Fractured Skies: Civil Aviation and the Global South

Fractured Skies: Civil Aviation and the Global South

Marie Huber, Humbold Universität zu Berlin; Waqar Zaidi, Lahore University of Management Sciences
Vom - Bis
28.06.2022 - 29.06.2022
Jonathan Krautter / Tobias Scheib, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaft, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

During the 20th century, airplanes have become representations of modernity, technological advancement, and global interconnectedness. At the same time, they were assigned a strategic as well as a symbolic role in development, nation-building, and de-colonization processes. Thus, the history of aviation in the Global South has great potential to contribute to technology, economic, and global history. However, many researchers in the field are still working within the boundaries of their respective disciplines and national histories. This is true both for individual case-studies in the Global South [1] and for the analysis of networks between colonial powers and (former) colonies. [2] The digital conference ''Fractured Skies'' intended to bridge these boundaries by gathering scholars from various backgrounds to discuss their research, the implications of their approaches, and possible contributions to the various sub-disciplines of history.

The first session examined how flying was utilized in domestic and international political discourses. For instance, MARIA LUCENTI (University of Hamburg) traced how the regime of Fascist Italy depicted aviation and aviators in school textbooks to indicate Italy’s intellectual and cultural superiority over the local peoples. Similarly, JESSICA LYNNE PEARSON (Macalester College) argued that in flight magazines were used to rearrange imaginaries of colonial structures and legitimize French and British influence even after independence was achieved. KAORI TAKADA (Otsuma Women’s University) recounted how Japanese airline companies promoted campaigns to attract Japanese tourists to the Okinawan islands. The idea rested on the role model of Hawaii as the most important beach resort for US-tourists. The session showed how political discourses about air travel were used to influence the perceptions of core-countries’ citizens: The purported narratives legitimized interference via superiority, cooperation, and even economic integration.

The second session was dedicated to the advancement and diffusion of technological knowledge regimes. SABRINA LAUSEN (University of Paderborn) argued that through the technological design of planes and their cockpits, aircraft manufacturers did not only sell a valuable good, but also exported new ideas of responsibility in human-machine relationships. Due to cultural differences regarding the role of pilots, automatization processes, etc., the decision to acquire a plane from a certain manufacturer was also a decision to import a specific technological knowledge regime. JIAKAI JEREMY CHUA (University of Southern California) focused on the operation of a German-Chinese Joint Venture in the interwar-period. On the one hand, the endeavor was seen as an opportunity for German manufacturers under the restrictions imposed by the Versailles treaty. On the other hand, from the Chinese point of view, the project was an effort to boost economic integration and national self-confidence in an era of great turmoil. He also demonstrated that the Chinese side had much more influence on the joint venture than suggested by prior research. Lastly, PETER SVIK (Hochschulinstitut für internationale Studien und Entwicklung Geneva / University of Vienna) discussed the Soviet Unions’ (failed) attempts to bring countries of the Global South closer to the Eastern hemisphere via the establishment of airways from and to, especially, Czechoslovakia. The session exemplified that the diffusion of technology was accompanied by a diffusion of ideas, culture and power.

The third session examined the role of airlines to re-shape center-periphery logics on the national and the global level. MELINA PIGLIA (University of Buenos Aires) demonstrated how Aerolíneas Argentinas started out as an instrument for national unity, sovereignty and integration during the military junta of 1966-73. But, over time, it was also being regarded as a hoard of ineffectiveness and corruption, and thus put under a series of rationalization reforms which strained the initial approach. PHIL TIEMEYER (Kansas State University) explicated Air Jamaica’s struggle to recalibrate traditional imperial trade patterns to overcome Kinshasa’s status as a secondary destination in the global economy. The ensuing investments to turn the city into a central traffic hub for goods and tourism, however, proved to be speculative and did not persist through the economic downturns of the 1970s. Both presentations illustrated how airline-infrastructures were used to reshape geographical networks by shifting or diversifying centers of mobility.

