Ideologies of Empire in the Modern World. Moritz von Brescius / Florian Wagner / Alexandra Pfeiff, European University Institute (EUI), Florenz, 08.01.2014-10.01.2014.
Reviewed by Jonas Brendebach
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (June, 2014)
Ideologies of Empire in the Modern World
Two of the reviewers of Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s 2010 synthesis “Empires in World History” have noted that empire “is everywhere” and that “empires are ‘on’”. Doug Leonard on Burbank, Jane; Cooper, Frederick, Empires in World History: Power and the
Politics of Diﬀerence, H-Empire, H-Net Reviews, August 2012, <http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=35921> (28.5.2014), and Ulrike v. Hirschhausen on Burbank, Jane; Cooper, Frederick: Empires in World History. Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton 2010, in: H-Soz-u-Kult 01.06.2012 <hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/rezensionen/id=15684> (28.5.2014). Such remarks do not refer so much to an inflationary use of the concept of empire that would blur its sharpness and analytic value. Rather, they point to a recent surge in an empire literature that employs transnational and global history approaches and is informed by area and post-colonial studies that have broadened the perspective on empires.
The aim of the conference “Ideologies of Empire in the Modern World”, organized by the “Imperial History Working Group” at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, was to capture the richness of such research. Early career researchers, mostly from the Department of History and Civilization at the EUI, presented their ongoing studies, Professors Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper (both at New York University) were invited to discuss these works and themselves contributed a combined lecture entitled “Eurafrica and Eurasia: Perspectives on Europe and Beyond” at the opening, and two keynote lectures during the course of the conference.
The first panel focused on transnational networks and the role of expertise. MORITZ VON BRESCIUS (Florence) shed light on the German explorers Hermann, Adolph and Robert Schlagintweit, all of whom travelled and surveyed parts of India and Central Asia in the mid-nineteenth century. Popularizing knowledge about these regions among German audiences and fashioning themselves as “masters” of exotic, dangerous lands they acted as “mediators” between colonial spaces and a metropole that did not yet possess a colonial project of its own. Even though their travels were largely funded by the British Empire, it was especially among Germans, as Brescius argued, that they created a sense of colonial entitlement.
Taking up the thread of cooperation across empires, FLORIAN WAGNER (Florence) discussed the Brussels Geographic Conference of 1876 and the “Institute Colonial International” that was founded in Brussels 1894. He interpreted such conferences, as well as the learned societies and geographical associations as expression of an “internationalist colonialism” traceable from the early nineteenth century through to the First World War. Some colonial ideas, he was able to show, even had roots in the internal colonial projects of South American countries. Private initiatives and institutions such as the Brussels institute allowed different colonial concepts to be negotiated at an international level, at the same time as promoting distinct national colonial projects.
The panel was completed by ALEXANDRA PFEIFF (Florence), who works on two Chinese relief societies in the early twentieth century. She approached the networks of empires and experts from their colonial side and showed how both societies tried to develop a distinct Chinese humanitarianism. In order to do this, these societies faced the challenge of navigating between regional traditions, a reliance on Western technology and knowledge, and the ambition to found a modern Chinese nation that could be independent from Western modernity. Pfeiff read their efforts as a “reinterpretation of Western humanitarianism”, but acknowledged that they remained heavily affected by the colonial politics.
The second panel evolved around the building of identities and imperial encounters. Zooming in on the colonial situation, DIANA MARIA NATERMANN (Florence) talked about the Belgian and German “late-comer” colonizers who were sent to the newly assigned Belgian and German territories in Africa after 1884. Using egodocuments, Naterman reconstructed their everyday life and argued that as “colonial in-betweens” they experienced a dual discrepancy. First, the colonial reality contrasted sharply with their prior expectations, second, they found it difficult to preserve the social and cultural orders of their home countries in the colonial context vis-à-vis the everyday needs in the colonies.
One aspect of everyday life in the metropole was presented by MATTHIJS KUIPERS (Florence) in his analysis of the Dutch public’s reception of the colonial cuisine between 1860 and 1930. Showing that food traditions from the Dutch East Indies, such as the “rijsttafel” (rice table), by and large lacked broad public appreciation, he challenged some of the widely held assumptions that imperial projects usually drew on broad popular consent. Instead, he suggested, the terms “indifference and ignorance” should be recognized as more common popular attitude towards empire.
DÓNAL HASSETT (Florence) concluded the panel with a paper on the encounter between colonial administrators and indigenous veterans of the First World War in French Algeria. Referring to Frederick Cooper’s analysis of the “developmentalist” turn of empires after the Second World War, Hassett described the veterans’ role in triggering economic and social reforms in the interwar period. It is commonly assumed that imperial administrations feared the political claims of veterans and preferred to rely on tribal power bases. Hassett, however, showed that, just as veterans helped to build up the European welfare state after World War I, the indigenous veterans in Algeria were also instrumental in forcing the colonial authorities to introduce social reforms, and thus “developmentalist policies”, in the interwar colonial state.
