Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire

The combined forces of engineering and imperialism still often conjure images of heroic enterprise on a vast scale and across long time periods, resulting in the enormous transformation of places and peoples for empire’s ends. Collectively, the papers of “Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire”, sought to redress this grand narrative through the exploration of engineering and engineering works as sites for everyday encounter.[1] Drawing on David Edgerton’s case for “technology-in-use” and David Arnold’s concept of “everyday technology”, we each focused on a tool or infrastructure that advanced and sustained colonial mobilities within and across European and North American empires in Africa, Asia, and Australia.[2] Typically understood as machines of modernity that revolutionised time and space, in our panel, ships, rickshaws, canals, and railroads became spaces for excavating colonial power relations of labour, race and gender.

Late nineteenth century Australian settlers’ admiration for the feats of British engineers in “irrigated India” was the focus of my paper. Seeking measures to overcome the agrarian limits of aridity, pastoralists and politicians from the colonies of South Australia and Victoria undertook their own “observatory tours” of British India.[3] Although they marvelled at the scale of the waterworks they encountered, the hydrological and labour conditions of their own settler colonies meant that there was little likelihood of replicating these engineering schemes. Across the Pacific, they saw the irrigated agriculture of California as a more favourable model for their ambitions of closer settlement and the formation of a white settler Commonwealth. Their conclusions in this respect reflected Australia’s general turn towards the United States in terms of natural resource management at the turn of the twentieth century.[4]

What their travel accounts of colonial South Asia also revealed was their observations of the colonial hydrology of India and the nature of the colonial hydrology they sought to forge in the Australian colonies. South Asian environmental historian Rohan d’Souza has proposed the concept of ‘colonial hydrology’ to describe the social worlds of water and to reveal ‘the broader dynamics of colonial rule’.[5] D’Souza’s concept can be used to read the writings of Alfred Deakin, one of the Australian observers, who wrote expansively on the labour processes required to engineer India’s great rivers. The regulation of a river, Deakin believed, was the reward for an ever-vigilant Anglo-engineer, while failures in the system were solely attributable to the poorly skilled Indian workers. The task of the Anglo-engineer was an especially challenging one, so Deakin explained, for the engineer, an avatar of modernity, had to manage both an unruly river and a backward people, who lived “in practically another age”.[6] Framing Indian subjects in this way justified the need for paternalist government in India, while suggesting that white Australians might best follow the example of the United States and its “restlessly inventive and progressive Americans”.[7] Deakin’s account of “irrigated India”, therefore, emasculated subaltern labour in order to celebrate the labour of white men – British and North American engineers and the Australian yeoman farmer: a white brotherhood based on technical mastery. It was these men, their wives and children, who would be the foundation of the “white man’s country” that Deakin would help to forge through the federation of the Australian colonies less than a decade later in 1901.

The colonial allure of American expertise was a theme explored in Steve Tuffnell’s paper, which examined networks of “trans-imperial” engineering in Britain’s African outposts at the turn of the twentieth century. The investment of US capital and engineering expertise in colonial rail projects, Tuffnell argued, encouraged the co-production of colonial rule through coercive and extractive forms of labour discipline developed in the plantation south and the western frontier. Charles Fawell, meanwhile, took us below deck on a steamship voyaging from Marseille to Yokohama in the early twentieth century, where he teased out the volatile labour relations of trans-imperial transit. The focus here was not the glamour of steam travel, but the politics of cohabitation that were produced in a place that was effectively both a hotel and a coal plant. Finally, Chao Ren navigated the “rickshaw zone”, a network that linked China and Japan to the British outposts of southeast and south Asia through the proliferation of this form of passenger transport. The rickshaw fostered intimate imperial encounters between elites and the subjects upon whose physical labour their mobility relied.

Our shared concern with the everyday operation — as opposed to the macro-historical mythologies — of colonial engineering and infrastructure led us to question “whose everyday” featured in these case studies. The written and pictorial sources that informed our studies were intended mostly for elite audiences, both in the colonies and the metropole. Reading these sources against the grain revealed that empire’s civilising mission and the hierarchies that it structured were embedded in these everyday technologies of imperial mobility, and should be grasped accordingly by historians.

Ruth Morgan (Rachel Carson Center, LMU, Munich).

[1] The other panellists were: Chao Ren (University of Michigan), “Everyday Mobilities: A Trans-Imperial History of the Hand-Pulled Rickshaw, 1870-1930”; Stephen Tuffnell (Oxford), “Transimperialism, Inc.: US Expansion and the Making of British Africa”; Charles Fawell (University of Chicago), “The Colonial Steamship ‘East of Suez’: Conflict and Collaboration in the In-Between Spaces of Empire, 1880-1918”.

