Imperial Policing and the Networks of Empire

AHA Session 75
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Conference Room D (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Heather E. Streets-Salter, Northeastern University
Michael Silvestri, Clemson University

Session Abstract

This panel explores the dynamics of colonial rule within the British, Dutch, French and American empires in a comparative manner.  Covering a broad range of different colonial contexts and experiences, the three papers examine the tensions and contradictions embedded in the technologies and racialized hierarchies that underpinned specific attempts by colonial officials to maintain control.  Kim A. Wagner’s paper argues that the discourse around the Dum-Dum bullet was predicated on the notion of unstoppable Muslim bodies against whom extraordinary weaponry had to be deployed.  Depicting Muslim insurgents in this way served to imagine them as a kind of primitive “other” but it also served to invert the categories of dominance and submission that shored up colonial rule.  The papers by Kris Alexanderson and Suzanne Kaufman examine similar tensions within Dutch and French imperial governance, as officials came to depend upon colonized subjects themselves to do the work of policing.  Inherently suspect because of their racialized subjectivities, these on-the-ground actors proved vital for the complex task of policing far-flung imperial outposts.  Alexanderson examines the use by Dutch consulates of Indonesian staffers to do the work of surveillance in sites such as Mecca, to which non-Muslim Europeans had no access.  Kaufman examines the violent clashes that erupted when black colonial troops were deployed in a garrison town in Tunisia.   Such tensions, Alexanderson and Kaufman demonstrate, not only blurred the racialized categories of colonial power but help to explain the conflicts and failures that accompanied imperial policing and surveillance.  In this sense, the three papers suggest that colonial rule was more fluid, vulnerable and contradictory than is often acknowledged. 

            The three papers are also linked by a methodological interest in complicating the metropole-colony dichotomy that underpins so much of the scholarship on European colonial empires.  Wagner’s exploration of the discursive imaginings of colonized bodies moves the analysis of the Dum-Dum bullet from a narrow technological account to a larger exploration of colonial knowledge-making that linked multiple imperial enterprises, from India to the Philippines.  Kaufman employs a micro-historical case study of a military riot to explore a set of unpredictable dynamics between multiple actors – Senegalese artillerymen, foreign legionnaires, Arab civilians, and French military officials – that complicates an overly simple understanding of colonial power as a projection of metropole rule onto colonies and protectorates.  Finally, Alexanderson traces Dutch surveillance networks that extended far beyond the geographical borders of official colonial domains, as Dutch consular officials sought to limit pan-Islamic ideas from circulating from Jeddah, Mecca and Cairo back to Indonesia.  The three papers thus add to new scholarship that seeks to understand particular nation-centered colonialisms as part of a larger network of European imperial practices, technologies and discourses.

            The panel speaks most directly to historians of European colonial empires (British, French and Dutch) but also will be of interest to historians of American imperialism and scholars of global history.  It will also be of interest to historians of North Africa, the Middle East and India who work on colonial power relations.

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