The second day opened with a keynote from DAVID EDGERTON (King's College London). As he argued, many preconceived notions surrounding the benefits of modern technologies are inherently tied to the major technological powers of the Global North. Yet, many such notions appear inappropriate with respect to the Global South. The juxtaposition of an innovating Global North with a mostly imitating Global South, he claimed, is particularly misleading. In fact, throughout most of history and in all world regions, technology mostly spread via imitation. Therefore, studying the technological history of the Global South could contribute to a better understanding of past innovation in the Global North, as well.

The fourth session’s topic was governmentality in South Asia. JOPPAN GEORGE (National University of Singapore) tracked how, after World War I, airplanes became a symbol of both faith- and ruthless colonial force in the eyes of the Muslim population in British-India. In the following talk, AASHIQUE AHMED IQBAL (Krea University) argued that airplanes played a small but critical role in the partition of India and Pakistan, where they were used for the mapping and surveillance of the new border, as well for the relocation of ethnicities along disputed territories. Lastly, WAQAR H. ZAIDI (Lahore University of Management Sciences) looked at Pakistani efforts to develop an international travel-hub in the context of the post-colonial world order. The three presentations thus showed how aviation took part in different stages of nation building: At first, national identity formed in distinction to an impersonal predator using planes. Later, aviation was instrumental for the internal and external consolidation of the new state.

The fifth session was dedicated to airplanes and global markets. TOBIAS ALEXANDER JOPP (University of Regensburg) and MARK SPOERER (University of Regensburg) quantitatively retraced the acquisition of planes by airline companies of the Global South. They showed that former French colonies predominantly bought machines from the European manufacturer Airbus, indicating a continuity in the relation to France. Conversely, countries from the former British Empire and from Latin America switched to US manufacturers instead of buying from the UK. Using the example of the Franco-British Concorde-project, GUILLAUME DE SYON (Albright College) illustrated how European firms tried to construct a supersonic network building on former colonial routes, resulting in complex discussions over political and technological hierarchies. In sum, the speakers gave evidence for breaks as well as continuities between colonial and post-colonial networks.

The last session’s theme was the relation between mobility and territories in aviation history. CAROLIN LIEBISCH-GÜMÜŞ (GHI Washington) tracked how irregular immigration to Germany via Istanbul became increasingly expensive over time. This made the air route to Europe unaffordable for all but the upper strata of migrants. JOHN D. WONG (The University of Hong Kong) showed that Hong Kong’s ascension to a major air hub by the middle of the 20th Century rested on a number of contingencies: the global expansion of its airlines’ route networks was limited due to the Chinese Civil War, British air route policy and American competition. Thus, Hong Kong airlines expanded regionally in Southeast Asia and, eventually, outcompeted their rivals to become the leading carriers of the region. Lastly, ANDREAS GREINER (GHI Washington) zoomed in on the construction of American air bases in Liberia during the 1930s and 1940s. He demonstrated that Liberian workers came to adopt American culture whilst living near US-staff. Moreover, the need to operate the bases in cooperation with local workers challenged racist depictions of Africans, leading to persistent tensions in their portrayal by the Americans. The panel showed that it was not only the act of travelling itself that influenced patterns of migration and cultural exchange.

The results of the workshop can be summarized as follows: First, aviation was an expression of global hierarchies, often based on former colonies and empires. It was also an instrument to overcome post-colonial dependencies and to reshuffle core-periphery logics. Secondly, airplanes became representations of newfound national power, and vehicles of regional integration and differentiation. Lastly, air travel created global networks of people and knowledge not only because it was faster than other modes of transport but also because the installment-process of new routes and infrastructure brought together people from various cultural backgrounds. Overall, the workshop underlined the extensive range of topics that histories of aviation and the Global South can cover and their potential to generate insights for technology, economic and global history.

However, the workshop also showed that the many different and, at times, quite disparate themes and approaches make it difficult to systematize the findings of aviation research and the Global South as exemplified. It stands to reason that whether the field will be able to have a greater impact on larger research agendas will depend on whether its members succeed in developing a framework that allows for the systematization of its research results.