[2] David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, London: Profile Books, 2011; David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

[3] Alfred Deakin, Irrigated India: An Australian View of India and Ceylon, Their Irrigation and Agriculture, Melbourne: E.A. Petherick, 1893, p. 5.

[4] See for example, Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

[5] Rohan d’Souza, “Water in British India: The Making of a ‘Colonial Hydrology’,” History Compass 4, no. 4 (2006): 621.

[6] Deakin, p. 25.

[7] Deakin, p. 147.

Everyday Performance/Performing the Everyday: Exhibitions, Leisure, and Hospitality

The panel “Everyday Performance/Performing the Everyday: Exhibitions, Leisure, and Hospitality” assembled three papers that spoke to different types of performances and meaning-making, primarily from below, that operate within, against and alongside empire.  All three papers addressed “spaces of encounter.” These spaces ranged from the public (coffee houses, street theatres, world’s fair exhibits, vaudeville stages) to the intimate (the home), but they engendered ephemeral, affective moments that constituted the everyday transactions and interactions of empire. Performances, repertoires, and rituals within such spaces both shored up and undermined imperial power. They hosted moments of consent, survival, resistance, and nostalgia. They were highly gendered and classed spaces, crucial sites for identity-formation for self, class, and nation.  They were also fragile, fragmented, and contested. Within those spaces of encounter, people of all stripes forged new grammars and symbolic systems—oblique, humorous, deeply personal, or outright unsettling—that point to the creativity of resistance in particular.

The focus on the everydayness of these spaces and the way that they shaped the wider everydayness of empire allowed us to identify and explore encounters that could consolidate and/or unsettle empire, but which are frequently overlooked or treated as transparent in the existing historiography of empire.

Subjects of empire engaged in exchanges, negotiations, and other kinds of transactions in these everyday spaces of encounter. These spaces were not necessarily sites of anti-imperial contestation. Some of them existed outside of the colonial gaze, or operated within its purview but were considered non-threatening. Feminized spaces and spaces of leisure were often understood by colonisers to instead bolster imperial claims of bringing civilization and modernity to the dark and backwards places of the world. Imperialists saw the kinds of encounters in these spaces as evidence of colonized subjects consenting to new kinds of imperial regimes and encounters. Drinking coffee while joking around and applauding at punchlines, competing to sell lei to tourists arriving by steamship, perusing the offerings at a world’s fair exhibit within a politicized climate — these were not interactions designed to overturn empire. Nonetheless, as a focus on the everyday allows us to understand, they offered sites of resistance and survival where communal/social fantasies for alternatives to empire persisted, particularly for working class subjects who had little access to imperial political mechanisms.

Carmen’s focus on the nuances of working-class Egyptian identities that were cultivated in the coffeehouses and street theatres circa 1900 prompts us to think about how these spaces accommodated people very much interested in the question of the political subject and the most effective ways to access political power. In the raucous, smoky rooms frequented by men, the acts, scripts, stock characters, and improvisations of both performances and audience crafted a unique and critical sha’bi identity among property-less labourers new to urban areas.[1] This identity mocked and negotiated effendi, or middle-class, prescriptions of Egyptian-ness and these performances, put on day after day in small theatres, were modes of social critique and nationalist fantasy.[2]

The feminized rituals of hospitality in Hawai‘i, meanwhile — as outlined by Vernadette —also afforded intimate, everyday spaces of encounter in which Native Hawaiians carved out dignity and defined their lives, even as colonial tourism sought to reframe indigenous hospitality as consent to empire. The erosion of indigenous productive time and creative practices, and of female social and political power, were thereby countered by the community rituals and domestic spaces that Hawaiians continued to nurture outside of capitalist time.

Finally, Shahmima’s close look at the Irish villages at the 1893 and 1897 World’s Fairs examined how these exhibits drew on the nostalgia of diasporic colonial subjects to animate differing visions of home, nation and independence. Regardless of the organizers’ intentions for the displays, Irish-American fair-goers themselves interacted with the exhibits in ways that exceeded the goals of the design, in the process transforming themselves from spectators into performers who actively made meaning about identity and nation.

