Imperial Fantasies and Local Realities: Migrants within and beyond the British and German Empires

AHA Session 256
Central European History Society 10
North American Conference on British Studies 7
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 303 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Benjamin Bryce, University of Northern British Columbia
Deborah J. Neill, York University

Session Abstract

This panel examines how international migration complemented, challenged, or reshaped imperial power and aspirations. Recent scholarship on empire highlights that boundaries of control were often fluid, and it questions the impact of metropolitan influence in places far from the imperial core. Similarly, historians of migration have emphasized the role of individual agency in charting migration routes and in developing hybrid cultures on individual or familial levels. The papers on this panel engage with scholarship in both fields by examining the interplay between metropolitan imperial fantasies and global mass mobility as it played out in Latin America, southern Africa, and Australia. Together, these papers chart the attempts to foster imperial mentalities among diasporas far from the metropole or to limit the arrival of other groups into supposed British or German spheres of influence.

Diplomatic, naval, and political historians have examined in detail the emergence, course, and afterlife of imperial competition between Britain and Germany in the age of empire.  The papers on this panel, by contrast, ask how two leading European powers tried to project their prominence between the 1850s and 1920s and how those objectives were frustrated by people on the ground rather than by rival European governments. The papers focus on efforts to invite some settlers and limit others. By juxtaposing the cases of British and German imperialism and the case of migration into different British colonies or areas of the world that the British or Germans wanted to exert their influence, the papers on this panel illustrate the imperial fantasies that informed these schemes and the fracture between those goals and the realities on the ground.

Many people migrated within the British Empire or from China and Japan to parts of the world that imperialists were actively trying to make British. Conversely, German emigrants chose often destinations beyond formal German colonial territories and some non-Germans tried to move to German colonies in Africa. Yet in both cases officials in the Colonial Office in London or the Foreign Office in Berlin believed that they could control migration, and bureaucrats in colonies or European consuls in independent countries in Latin America believed that immigrants could serve imperial objectives. On the ground, however, these imperial fantasies confronted the interests of migrants and local elites who often had other opinions.

This panel contributes new perspectives to the still sometimes separate historiographies of international migration and European imperialism. Focusing on several regions of the world often not discussed in the same context (including Buenos Aires, Melbourne, and the Cape Colony), it offers insights into the importance of the local within global history.  In addition, the panel inserts a comparison of migration policies and of migrants’ agency into the narrative of Great Power politics in the age of empire.

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