The third panel centered on the issues of ideology, sovereignty and resistance. MORITZ DEUTSCHMANN (London) started by investigating slavery and liberation on the Central Asian and Caucasian borders of the Russian Empire. He discussed the “seemingly paradoxical nature” of the imperial frontier. While, on the one hand, its claim to end slavery ideologically underpinned Russia’s imperial expansion, the continuation of the slave trade there could be seen, on the other hand, as act of resistance against imperial control. Deutschmann also discussed Islamic traditions of slavery in this context.
TOMASZ HEN (Florence) then discussed nineteenth-century Ukraine as a space in which different imperial projects, above all the Austrian and the Russian ones, intersected. Taking the group of the Cossacks as a “contested symbol” that could be used for political purposes, Hen studied how different identity-building projects and nationalist claims charged this symbol with distinct political and cultural meanings. By means of this common point of reference, he showed how the various ethnic groups present in Ukraine during this period “formed meaningful contexts one for another”.
Resistance to sovereignty through the legal and institutional framework upheld by the colonial power was the focus of STEPHANIE LÄMMERT’s (Florence) paper. She used court cases from Colonial Tanganyika in the late 1940s to provide “a window onto the colonial encounter”. The British had left native courts and chieftaincies in place, but they had altered the legal system decisively by appointing the chiefs according to their own interests. Local peasants, however, continued to draw on those courts and used means of litigation to protest against the chiefs that they considered illegitimate according to their local customary law. Consequently, the British attempt of indirect ruling through chosen chiefs was challenged and local people were able to use the courts to defend their values and traditions.
A clearly colonial institution stood at the center of ROEL FRAKKING’s (Florence) presentation on Dutch plantations in the Netherlands East Indies up to 1950. He studied how these “focal points for Dutch-Indonesian relations and discourses” served the colonial power as an institution through which to educate Indonesian workers to make them a productive part of the Dutch colonial economy. Frakking, however, placed great emphasis on the perception of the workers in these plantations. He showed how the Republican forces later infiltrated the colonial system through the plantations and rallied support in their fight for independence.
The final panel moved from late colonial to postcolonial times. SHARON BURKE (Florence) discussed the role of Pan-African historical consciousness in the making of anticolonial ideology. She analyzed the writings of CLR James, a Marxist-leaning Caribbean historian treating the themes of race, slavery and violence. His work drew not only on his own experience in the colonial Caribbean but was also decisively shaped by his life in the diaspora of what Burke called the “Pan-African British metropole”, that is London. James’ historical work, Burke argued, figured “as a form of postcolonial premonition”.
FRANK GERITS (Florence) discussed Pan-Africanism as an interventionist ideology focusing on Kwame Nkrumah and the Ghanaian Bureau of African Affairs (BAA) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At a time when, according to Gerits, the Cold War in Africa was played out more in terms of cultural interventions than in “proxy wars”, Nkrumah sought to advance Pan-African ideology as an alternative to the ideologies of capitalism and communism. The BAA served educational purposes as well as propaganda efforts to target broader African audiences and eventually became entangled in Cold War contention.
ANAÏS ANGELO (Florence) presented a biographical account of Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. While parts of his intellectual trajectory have already been well-studied, it remains to ask, Angelo claimed, how his understanding of anthropology shaped his political thinking. Reading Kenyatta’s speeches before and after Kenya’s decolonization, Angelo explored how anthropological vocabulary informed his political imagination and impacted on his understanding of the colonial and postcolonial state. She concluded that anthropology did not necessarily remain a “science of empire” but was turned “into a roadmap for the postcolony”.
A somewhat surprising take on empire was offered by TROND OVE TØLLEFSEN (Florence). He started out with a “schlager” from the Cologne carnival of 1948: “Wir sind die Eingeborenen von Trizonesien” (“We are the natives of Trizonesia”). Tøllefsen traced the imperial mindset that the British displayed during their occupation in post-Second World War Germany. He argued that “imperial ideas” not only distinguished the British occupation from the others in Germany but also provoked specific tensions with the political elites of the early Federal Republic.
The lectures of JANE BURBANK and FREDERICK COOPER (New York) were among the highlights of the conference. Their combined opening lecture discussed the ideas of “Eurasia” and “Eurafrica”. Both concepts stood for “trans-national, trans-continental visions” of alternative configurations of an imperial Europe with “more inclusionary cultural and political linkages” to the non-European world. While Cooper’s “Eurafrica” referred to French attempts to tie their declining empire into the making of a European community in the late 1940s and 1950s, Burbank’s “Eurasia” presented an idea emerging from the tensions between Russia and Europe and pursued in various forms by Russian intellectuals and politicians from the early twentieth century on.
In a second lecture, Burbank outlined a “trans-imperial” history of “Europe and beyond” in the nineteenth century. While empire controlled, as she argued, communication modes and the making or preventing of connections, it also allowed space for diverging political imaginations. Especially intermediaries, as was stressed, played a central role in transmitting and often manipulating imperial power.