All our papers attended to the importance of listening for and seeking alternative evidence of working-class agency, speech, acts and thoughts in these spaces of encounter. For instance, sha’bi theatre mocked a hegemonic effendiyya, forging a shared identity amongst working-class, factory labourers and preserving a place where local practices, creativity and fantasy were sustained. One can imagine the fluency of an audience in laughing at a joke, or understanding how a turn of phrase might transform a joke or song into a sharp political critique. Or how the Hawaiian term “aloha” in one instance is stripped of its meaning, and in another instance, is redolent of resistance and communal struggle. In Hawaii, commoditized lei-selling meant a modicum of labour sovereignty and avoidance of work on plantations.  But engagement in the capitalist economy was never complete and exact.  It was a performance, suspended when colonial tourist ships had sailed. Other kinds of performances, such as those undertaken by world’s fair attendees, breathed life into identities. In the Irish case, people walked away from the World’s Fair Irish villages literally carrying bits of the performance space as a promise to continue Irish values in a modern world. Walking through and collecting bits of “Sod maps” and turf cultivated nostalgia not to mourn but, rather, to draw strength from “touchstones of the past, and to promote a new, Irish-American future” thousands of miles away from the homeland. This occurred despite the policing of the fairground space to prevent such ‘stealing’ and indicates the blurring of behavioural norms and practices within the imagined country.

What our panel demonstrated so clearly, then, is that the concept of ‘everydayness’ can work in many exciting and unique ways. It touched on the materiality and performance of the symbols of identity and/ or resistance; the fragility and contested nature of spaces of encounter; and above all the nuanced and varied ways imperial frameworks play out in the everyday lives of ordinary people. This focus on working-class, often racialized and feminized subjects has pushed us to seek archives that are difficult to pin down, or to read existing colonial documents in more circuitous and oblique ways. The ephemera of performance, of tone, of affect, are hard to pin down, but yield important additions to the story of empire — particularly from perspectives that are more easily ignored.

  • Shahmima Akhtar (University of Birmingham), “Mapping Ireland: Irish Villages in the United States in the 1890s”
  • Carmen Gitre (Virginia Tech), “Everyday Empire and the Cairene Coffeehouse Theater”
  • Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez (University of Hawai’i, Mānoa), “Hospitality and Imperial Welcome”

[1] For more on the sha’b, see Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communisim, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); Ziad Fahmy Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[2] For more on the effendiyya, see, Yoav Di-Capua, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt (Berkeley: University of Californa Press, 2009); Ilham Makdisi, Theater and Radical Politics in Beirut, Cairo, and Alexandria: 1860-1914 (Washington DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 2006); Lucie Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).


Accelerated Mobility, Travel, & the Culture of Everyday Empire

The increased mobility of goods, capital, and people was an epochal marker of the nineteenth century. Technological infrastructure sped up all forms of circulation and collapsed time and space dramatically. Accelerated mobility disrupted economic patterns around the globe, brought violent conquest and dispossession to new continents, and environmental cataclysm to those places where the raw materials (coal, copper, gold) that powered it could be found. This dramatic spatial, temporal and imperial transformation of the world — and of social existence for its inhabitants — is perhaps the most expansive version of the analytical category “everyday empire” that emerged in Birmingham this May.

These observations, part of the debate at the conference, have continued to resonate for me since I picked up my research tools again this summer. But so has one nagging doubt: does such an expansive version of “everyday empire” risk attenuating, as Nathan Cardon and Simon Jackson wondered in a previous post, our analyses of specific local, regional, transnational, and global processes? In fact, this doubt has been especially productive as I have begun to grapple with the history of the World’s Transportation Commission (WTC), organised in the United States in 1893, which provides a concrete means to interrogate the analytical capacity of the category “everyday empire”.

Following the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, leading Chicagoan Marshall Field donated $1 million for the creation of a museum permanently to house exhibits from the Fair in the city. Today this is known as the Field Museum. The museum’s supporters set about supplementing these exhibits through donations, purchase, and the collection of new material. To add further to the history of transportation, the World’s Transportation Committee was founded. For its leadership, Field turned to Major Joseph Gladding Pangborn, the larger-than-life publicity agent for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.

