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Everyday Empire's Tools

By Josh Allen - September 1, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Ruth Morgan (LMU Munich)

The combined forces of engineering and imperialism still often conjure images of heroic enterprise on a vast scale and across long time periods, resulting in the enormous transformation of places and peoples for empire’s ends. Collectively, the papers of “Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire”, sought to redress this grand narrative through the exploration of engineering and engineering works as sites for everyday encounter.1 Drawing on David Edgerton’s case for “technology-in-use” and David Arnold’s concept of “everyday technology”, we each focused on a tool or infrastructure that advanced and sustained colonial mobilities within and across European and North American empires in Africa, Asia, and Australia.2 Typically understood as machines of modernity that revolutionised time and space, in our panel, ships, rickshaws, canals, and railroads became spaces for excavating colonial power relations of labour, race and gender.

Late nineteenth century Australian settlers’ admiration for the feats of British engineers in “irrigated India” was the focus of my paper. Seeking measures to overcome the agrarian limits of aridity, pastoralists and politicians from the colonies of South Australia and Victoria undertook their own “observatory tours” of British India.3 Although they marvelled at the scale of the waterworks they encountered, the hydrological and labour conditions of their own settler colonies meant that there was little likelihood of replicating these engineering schemes. Across the Pacific, they saw the irrigated agriculture of California as a more favourable model for their ambitions of closer settlement and the formation of a white settler Commonwealth. Their conclusions in this respect reflected Australia’s general turn towards the United States in terms of natural resource management at the turn of the twentieth century.4

J.W. Lindt, “Irrigation at Mornington plantation”, Mildura, 1890. H96.160/1915, State Library Victoria, Australia.

What their travel accounts of colonial South Asia also revealed was their observations of the colonial hydrology of India and the nature of the colonial hydrology they sought to forge in the Australian colonies. South Asian environmental historian Rohan d’Souza has proposed the concept of ‘colonial hydrology’ to describe the social worlds of water and to reveal ‘the broader dynamics of colonial rule’.5 D’Souza’s concept can be used to read the writings of Alfred Deakin, one of the Australian observers, who wrote expansively on the labour processes required to engineer India’s great rivers. The regulation of a river, Deakin believed, was the reward for an ever-vigilant Anglo-engineer, while failures in the system were solely attributable to the poorly skilled Indian workers. The task of the Anglo-engineer was an especially challenging one, so Deakin explained, for the engineer, an avatar of modernity, had to manage both an unruly river and a backward people, who lived “in practically another age”.6 Framing Indian subjects in this way justified the need for paternalist government in India, while suggesting that white Australians might best follow the example of the United States and its “restlessly inventive and progressive Americans”.7 Deakin’s account of “irrigated India”, therefore, emasculated subaltern labour in order to celebrate the labour of white men – British and North American engineers and the Australian yeoman farmer: a white brotherhood based on technical mastery. It was these men, their wives and children, who would be the foundation of the “white man’s country” that Deakin would help to forge through the federation of the Australian colonies less than a decade later in 1901.

The colonial allure of American expertise was a theme explored in Steve Tuffnell’s paper, which examined networks of “trans-imperial” engineering in Britain’s African outposts at the turn of the twentieth century. The investment of US capital and engineering expertise in colonial rail projects, Tuffnell argued, encouraged the co-production of colonial rule through coercive and extractive forms of labour discipline developed in the plantation south and the western frontier. Charles Fawell, meanwhile, took us below deck on a steamship voyaging from Marseille to Yokohama in the early twentieth century, where he teased out the volatile labour relations of trans-imperial transit. The focus here was not the glamour of steam travel, but the politics of cohabitation that were produced in a place that was effectively both a hotel and a coal plant. Finally, Chao Ren navigated the “rickshaw zone”, a network that linked China and Japan to the British outposts of southeast and south Asia through the proliferation of this form of passenger transport. The rickshaw fostered intimate imperial encounters between elites and the subjects upon whose physical labour their mobility relied.

