Intermediaries of Empire and War? Colonial Soldiers Positioning Themselves within Military, Colonial, Racial, and Indigenous Ideologies of Order

AHA Session 163
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Simmons Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Richard S. Fogarty, University at Albany (State University of New York)
Carol Summers, University of Richmond

Session Abstract

The papers in this panel examine colonial soldiers from German East Africa, the British West Indies, and French West Africa, who served in German, British, and French military forces and were deployed in theatres of imperial expansion, defense, and consolidation in North and East Africa, as well as Palestine. Colonial servicemen's origins and destinations varied greatly in geography, climate, and socio-cultural contexts; however, they all shared similar positions and roles in colonial armies and empire. Colonial soldiers, by virtue of their provenance, employments, and employers, question the legitimacy of conceptualizing historical actors in the colonial world within the dyads of ”colonizer” and “colonized,” or “citizen” and “subject.” In addition to questioning the “intermediary” or “go-between” roles of colonial soldiers, central themes analyzed by this panel include colonial soldiers' agency, race, and the relations of fraternity, subordination, and clientship in imperial armies, as well as between soldiers and local communities. Each paper excavates the everyday experiences and personal ambitions of colonial soldiers, in order to reveal how colonial servicemen, in addition to operating as middlemen, or brokers, of empire, also acted in their own interests, which may not have agreed with colonial, military or local community rationalities. The panel's presentations place primacy on the agency of colonial soldiers who negotiated the coercive, yet fragmented, ideologies driving military and colonial institutions—nationalism, patriotism, order, and hierarchy to name a few. Admittedly, colonial militaries and institutions were obliging, hierarchical and wielded tremendous authority, however, colonial soldiers learned how to toe the line, as well as how to circumvent or manipulate it for their own ends. Colonial soldiers may not have made decisions dictating their deployments, battle formations, or where they met their ends, but when they saw opportunities for accumulation, they seized them. These papers also deal with racial discourses and ideologies embedded within the logic of imperial policies, institutions, and socio-cultural ordering, as well as the racialized social hierarchies of the communities at the other end of colonial soldiers' bayonets. The colonial soldiers in question were all members of communities from sub-Saharan Africa and its Diaspora, thus, these papers analyze race within a long historical frame in order to question how colonial racism is linked to, or antithetical to, racisms that emerged in its antecedents—the trans-Atlantic and trans-Saharan slaving systems. Pointedly, one paper will question how the soldiers themselves relied on their “diasporic” differences to improve their social standing vis-à-vis sub-Saharan Africans. Although military systems are based on meritocracy and ranking order, in the case of colonial soldiers, race often set glass ceilings in the ranks and limited fraternizing among soldiers of different geographical origins. These papers will question how colonial soldiers forged professional and friendly relations with their European superiors, among the rank-and-file, as well as with the local communities they were protecting/conquering. Our intended audience are historians interested in colonialism, race, agency, military, soldiering, loyalty, intermediaries, Africa, the Caribbean, modern Europe, conflict, trans-nationalism, and cross-colonial contact.

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