Cooper elaborated further on the attempted reforms of the French Union after the Second World War in his second lecture. Placing emphasis on the voices from the French colonies in Africa, he interpreted negotiations about the future of the Union not so much as an attempt to “escape from empire but to reconfigure” it. The question of citizenship provided a particularly interesting point of study as it could serve the interests of actors in the metropole as much as the actors on the periphery.
It would be easy to criticize the conference with its broad title of “Ideologies of Empire” for a lack of coherence and the absence of any attempt to test one clearly defined approach to study empires. It was nonetheless more than just a showcasing of the colonial and imperial history being practiced at the European University Institute.
In the final discussion, Wagner concluded that throughout the conference empire had not been constructed as space dominated by the polarity between center and periphery but instead portrayed as a space “making possible overlapping and contradicting identities, mobile and changing solidarities and interests”. Among the analytical gains of such a perspective, he argued, was the “pluralized agency” that can be observed within empires. The cases presented demonstrated how in empires power was exercised through various layers of intermediaries reaching from capitals down to distant local contexts. As a form of political organization, empires proved to be flexible and remarkably durable.
Burbank noted positively that presenters had moved away from “conventional categories” and instead emphasized the social rather than the state dimension of colonial politics. Cooper, moreover, pointed to the “inter-empire aspect of the story” that had been fleshed out, and the importance of studying the question of hierarchies between empires that encountered each other and, at times, overlapped was commonly acknowledged by all the participants.
The conference demonstrated a welcome expansion of interest to less well-researched spaces, for example the two Americas, and times, for example the early nineteenth century. Some of the papers stood out for a rich set of sources, such as Dónal Hassett’s, for methodological innovation, such as Tomasz Hen’s, or, as in Anaïs Angelo’s paper, for new takes on presumably sufficiently-known stories. Empire, the workshop has shown, is definitely ‘on’ and the field can look forward to a further broadening of perspectives and a refinement of analytical tools for its study.
Opening Lecture: Jane Burbank / Frederick Cooper (New York), Eurafrica and Eurasia: Perspectives on Europe and Beyond
Jane Burbank (New York), Nineteenth-Century Europe and Beyond: A Transimperial History
Session I: Empire and expertise: the role of transnational networks
Moritz von Brescius (Florence), Science, Travel, and the Colonial Imagination
Florian Wagner (Florence), Making Colonial Friends: Private Colonialism and International Cooperation in Nineteenth Century Europe (1830-1914)
Alexandra Pfeiff (Florence), Chinese Red Cross Humanitarianism During the Late 1910s and the Early 1920s: Perspectives on Transnationalism and Nationalism
Chair and discussant: Regina Grafe (Florence)
Session II Building identities: imperial encounters and their effects
Diana Maria Natermann (Florence), Colonial In-betweens: Expectations and Experiences in the Congo Free State and German East Africa (1884-1914)
Matthijs Kuipers (Florence), The Limits of Permeation: The Colonial Cuisine from the Dutch East Indies and the Metropolitan Public, 1860-1930
Dónal Hassett (Florence), Turning Potential Enemies of the State into Clients of the State: Indigenous Veterans and the Developmentalism in Interwar Algeria 1919-1939
Chair and Discussant: Ann Thomson (Florence)
Frederick Cooper (New York), Colonialism and Beyond: French Africa and the World after World War II
Session III Sovereignty and resistance: (failed) ideologies and policies
Moritz Deutschmann (London), Liberation Through Empire? Slavery and Freedom in Russia’s Imperial Expansion
Tomasz Hen (Florence), Cossacks of Ukraine: Ours, Theirs or Alien? Challenges and Exchanges in the Identity-building in the Nineteenth-century Ukraine
Stephanie Lämmert (Florence), ‘The Normal Peasant Wants Justice and Rain’: Contestation against Unjust Chieftaincy in the Usambara Mountains in Colonial Tanganyika
Roel Frakking (Florence), Contested Discourses: Dutch Plantations in the Decolonization of the Netherlands East Indies 1947-1950
Chair and Discussant: Lucy Riall (Florence)
Session IV The enduring legacies of empire in postcolonial times
Sharon Burke (Florence), The Role of the Pan-African Historical Consciousness in Anticolonial Ideology: The Case of CLR James
Frank Gerits (Florence), ‘Decolonizing’ African Minds: Kwame Nkrumah and Pan-Africanism as an Interventionist Ideology (1957-1966)
Anaïs Angelo (Florence), Jomo Kenyatta and Anthropology: From Science of Empire to Postcolonial Politics?
Trond Ove Tøllefsen (Florence), ‘The Natives of Trizonesia’ - The Imperial Mind-set and British-German Relations During the Post-war Occupation of Germany
Chair and Discussant: Dirk Moses (EUI)
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Jonas Brendebach. Review of , Ideologies of Empire in the Modern World.
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