Conference overview:

Session 1: The Politics of Flying

Maria Lucenti (University of Hamburg): Flying to Conquer: the Representation of Flight in Italian Textbooks (1930-1945)

Jessica Lynne Pearson (Macalester College): Colonial Reform in Flight: the Politics of Air Travel at the End of Empire

Kaori Takada (Otsuma Women’s University): Okinawa Tourism from the Beginning of the Jet Age

Session 2: Controlling Knowledge and Technology

Sabrina Lausen (University of Paderborn): ’Human Factors’ in the Global South: Technology Transfer and the Concepts of Man and Machine

Jiakai Jeremy Chua (University of Southern California): Defying the Gravity of ‘Dominant Parent’ Sino-Foreign JVs: Nationalist Leadership and Control of Eurasia Aviation Corporation, 1931-1943

Peter Svik (Hochschulinstitut für internationale Studien und Entwicklung Geneva / University of Vienna): Soviet Bloc Aviation Assistance to the Countries of Global South and why it Failed

Session 3: Airlines and National Cartographies

Melina Piglia (University of Buenos Aires): Commercial Aviation, Modernization, Development and Nationalism in an Authoritarian Context: Aerolineas Argentinas During the Dictatorship of 1966-1973

Phil Tiemeyer (Kansas State University): Striving to Rewrite the Cartography of Colonialism: Air Jamaica’s Founding and Premature Failure, 1961-1980


David Edgerton (King’s College London): ‘The Supremacy of Uruguay’: Thinking with the Periphery as Method

Session 4: Governmentality and Aviation in South Asia

Joppan George (National University of Singapore): Gujranwala, 14 April 1919: Terror from the Air and Airmindedness

Aashique Ahmed Iqbal (Krea University): The Aeroplane in the Partition of India and Pakistan

Waqar H. Zaidi (Lahore University of Management Sciences): US-British Rivalry and the Reconstruction of Pakistani Aviation during the Cold War, 1945-1960

Session 5: Airplanes and Markets

Tobias Alexander Jopp (University of Regensburg) / Mark Spoerer (University of Regensburg), “Civil Aircraft Procurement and Colonial Ties: Which Wide-body Jets were Chosen by Airlines in the Global South, and why?”

Guillaume de Syon (Albright College): A Colonial Concorde: Relying on past Empires to Build a Supersonic Network

Session 6: Mobility and Territory

Carolin Liebisch-Gümüş (German Historical Institute Washington): Flight Routes to Asylum?: Refugees from the Global South, Social Class, and the Changing Costs of Air Travel

John D. Wong (The University of Hong KongFormulating Southeast Asia in the Sky: Reconfiguring Nanyang through Commercial Aviation in the Age of Decolonization, 1940s-1960s

Andreas Greiner (German Historical Institute Washington): Cleared to Land: Pan American Airways’ Airfields as Imperial ‘Contact Zones’

Final Discussion

[1] See, for example, John D. Wong, Hong Kong Takes Flight. Commercial Aviation and the Making of a Global Hub, 1930s-1998, Cambridge, MA 2022; Oqubay Arkebe / Taffere Tesfachew, “The Journey of Ethiopian Airlines. Technological Learning and Catch-up in Aviation,” in: Oqubay Arkebe / Kenichi Ohno. (eds.), How Nations Learn. Technological Learning, Industrial Policy, and Catch-Up, pp. 235–261; Joseph Amankwah-Amoah / Debrah A. Yaw, “Air Afrique. The Demise of a Continental Icon,” Business History 56, vol. 4 (2014), pp. 517–546.
[2] See, for example, Jessica Lynne Pearson, “Internationalists in Flight? Tourism, Propaganda and the Making of Air France’s Global Empire,” in: Jessica Reinisch and David Brydan (eds.), Internationalists in European History, pp. 231–246; Jenifer van Vleck, Empire of the Air. Aviation and the American Ascendancy, Cambridge, MA 2013; Gordon Pirie, Air Empire. British Imperial Civil Aviation, 1919-39 Manchester 2009.