Our shared concern with the everyday operation — as opposed to the macro-historical mythologies — of colonial engineering and infrastructure led us to question “whose everyday” featured in these case studies. The written and pictorial sources that informed our studies were intended mostly for elite audiences, both in the colonies and the metropole. Reading these sources against the grain revealed that empire’s civilising mission and the hierarchies that it structured were embedded in these everyday technologies of imperial mobility, and should be grasped accordingly by historians.


1 The other panellists were: Chao Ren (University of Michigan), “Everyday Mobilities: A Trans-Imperial History of the Hand-Pulled Rickshaw, 1870-1930”; Stephen Tuffnell (Oxford), “Transimperialism, Inc.: US Expansion and the Making of British Africa”; Charles Fawell (University of Chicago), “The Colonial Steamship ‘East of Suez’: Conflict and Collaboration in the In-Between Spaces of Empire, 1880-1918”.
2 David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, London: Profile Books, 2011; David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
3 Alfred Deakin, Irrigated India: An Australian View of India and Ceylon, Their Irrigation and Agriculture, Melbourne: E.A. Petherick, 1893, p. 5.
4 See for example, Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
5 Rohan d’Souza, “Water in British India: The Making of a ‘Colonial Hydrology’,” History Compass 4, no. 4 (2006): 621.
6 Deakin, p. 25.
7 Deakin, p. 147.

Accelerated Mobility: Travel and the Culture of Everyday Empire

By Josh Allen - August 29, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Stephen Tufnell, University of Oxford

The increased mobility of goods, capital, and people was an epochal marker of the nineteenth century. Technological infrastructure sped up all forms of circulation and collapsed time and space dramatically. Accelerated mobility disrupted economic patterns around the globe, brought violent conquest and dispossession to new continents, and environmental cataclysm to those places where the raw materials (coal, copper, gold) that powered it could be found. This dramatic spatial, temporal and imperial transformation of the world — and of social existence for its inhabitants — is perhaps the most expansive version of the analytical category “everyday empire” that emerged in Birmingham this May.

These observations, part of the debate at the conference, have continued to resonate for me since I picked up my research tools again this summer. But so has one nagging doubt: does such an expansive version of “everyday empire” risk attenuating, as Nathan Cardon and Simon Jackson wondered in a previous post, our analyses of specific local, regional, transnational, and global processes? In fact, this doubt has been especially productive as I have begun to grapple with the history of the World’s Transportation Commission (WTC), organised in the United States in 1893, which provides a concrete means to interrogate the analytical capacity of the category “everyday empire”.

Following the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, leading Chicagoan Marshall Field donated $1 million for the creation of a museum permanently to house exhibits from the Fair in the city. Today this is known as the Field Museum. The museum’s supporters set about supplementing these exhibits through donations, purchase, and the collection of new material. To add further to the history of transportation, the World’s Transportation Committee was founded. For its leadership, Field turned to Major Joseph Gladding Pangborn, the larger-than-life publicity agent for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.

A camel train on the desert (Sinai?), William Henry Jackson c. 1894, Library of Congress (in the public domain)

Under Pangborn’s direction, the Commission spent two and a half years at sea, at a cost of $25,000. Tracking the maritime infrastructure of the British Empire, the Commission sailed first to North Africa, passed through the Suez Canal, and crossed the Indian Ocean to Ceylon, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and concluded by touring the Pacific from China and Japan to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Along the way, the Commissions photographer William Henry Jackson, lured by Pangborn’s offer of a “munificent salary”, collected images of railroads, horse-drawn wagons, rickshaws, sedan chairs, harbours and other scenes (all of which are now housed at the Library of Congress). Jackson’s images catalogued a whole host of technologies of globalisation and the infrastructure of mobility so central to the themes of this conference. Some images even document colonial subjects hard at work constructing these very technologies – deliberately just out of shot were the colonial administrators, foremen, and engineers who coerced them. Previously in this series my co-panellist Charles Fawell evaluated the ways the maritime infrastructure of ships and harbours became a theatre for contentious colonial labour relations.

