Jones, a graduate of the Chicago School of Sociology who had studied at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (another school for African Americans that was set up in Virginia following the Civil War), and their findings were published in 1921 and 1922.

Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Alabama, c. 1916. Image via Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division.

Thus Bugge-Wicksell drew from these sources to better understand best practice as it was characterised in this combination of American and British imperial worldviews. They shaped her first education statement published as an appendix to the PMC minutes in 1924. In ‘Education Policy’, Bugge-Wicksell asserted the vital role of education in reforming colonial relations. She welcomed what she saw as the ‘new departure in the educational policy’ being made by several of the administrations in (British) East and West Africa towards ‘practical’ education for the African masses. This was designed to combine basic farming, local industries, and hygiene, and to bring about uplift ‘last but not least, by making character training the very keystones of education in Africa, as it ought, indeed, to be all over the world.’

Bugge-Wicksell referred particularly to Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), which she noted Lugard had described as ‘the black man’s country’. In her view Tanganyika closely matched the PMC’s aims for education in the B and C mandates. She applauded the fact that many schools had gardens where experimental crops could be demonstrated. Echoing Lugard, according to Wicksell education in tropical countries should enable local people to develop their land to their own and the world’s benefit. Hopefully, eventually in this way even the ‘rank and file in the remote little villages’ would become educated and thus ‘more healthy and wealthy and wise’. Ultimately, however, the ‘agricultural, industrial and sanitary needs of the country’ would be best served by identifying the most ‘intelligent of the new generation’ and ensuring their attendance at district schools.

From there, Bugge-Wicksell envisaged, educated individuals would either return to become leaders in their communities and intermediaries with local administrators, or continue training for government service, to work in private firms, in teaching, or in medical, veterinary or agricultural assistance, and in helping in the development of ‘different handicrafts and so forth, according to the natural capacity of each and every one’. Above all, the task of the mandated powers was to undertake ‘character-training of such a nature as will fit him – in future I hope even her – to be a good citizen’; and secondly, to provide a pathway into the ‘higher education necessary to enable him to become a leader in thought, in the professions or in industry among his fellow-countrymen.’

In these ways, Bugge-Wicksell linked education with the basic rights of health and welfare, but also, by inference, with degrees of individual self-knowledge and thus of self-rule in a collective sense. And she not only reprised the foremost ideas in adaptive education – such as ‘character’ development towards amenability to capitalism – then being endorsed by progressives of her generation. She also brought to them the assumptions of international feminist organisations: that native women should be educated in order to negotiate their own futures as modernisation took place around them.

Near the end of her time in the PMC (and indeed her life), Bugge Wicksell was able to judge at first-hand the claims being made by the ‘Negro Education Movement’ in the United States. Following some correspondence with Jesse Jones, she was invited to tour ‘Negro Schools’ in person. This she did in February and March of 1927. Her several paged report, entitled ‘Some Coloured Schools in the United States,’ would be published with the PMC minutes later that year. Here Bugge-Wicksell described in some detail her impressions of a range of the most prestigious African American schools of the day, such as the Penn School in South Carolina where elements of what was then promoted as typical African American cultural life were being combined with school work. But it was in the many one-teacher schools in rural areas that she claimed to see the best interests of Africa, as she particularly admired the Jeanes School method whereby new teachers were trained by women and men of their own communities.

As Joy Damousi and Patricia O’Brien’s recent collection League of Nations: Histories, Legacies, Impacts (2018) illustrates, new work on the League of Nations has brought our attention to the multiple registers embedded within its history. As Susan Pedersen has pointed out in previous work on Bugge-Wicksell’s successor, not much has been written about in relation to education in the PMC for the obvious reason that it achieved so little in this area. Certainly Bugge-Wicksell’s successor, Valentine Dannevig, concluded in a confidential memorandum she wrote in 1938 that little had been achieved on the educational front. Over the preceding ten years, she reflected, almost no progress had been made in this important area. In her view, Bugge-Wicksell’s invaluable reports had never been taken seriously.

Their author might well have been saddened to know that the mandated powers had continued to resolutely resist the topic. And yet, more can be said about the place of women and of education in the operations of the PMC and of the League more broadly. Looking beyond the commission itself, Bugge-Wicksell’s summaries distributed to all member countries became part of a global debate about colonialism and the future of race relations. Among those with access to League materials were leaders of colonised or mandated peoples seeking to bring about change including through educational opportunity.


For more about Anna Bugge-Wicksell at the PMC, see: Fiona Paisley, ‘Listening with their Eyes and Feeling with their Hearts: The Permanent Mandate Commission and Reform…,’ in League of Nations: Histories, Legacies, Impacts, eds. Joy Damousi and Patricia O’Brien (Melbourne University Press, 2018).

For more about Valentine Dannevig, see: Susan Pedersen ‘Metaphors of the Schoolroom: Women Working the Mandates System of the League of Nations,’ History Workshop Journal 66, no. 1 (2008): 188-207.

For more about how Australian networks collaborated with the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society in London, see: special editions of History Compass and Australian Historical Studies.


Fiona-paisleyFiona Paisley is a cultural historian at Griffith University in Brisbane. Her current projects include anti-slavery and Australia in the first half of the twentieth century; education and reforming colonial relations the 1930s; and cultures of internationalism in interwar Australia. Her forthcoming book with Pamela Scully is Writing Transnational History (Bloomsbury, 2018).

Follow Fiona on Twitter @fpaisleyhistory.

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