Under Pangborn’s direction, the Commission spent two and a half years at sea, at a cost of $25,000. Tracking the maritime infrastructure of the British Empire, the Commission sailed first to North Africa, passed through the Suez Canal, and crossed the Indian Ocean to Ceylon, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and concluded by touring the Pacific from China and Japan to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Along the way, the Commissions photographer William Henry Jackson, lured by Pangborn’s offer of a “munificent salary”, collected images of railroads, horse-drawn wagons, rickshaws, sedan chairs, harbours and other scenes (all of which are now housed at the Library of Congress). Jackson’s images catalogued a whole host of technologies of globalisation and the infrastructure of mobility so central to the themes of this conference. Some images even document colonial subjects hard at work constructing these very technologies – deliberately just out of shot were the colonial administrators, foremen, and engineers who coerced them. Previously in this series my co-panellist Charles Fawell evaluated the ways the maritime infrastructure of ships and harbours became a theatre for contentious colonial labour relations.

How these images were presented at the Field Museum, we do not know, but they had an imperial life all of their own outside it. Jackson’s images were soon familiar to many middle- and upper-class Americans through the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which published regular articles on the WTC’s progress. Jackson subsequently turned his negatives into hand-painted lantern slides, which he displayed at women’s clubs, travel societies, and churches around the country. In 1898, Jackson then joined the Detroit Photographic Company, using the same negatives as the basis for the firm’s postcards and stereograph views. Through these varied vectors of dissemination, new imperial mobilities entered homes and classrooms. These images did not simply convey messages about the collapse of time and space, but also offered an index of socio-cultural difference to arm-chair travellers. Just as in Jasmin Daam’s paper on Syrian postcards, Jackson’s images presented idealized and exoticised others for consumption at home. Among the railways and rickshaws are posed “type” or “costume images” of people he deemed “peasants”, “wives in their best clothes”, and “warriors”.

These images were part of a thriving culture of international travel in the United States that made distant places a part of everyday life (though the US was not unique in this regard). For historians, these images expose the powerful asymmetries that structured imperial everydayness. Jackson’s lantern slides, postcards, and stereoscopes were only made possible by the imperial world system. As Kristin Hoganson has written elsewhere: ‘the culture of travel was a component of imperial culture’.* For many, mastering mobility through travel denoted social standing, was a signifier of the privileges of whiteness, and was a mark of the freedom of so-called civilized peoples to traverse the globe at will – even when such journeys were undertaken from an armchair, through the viewfinder of a stereoscope or in a magic lantern show. In the imperial metropoles of the nineteenth century, nothing was more everyday.

Dr. Stephen Tuffnell

University of Oxford

* Kristin Hoganson, Consumers Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (2007), p. 183.


Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire

The panel examined trans-imperial currents of expertise, technologies, and people. Within this theme, my presentation explored the social worlds of French steamships sailing to and from East Asia. The complexity of these ships, I argued, has been obscured by a whitewashed history of the Age of Steam, in which the lore of globetrotters and the publicity of major navigation companies portrayed ships as spaces of luxury consumption, their rigid hierarchies and logics of segregation seemingly untroubled by life on-board. Resisting the temptation to reify such mythmaking in contemporary historiography and patrimonialisation, I used a single voyage from Marseille to Yokohama in the 1910s, during which ship workers vigorously challenged on-board authorities. Co-opting shipboard rituals and exploiting the vagaries of inter-imperial jurisdiction, the ship’s workers, on whom onward progress depended, threatened to tear down the façade separating the elite world of the passengers from their own. Trans-imperial circulation, I argued, was literally carried on (and within) such steamships, yet, again, mobile colonial elites tended to memorialize only a glossy image of modern steam travel and tranquil journeys. Present-day historians are beginning to problematize such biases in the source base.[1] To this end, I emphasized that the precise ways in which trans-imperial circulation operated on these ships can only come into focus once we see them not just as a technopolitical network or as strategic imperial infrastructure, but as sites of everyday contests and negotiations over spatial and labour politics.

Arguably, my three co-panellists and I shared a basic preoccupation: each of us suggested that our own history of (trans-)imperial circulations had been marked by processes of mythmaking and forgetting. Stephen Tuffnell, for instance, noted how some agents of British imperialism in Africa normalized anxieties over American “invaders” and “parasites” by imagining themselves as partners in a grand spectacle of American development. British imperial protagonists accordingly portrayed their endeavours in Africa as siblings of seemingly world-historical works like the Trans-American railroad. Similarly, when African railroads were used in colonial warfare, charismatic figures like Kitchener dramatically overshadowed the African conscript labour and American steel that in reality undergirded Britain’s ability to project brutal power into the African interior.