How these images were presented at the Field Museum, we do not know, but they had an imperial life all of their own outside it. Jackson’s images were soon familiar to many middle- and upper-class Americans through the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which published regular articles on the WTC’s progress. Jackson subsequently turned his negatives into hand-painted lantern slides, which he displayed at women’s clubs, travel societies, and churches around the country. In 1898, Jackson then joined the Detroit Photographic Company, using the same negatives as the basis for the firm’s postcards and stereograph views. Through these varied vectors of dissemination, new imperial mobilities entered homes and classrooms. These images did not simply convey messages about the collapse of time and space, but also offered an index of socio-cultural difference to arm-chair travellers. Just as in Jasmin Daam’s paper on Syrian postcards, Jackson’s images presented idealized and exoticised others for consumption at home. Among the railways and rickshaws are posed “type” or “costume images” of people he deemed “peasants”, “wives in their best clothes”, and “warriors”.

Indian women in railway coach below signs reading “Native females” and “Third Class”, William Henry Jackson c. 1895, Library of Congress (in the public domain)

These images were part of a thriving culture of international travel in the United States that made distant places a part of everyday life (though the US was not unique in this regard). For historians, these images expose the powerful asymmetries that structured imperial everydayness. Jackson’s lantern slides, postcards, and stereoscopes were only made possible by the imperial world system. As Kristin Hoganson has written elsewhere: ‘the culture of travel was a component of imperial culture’.1 For many, mastering mobility through travel denoted social standing, was a signifier of the privileges of whiteness, and was a mark of the freedom of so-called civilized peoples to traverse the globe at will – even when such journeys were undertaken from an armchair, through the viewfinder of a stereoscope or in a magic lantern show. In the imperial metropoles of the nineteenth century, nothing was more everyday.


1Kristin Hoganson, Consumers Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (2007), p. 183.

Stephen Tufnell is Associate Professor of Modern US History at St. Peter’s College, Oxford. 

Everyday Performance/Performing the Everyday: Exhibitions, Leisure and Hospitality

By Josh Allen - August 25, 2017 (0 comments)

by Shahmima Akhtar (Birmingham), Carmen Gitre (Virginia Tech), Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez (Hawai’i, Mānoa)  

The panel “Everyday Performance/Performing the Everyday: Exhibitions, Leisure, and Hospitality” assembled three papers that spoke to different types of performances and meaning-making, primarily from below, that operate within, against and alongside empire.  All three papers addressed “spaces of encounter.” These spaces ranged from the public (coffee houses, street theatres, world’s fair exhibits, vaudeville stages) to the intimate (the home), but they engendered ephemeral, affective moments that constituted the everyday transactions and interactions of empire. Performances, repertoires, and rituals within such spaces both shored up and undermined imperial power. They hosted moments of consent, survival, resistance, and nostalgia. They were highly gendered and classed spaces, crucial sites for identity-formation for self, class, and nation.  They were also fragile, fragmented, and contested. Within those spaces of encounter, people of all stripes forged new grammars and symbolic systems—oblique, humorous, deeply personal, or outright unsettling—that point to the creativity of resistance in particular.

The focus on the everydayness of these spaces and the way that they shaped the wider everydayness of empire allowed us to identify and explore encounters that could consolidate and/or unsettle empire, but which are frequently overlooked or treated as transparent in the existing historiography of empire.

Hawaiian lei venders, c. 1901

Hawaiian lei venders, c. 1901 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Subjects of empire engaged in exchanges, negotiations, and other kinds of transactions in these everyday spaces of encounter. These spaces were not necessarily sites of anti-imperial contestation. Some of them existed outside of the colonial gaze, or operated within its purview but were considered non-threatening. Feminized spaces and spaces of leisure were often understood by colonisers to instead bolster imperial claims of bringing civilization and modernity to the dark and backwards places of the world. Imperialists saw the kinds of encounters in these spaces as evidence of colonized subjects consenting to new kinds of imperial regimes and encounters. Drinking coffee while joking around and applauding at punchlines, competing to sell lei to tourists arriving by steamship, perusing the offerings at a world’s fair exhibit within a politicized climate — these were not interactions designed to overturn empire. Nonetheless, as a focus on the everyday allows us to understand, they offered sites of resistance and survival where communal/social fantasies for alternatives to empire persisted, particularly for working class subjects who had little access to imperial political mechanisms.

