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New Frontiers in Imperial Networks Workshop

Published: 7 July 2023 - Liz Egan, Jim Hulbert, and Catriona Sharples

On 5th May, the workshop ‘New Frontiers in Imperial Networks’ took place in the Wolfson Exchange, University of Warwick. Kindly funded by Midlands4Cities, this event was designed to bring together doctoral and early career researchers with more established academics, to discuss the latest research and new directions in the field of imperial history. The workshop focused particularly on the place of “networks” in our study of imperialism and colonialism

Telegraph Cables

Figure 1. Eastern Telegraph Co. System and Its General Connections. 1901. Wikimedia.

How do we grapple with the multifaceted entanglement of colonial structures that stretched across the globe? How can we account for the multiple actors, ideas, and materials who moved and interacted across these imperial webs? Moreover, how can we ensure that the networks that we build as researchers are not reproducing extractive knowledge practices? ‘Networks’ have become a prominent framework through which to approach the histories of empire. They capture the interconnected, multidirectional nature of both colonialism and anti-colonialism, but as Jonathan Saha has recently suggested, are we at risk of taking this conceptualisation for granted? These were some of the questions we sought to address through the workshop, bringing together researchers from a range of disciplines and specialisms.

We were delighted to welcome Professor Alan Lester (University of Sussex), Dr Deborah Toner (University of Leicester), Dr Guido van Meersbergen (University of Warwick and Director of the Global History and Culture Centre), and Dr Somak Biswas (University of Warwick) to begin with a roundtable discussion that reflected on their own work and research interests. Professor Lester opened by returning to Doreen Massey’s emphasis on simultaneity as he discussed the development of his own research career and the project that became Snapshots of Empire. From settler communities in South Africa to imperial careering, Professor Lester emphasised the role of perspective and the importance of the mundane to our study of imperial history. Colonial Office day books record both the vastness and minutiae of imperial concerns as the correspondence of one colonial governor was placed in conversation with another through the everyday administrative tasks taking place in London. Such sources suggest the preoccupations of colonial governments as well as offering insight into how they perceived themselves, which, as Professor Lester argues, is essential if we are to interrogate the coexistence of the rhetoric of liberal empire alongside the reality of imperial violence.

The collaborative nature of the Snapshots of Empire project brought us next to Dr Deborah Toner’s recent work on the ESCR project Mental, Neurological and Substance Abuse (MNS) Disorders in Guyana's Jails. A multi-disciplinary project between University of Leicester, University of Guyana, and the Guyana Prison Service, Dr Toner emphasised the importance of collaboration on projects such as this, which include several stakeholders and policy implications. As the project interrogated the legacies of empire on the overcrowded and underfunded Guyanese prison system, Dr Toner reflected on the pragmatics and care required for this research. Employing interviews and focus groups while engaging in an imperial history of trauma, the building up of local academic and non-academic networks was vital. More broadly, as a historian focusing on food and drink history in the Americas, Dr Toner highlighted the importance of a global outlook that identifies the transnational construction of ideas about race and alcohol. With European imperialism in Africa so rarely connected to that in the Americas, greater attention to the circulation of ideas requires a networked approach from researchers too as they approach the archive; connections of people generate connections between and across sources.

Dr Guido van Meersbergen turned our attention to the early modern world with a review of several formative studies that demonstrate how networks have complicated traditional ideas about early modern European empires. These included Kerry Ward’s Networks of Empire, Ella-Natalie Rothman’s Brokering Empire, the collection Beyond Empires, edited by Catia Antunes and Amelia Polonia, and Whispers of Cities by John-Paul Ghobrial. Drawing our attention to transimperial and interimperial networks, these works focused respectively on the various cultural, legal and administrative networks that constituted the Dutch East India Company, the cross-imperial networks created by individual men and women, trans-imperial networks between Venice and Istanbul in the early modern period and the information flows of everyday communication between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The notion of networks was illustrated by a figure depicting William Trumbull’s individual network in Istanbul which captured the value of macro and micro-history approaches if we are to comprehend the complexity of early modern empires.

Dr Somak Biswas similarly expounded on the problem of British-centrism in the study of imperial networks, a problem which is replicated in both the British and Indian historical academies. He critiqued the privileging of imperial governance and modes of power in discussion of networks and asked how historians of race, gender, and sexuality can influence the future direction of imperial networks, given their influence on the field is currently limited. His forthcoming monograph, Passages through India, reflects this desire to bring these different sides together through a study of Western Indophilia’s entanglements with global Hinduism, Indian cultural and political nationalism, and abolitionist campaigns against indentured labour. Identifying the Ashram as a site of alternative modernity, Dr Biswas also drew attention to the connections between India and Africa. Illustrating the multiple nodes of colonialism and anti-colonialism, the simultaneity identified by Professor Lester might also bypass the metropole and the oversight of the Colonial Office in powerful ways.

Rule the World Cover Passages Through India Cover Alcohol Cover

Figure 2. Recent edited collections and monographs by (L to R) Alan Lester, Somak Biswas and Deborah Toner.

Looking forward to his next project on the making of British border regimes and intersections of race and gender, Dr Biswas also prompted reflection on the politics of mobility and citizenship that are wrapped up in our historical understandings of networks. In many ways, this echoed Dr Meerbergen’s reminder to us not to overstate the ‘borderless’ nature of early modern empires, but instead remember how crossing borders was also about making borders during this period. Indeed, as Lester and Toner’s words reflected, networks can expose the powerful ways in which colonial ideologies travelled, transformed, and ultimately exerted power.

For participants, one of the major points of discussion was the language we use as we approach these global approaches to history, and the clarity required regarding terms ‘transimperial’, ‘inter-imperial’, and ‘intra-imperial’ - and what it might look like to encompass these different lenses in our research. Knowledge of languages and access to archives across multiple sites perhaps mean that, as Dr Toner proposed, collaborative research is ever more imperative. Although this brings challenges, collaboration is likely to be the only practical way to write more complete histories of imperial networks, due to the multiple layers of expertise that such research requires.

In keeping with the spirit of collaboration, an important component of the workshop was the opportunity to “network” ourselves, building a community working on and thinking through similar issues pertaining to imperial networks and future research. Time dedicated to small group discussions worked well to facilitate these conversations and connections, and we hope to continue developing ideas from this day into an inter-university early career research network. Who knows; perhaps future collaborative works may trace their origin to this workshop and the networks that were formed here!

Liz Egan is completing a PhD at the University of Warwick with a thesis provisionally titled 'Constructing and Challenging Creole Whiteness in Jamaica, 1865-1938'.

Jim Hulbert is completing a PhD at the University of Leicester with a thesis provisionally titled 'Entangled Spaces: Comparing Colonial Violence on the Indian and Queensland Frontiers, 1857-1900'.

Catriona Sharples is completing a PhD at the University of Warwick with a thesis provisionally titled 'Colonial Science and Military Service: The West India Regiments and Circum-Atlantic Networks of Knowledge, 1815–1900'