Ruth Morgan, meanwhile, explored the myth-making of Australian hydraulic engineers who imagined their task as potentially humanity-saving. Insisting on ground-level, experiential tours of India, these enlightened “rulers of men” dreamed of collapsing historical epochs between ancient India and an ostensibly cutting-edge Australia. But the engineers’ visions of a British Empire unified by expertise were frustrated when the exercise led to the conclusion that India’s geography rendered it essentially irrelevant to Australian needs. Intra-imperial exchange, in this case, ran into a cul-de-sac of cultural and climatological reasoning.

Finally, Chao Ren also pointed to the curious dissonances between fantasies of imperial circulation and material realities. In imperial hagiography, he noted, railways were the undisputed avatars of modernity. The humble rickshaw, by contrast, was largely ignored. But while imperial champions may have preferred to linger on railways, the rickshaw’s spread turns out to have been a quintessentially imperial story of circulation. Following the paths of Chinese diaspora, British administration, and missionaries, it not only incarnated a new technology of mobility, but also dramatically showcased and articulated imperial inequalities of race, gender and class.

Taken together, then, the diverse case studies of our panel intersected to suggest that fantasy and forgetting are critical themes exposed by histories of the everyday, both within the wider historiography of empire-building and the broad context of trans-imperial circulations.

Charles Fawell, Ph.D. Candidate

University of Chicago

[1] Our keynote presentation by Daniel Bender is one example. See, for others: Tamson Pietsch, 2016; Valeska Huber, 2013; Gopalan Balachandran, 2012; Jonathon Hyslop, 2009. Among historians of the French Empire, however, such research is very scarce.

Everyday Empires: Descriptive or Analytical Category?

On May 25 and 26 2017 the Department of History at the University of Birmingham hosted Everyday Empires: Trans-Imperial Circulations in a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective. Sponsored by Past & Present, the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures, and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History, the purpose of the conference was three-fold. First, it set out to improve intellectual engagements between scholars working within particular historiographies of empire, with the goal of promoting greater cross-fertilization of methods and ideas. The second goal was to encourage perspectives that spanned career stages. Accordingly, each panel consisted of a Ph.D. student, an Early Career Researcher, and an established academic, with a view to generating an inclusive conversation that gave equal time to scholars’ research, no matter where they were on their career path. A series of blog posts for Past & Present, co-written by each of the panels, will therefore follow this one, blending the perspectives of more senior and junior researchers. Lastly, and our focus with this post, the conference tested whether an everyday approach to empire worked as an analytical category. Given the range of intellectually stimulating discussion that occurred, it became clear that a focus on the everyday and everydayness allowed us to learn from each other across historiographical barriers that often separate, for example, students of the Ottoman and US empires. At the same time, many of the conversations and presentations appraised the strengths and weaknesses of the everyday as an analytical lens, or wondered whether its prime virtue was perhaps historiographically connective rather than heuristic – a term, in other words, best adapted to collating historical perspectives across historiographies and methods. As James McDougall (Oxford) put it in the discussion after Daniel Bender’s (Toronto) provocative keynote: if empire is analysed in terms of the everyday, and thus potentially discernible in every practice and artefact found anywhere in a world of empires, does this saturating empirical omnipresence foreclose our analytical sense of empire’s coercive violence, its obsessively hierarchical subjectification and its chronic spatial uneven-ness? The accusations of trivialisation levelled in the 1990s at Alltagsgeschichte’s engagement with the history of Nazism were echoed here.[1]

But if the participants in the conference highlighted this risk from the outset, they also flagged the concomitant capacity of a focus on the everyday to recover the nuanced politics of seemingly transparent everyday practices. They also noted the unusual capacity of historical-ethnographic interpretation of the everyday to anatomise the operation of agency. In other words, a focus on the everyday, mundane practices of empire illuminated people and events, objects and subjectivities that can often otherwise be obscured.

The effectiveness of everyday resistance to the infrastructure projects of empire was well demonstrated in Samiksha Sehrawat’s (University of Newcastle) discussion of medical practice in colonial India. Sehrawat noted the effective resistance of patients to the ideas and practices of colonial medicine’s authoritarian governmentality, and she discussed the gendered construction of colonized women as an index of colonial development, while also probing the importance of rumour as a source. John Hennessey (Linnaeus University), meanwhile, documented the Ainu people of late nineteenth century Hokkaidō, and their efforts to protect their traditions in the face of a Japanese settler colonialism that drew powerfully on the paradigm of the US West to present itself as a modern and central exponent of the new imperialism. Hennessey also underlined the legacies of colonisation in Hokkaidō’s contemporary infrastructure, for instance at hydroelectric dam sites. Catriona Ellis (University of Edinburgh) further developed the theme of the contemporary persistence of colonial everyday infrastructures by discussing the nostalgic perpetuation in museums and collections of the artefacts of children’s play in colonial South Asia. She showed how the naturalisation of new narratives of childhood playfulness relied on gendered distinctions, classed access to commodified playthings, and on the colonial infantilising and racialisation of Indian culture. But Ellis also demonstrated how Indian experts participated in the new international expertise of the 1920s to resist these dynamics and assert equality.