Carmen’s focus on the nuances of working-class Egyptian identities that were cultivated in the coffeehouses and street theatres circa 1900 prompts us to think about how these spaces accommodated people very much interested in the question of the political subject and the most effective ways to access political power. In the raucous, smoky rooms frequented by men, the acts, scripts, stock characters, and improvisations of both performances and audience crafted a unique and critical sha’bi identity among property-less labourers new to urban areas.1 This identity mocked and negotiated effendi, or middle-class, prescriptions of Egyptian-ness and these performances, put on day after day in small theatres, were modes of social critique and nationalist fantasy.2

“personal postcard found on E-Bay. Title: ‘Blarney Castle, on the Midway’ (1893).”

The feminized rituals of hospitality in Hawai‘i, meanwhile — as outlined by Vernadette —also afforded intimate, everyday spaces of encounter in which Native Hawaiians carved out dignity and defined their lives, even as colonial tourism sought to reframe indigenous hospitality as consent to empire. The erosion of indigenous productive time and creative practices, and of female social and political power, were thereby countered by the community rituals and domestic spaces that Hawaiians continued to nurture outside of capitalist time.

Finally, Shahmima’s close look at the Irish villages at the 1893 and 1897 World’s Fairs examined how these exhibits drew on the nostalgia of diasporic colonial subjects to animate differing visions of home, nation and independence. Regardless of the organizers’ intentions for the displays, Irish-American fair-goers themselves interacted with the exhibits in ways that exceeded the goals of the design, in the process transforming themselves from spectators into performers who actively made meaning about identity and nation.

“my photograph of the model café-chantant taken on June 27, 2010. The model is in the Egyptian National Folk Museum located in Cairo.”

All our papers attended to the importance of listening for and seeking alternative evidence of working-class agency, speech, acts and thoughts in these spaces of encounter. For instance, sha’bi theatre mocked a hegemonic effendiyya, forging a shared identity amongst working-class, factory labourers and preserving a place where local practices, creativity and fantasy were sustained. One can imagine the fluency of an audience in laughing at a joke, or understanding how a turn of phrase might transform a joke or song into a sharp political critique. Or how the Hawaiian term “aloha” in one instance is stripped of its meaning, and in another instance, is redolent of resistance and communal struggle. In Hawaii, commoditized lei-selling meant a modicum of labour sovereignty and avoidance of work on plantations.  But engagement in the capitalist economy was never complete and exact.  It was a performance, suspended when colonial tourist ships had sailed. Other kinds of performances, such as those undertaken by world’s fair attendees, breathed life into identities. In the Irish case, people walked away from the World’s Fair Irish villages literally carrying bits of the performance space as a promise to continue Irish values in a modern world. Walking through and collecting bits of “Sod maps” and turf cultivated nostalgia not to mourn but, rather, to draw strength from “touchstones of the past, and to promote a new, Irish-American future” thousands of miles away from the homeland. This occurred despite the policing of the fairground space to prevent such ‘stealing’ and indicates the blurring of behavioural norms and practices within the imagined country.

What our panel demonstrated so clearly, then, is that the concept of ‘everydayness’ can work in many exciting and unique ways. It touched on the materiality and performance of the symbols of identity and/ or resistance; the fragility and contested nature of spaces of encounter; and above all the nuanced and varied ways imperial frameworks play out in the everyday lives of ordinary people. This focus on working-class, often racialized and feminized subjects has pushed us to seek archives that are difficult to pin down, or to read existing colonial documents in more circuitous and oblique ways. The ephemera of performance, of tone, of affect, are hard to pin down, but yield important additions to the story of empire — particularly from perspectives that are more easily ignored.


1For more on the sha’b, see Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communisim, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); Ziad Fahmy Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011).

2For more on the effendiyya, see, Yoav Di-Capua, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt (Berkeley: University of Californa Press, 2009); Ilham Makdisi, Theater and Radical Politics in Beirut, Cairo, and Alexandria: 1860-1914 (Washington DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 2006); Lucie Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).