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).