The circulations of international experts across imperial spaces and frontiers evoked by Ellis were taken up and expanded by James McDougall, who in a study of deportation and migration in French Africa and across the Atlantic contrasted the fantasised geographies of colonial space with the specific, everyday movements of the colonized, and the understandings of space discernible in such movements. In a challenge to a model of empire popularised by Frederick Cooper, for McDougall, emphasising the everyday allowed an analysis of the space of empire as a practised culture and as constitutive of an archipelago of locations, rather than as a unified imperial territory characterised by simultaneous integration and differentiation. Jasmin Daam (Kassel) too, in a paper on postcard communication and spaces of belonging in the Ottoman empire, argued for empire as a practice dependent on everyday networks that stretched across the formal boundaries of imperial space. She also anatomised the polyvalence of postcards as a primary source of information about everydayness – collected as well as sent, postcards were a form of mass media through their photography of landscape and their dissemination of genres of representation, even as they formatted the expression of emotions of longing, loss and homesickness. Manjeet Barua (Jawaharlal Nehru University), meanwhile, focused on one frontier space in colonial Assam, exploring the relationship of a British tea plantation owner to his Indian servant in order to examine the arbitrage of an imperial frontier by capitalist colonial enterprise, but also by indigenous people. Barua pointed up the unequal power relations of empire, but argued that such relations are interdependent not binary, and were reliant on the frontier space as simultaneously imperial but also very distant from the colonial centre.

The focus on the discrepancies between formal imperial models and the varied realities of local everyday practice facilitated by movement across and between imperial space was further developed by Artemy Kalinovsky (Amsterdam). Kalinovsky traced the career of the “dual sector model”, often associated with the development economist W.A. Lewis’s work on industrialisation in the British colonial empire of the 1940s and 1950s, in Soviet Central Asia. Bringing into analytical contact two regions rarely considered together, Kalinovsky noted how Lewis, in his work on British colonies, drew inspiration from Soviet industrialisation of the 1930s, but also from direct observation of everyday urban labour markets. Kalinovsky contrasted the grand official Soviet plans for industrialisation and liberation of the peasantry from the perceived backwardness of farming, with the reality of uneven success and an eventual switch to cottage industry by the 1980s, despite the emotional investment in industrialisation of the development economists and officials whose oral testimony provided important sources for the everyday history of development. Justin Jackson (NYU), likewise contrasted formal imperial politics with the irreducibly everyday reality of the politics of class, nation and social belonging. Focusing on the US empire and on the construction of sovereignty, he tracked sex work, road building and interpreting as the US military transferred labour practices between Cuba and the Philippines, playing on colonial subjects’ liminality and on spatial unevenness between urban and rural areas. Finally, Mo Moulton (Birmingham), followed the material phenomenon of Irish dairy cooperatives to anatomise the everyday catalysing of new visions of Irish social and national life across the political chronology of the Irish nation’s emergence from the space of British empire into a world market.

Moulton’s paper nicely illustrated a point made forcefully by Daniel Bender (Toronto) in his bravura keynote, which tracked the global circumnavigation of US zoo directors as they collected animals and sampled the mores of the 1930s-colonial everyday by steamship. Bender argued that the everyday as a category of analysis forces the material and the subjective to the forefront of historical interpretation, allowing historians to practice their craft in new ways and infusing their own work with an improved sense of the realities of, for example, labour in colonial situations of the past.

Indeed, a focus on the everyday made clear that the history of empire is intimately wound up in the history of labour.[2] Labour sustained, contested, and brought down empires. A focus on the everyday practices of labour rendered empire visible in many of the papers. For instance, Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez (Hawai’i, Mānoa) made clear in her paper, “Hospitality and Imperial Welcome,” how the work of tourism became an invitation for empire in Hawai’i and the Philippines. Examining Lei ceremonies, quilting, and sexual performance/work, Gonzalez made clear how the affective and intimate labour performed by brown women challenged and repurposed the violence of U.S. empire. In a similar fashion, Carmen Gitre (Virginia Tech) demonstrated how a new social group of property-less labourers working in Cairo’s burgeoning urban factories used the space of performance within coffeehouses to create a complex narrative of what it meant to be Egyptian and what the nation could be, in a way that problematized the analytical binary of colonizer-colonized. Stephen Tuffnell (Oxford) and Charles Fawell (Chicago) both made clear how the practices of everyday labour regimes reveal trans-imperial networks, whether it is US engineers and convict labour in British Africa or the in-between spaces of empire found on colonial steamships. The steamship, with subaltern workers from a wide variety of colonial contexts, noted Fawell, was reliant on a colonized subject’s labour that reinforced the ‘weapons of the weak’ despite the enduring reality of coercive imperial power. Lastly, both Sarah Ann Frank (Free State) and Michael Talbot (Greenwich) revealed the ways that labour in the metropole raised questions of colonial control at home, whether it was colonial prisoners of war in Vichy France, or the problem of sewage in turn-of-the-century Istanbul. That this labour was often explicitly gendered and raced makes it all the more important for continued study.

Another key theme to emerge from the conference was the tension between mobility and locality. Steve Tuffnell noted that the concept of the “trans-imperial” has already achieved buzzword status even before it’s defined. He argued that the trans-imperial allows us to dissect the local and find the layers of global imperial forces shaping colonizer and colonized lives. In many ways, the conference reaffirmed the local as the place in which global networks are crystalized. Shahmima Akhtar (Birmingham) used the Irish exhibits at the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago to explore the tensions between localities: for instance, between the nostalgia that informed the exhibit space itself and the mobilities of the Irish diaspora in the United States. Put in the context of British imperial control of Ireland, Akhtar pushed beyond these tensions to bring attention to the rhythms and speed of movement within the turn-of-the-century’s trans-imperial world. Likewise, both Chao Ren (Michigan) and Ruth Morgan (Monash) explored the imperial travels of the rickshaw and hydrologists to both demonstrate global circuits of imperial knowledge but also place these circuits in local contexts in which their meaning was often transformed by everyday people. The benefit of taking a trans-imperial perspective—whether it be in examining a locality or tracing the movement of people and ideas—is that it brings to the forefront unequal and contested power relations that transnational or global history can often obscure.

Perhaps like all good workshops Everyday Empires left us with more questions than answers. It was clear that the focus on the everyday allowed an exceptionally diverse set of scholars to talk to each other and to think together, across standard historiographical boundaries, about how empire worked. It revealed the ways in which empire was woven into the fabric of the most mundane aspects of life in both the colony and metropole, raising questions about which spaces and practices are privileged for analysis and which are neglected. It also showed that these spaces and practices were far from separated by imperial frontiers, but were instead interconnected in specific ways, across a trans-imperial world. At the same time, the emphasis on the everyday, somewhat paradoxically, seemed to mitigate the focus on the power of empire to coerce and dominate. The violence inherent to the racialized structures of exclusion and subjugation that sustained the imperial worlds of the past and of today were often muted in many of the papers. With this mind, the future of everydayness as a category for studies of empire will require reflexivity about the ways it can illuminate and obscure. We must consciously write coercive and violent power relations back into the history of the everyday, while making the most of the category’s capacity to emphasize connections as opposed to the false dichotomies of imperial structures, and while deploying its capacity to identify spaces and practices of empire that have been neglected in the extant historiography.

Dr. Simon Jackson and Dr. Nathan Cardon, University of Birmingham, July 2017.


[1] Paul Steege et al., “Review Article: The History of Everyday Life: A Second Chapter,” Journal of Modern History 80 (2008): 358–78.

[2] Something German historians working in the field of alltagsgeschichte have long understood. See for instance Andrei Sokolv’s chapter “The Drama of the Russian Working Class and New Perspective for Labour History in Russia” in Jan Lucassen, ed. Global Labour History: A State of the Art (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006).

Everyday Empires: Trans-Imperial Circulations in a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective – Origins, Inspirations, Ways Forward.

The genesis for Everyday Empires can be found, as is often case, in the quotidian interstices of academic life – in its linoleum-floored, poster-bedraggled corridors, as much as in the formal arenas of conference panel, seminar room or library carrel. As historians of French colonial empire, and U.S. empire respectively, we were co-teaching an MA course in Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. Working through a syllabus that juxtaposed the work of Susan Pedersen and Joel Dinerstein with that of April Merleaux or Keith Watenpaugh, we lingered after class sessions, digesting our students’ comments and trying to parse the overlaps, gaps and tensions between the fields in play. It was clear that we were both interested in the ways empires elaborated their hierarchical “rule of difference” and in how that imperial rule was experienced on the ground level through everyday things – such as racing bicycles, or the spare parts for Fordson tractors – and through the global circuits (ideological, commodity, and military) that supported them. At the same time, it was also clear that while we were concerned with “trans-imperial” perspectives our work was very much rooted in the historiographical and archival legacies of our fields.[1] If we found that our historical protagonists thought and moved globally, and that they skilfully exploited the in-between spaces of empires that wielded immense power but were never able to saturate their subjects’ lives, should not our own intellectual and historiographical frameworks function in a similar manner?

Everyday Empires aims to foster a greater dialogue and intellectual engagement between historians of Ottoman, U.S., French, Habsburg, Qing, German, British, and Spanish empires. It seeks to extend Ann Laura Stoler’s observation of empire in North America to the globe: that the study of empire must not begin with a “color-coded school map with fixed, clearly bounded units, but with a notion of empire that puts movement and oscillation at the center: to see them instead as states of becoming (and, for those ruled, as states of deferral), as polities with protean rather than fixed taxonomies and mobile populations whose designated borders at any one time were not necessarily the force field in which they operated or even their sovereign limits.”[2] Imperial structures and empires did not, we know, exist in isolation. Empires shared ideas, leaked and imitated practices, and competed with one other. Their administrators crossed borders seeking solutions and answers to local problems. Colonial subjects looked and travelled abroad, including to the grand stages of international institutions or the cathedrals of industrial modernity, seeking answers, publicity, and methods to contest imperial control.[3] And yet historians so often remain rooted in the methodologies, historiographies, and archives that we were trained in and know so well. If we are to write trans-imperial histories, we must begin to locate our intellectual frameworks within the in-between spaces of imperial historiographies and imaginations.

Where, then, is the everyday of empire in a world determined by movement and circulation rather than “fixed taxonomies”? What happens to our understanding of empire when we look at the liminal spaces or staging posts that separate, or gradate, metropole and colony? What happens when home and abroad, the domestic and foreign are not exclusive but shifting and mutually constitutive?[4] These histories call for a multi-sited approach that localizes global history and makes clear how the everyday practices and agency of both the colonizer and colonized were produced and transformed through trans-imperial connections.[5] To do so, Everyday Empires places emphasis on a variety of frameworks, from new materialist approaches in Science and Technology Studies to the storied traditions of Alltagsgeschichte.[6] Each panel is organized around a theme that brings together junior and senior scholars working within a discrete imperial framework. By combining and mixing we hope to foster a dialogue on the in-between spaces of empire, to ask scholars to interrogate empire as a process emergent through the everyday, ontologically negotiated material practices of its citizens and subjects: from children’s play to postcards; from military work to coffeehouses; from British sitcoms to steamships.

  • Dr. Nathan Cardon & Dr. Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham

[1] The “trans-imperial” is itself a protean concept still to be fully defined. Beyond this conference see the recently held “Harmsworth Conference on Transimperial US History” at Oxford University, May 27-28, 2016 ( and “In-Between Empires: Trans-imperial History in a Global Age” to be held at the Freie Universtät Berlin, Sept. 15-16, 2017 ( See also Paul Kramer, “Trans-Imperial Histories: Spanish Roots of the American Colonial State in the Philippines” in Maria Elizalde, ed., Filipinas: Un País Entre Dos Imperios (Barcelona, 2011) and E. Natalie Rothman, Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul (Cornell, 2012).

[2] Ann Laura Stoler, “Intimidations of Empire: Predicament of the Tactile and Unseen” in Stoler, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham, 2006), 9-10.

[3] Nile Green, “Fordist Connections: The Automotive Integration of the United States and Iran”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 58, 2 (2016), 1-32.

[4] See for example Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill, 2000); Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, MA, 2002); Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose, eds. At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge, 2006); and Kristin Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill, 2007).

[5] Paul Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World” The American Historical Review (December 2011), 1365.

[6] See for example Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnological Change (Cambridge, MA, 1995); David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity (Chicago, 2013); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, 1984); Alf Lüdtke, “Introduction: What is the History of Everyday Life and Who Are its Practitioners” in Lüdtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer (Princeton, 1995); and Paul Steege, Andrew Stuart Bergerson, Maureen Healy and Pamela E. Swett, “The History of Everyday Life: A Second Chapter” The Journal of Modern History 80:2 (June 2008).