Uneasy Neighbours: Conflict and Control in the Colonial City, c. 1870–1940

Uneasy Neighbours: Conflict and Control in the Colonial City, c. 1870–1940

Norman Aselmeyer / Avner Ofrath, Universität Bremen
Vom - Bis
21.07.2022 - 22.07.2022
Fritz Kusch / Fabienne Müller, Neuere und Neuste Geschichte, Universität Bremen

Traditionally, historiography on the colonial period has emphasized spatial and social segregation as defining characteristics of the colonial city. While this line of thought extends to more recent scholarship[1], scholars of global urban history have increasingly challenged the segregation thesis and highlighted encounter and exchange between different social groups, cross-communal networks, and, particularly for port cities, a cosmopolitan mindset as equally important markers of colonial urban societies.[2] It is this ambivalence of colonial urban life, the simultaneous presence of conflicting tendencies of segregation and cohabitation, that this conference aimed to address through the examination of urban neighbourhoods.

Neighbourhoods within the colonial city were characterised by the constant tension between physical proximity and social and legal inequality. Neighbourhoods, the organizers argued, were a crucial site of colonial society and can therefore serve historians as an analytical lens to nuance and challenge existing scholarly assumptions on colonial urban society. Studying neighbourhoods in various colonial cities in South-East Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean, the conference aimed at introducing the neighbourhood as a new and promising unit of analysis into the thriving field of global urban history.

In his opening remarks, co-convenor AVNER OFRATH (Bremen) picked up the theme of the conference by posing the overarching question: “What did it mean to be neighbours in the shared yet institutionally unequal space of the colonial city?” He highlighted three key issues through which scholarship can contribute new insights to the study of colonial urbanity: 1. the shaping of individual and collective memories and identities, 2. political and ethnic conflicts in the colonial city, and 3. the emergence of transregional public spheres and the demise of the neighbourhood as a social site. Ofrath argued that, in the “twilight of empire”, urban proximity and everyday interactions within the realm of the neighbourhood lost much of their mediating capacity, while transregional, abstract ethno-religiously grounded loyalties, solidarities, and identifications gained ground.

The first panel “Governing Urban Spaces” was opened by JENNIFER HART (Detroit). Her presentation addressed the issues of grand scale housing improvement plans in early 20th century Accra. She argued that the urban development plans conceived by the British colonial authorities were modernist in their architectural design and carried with them a heavy dose of social engineering by defining certain forms of living and housing as modern and thus desirable. While the persistence of the pre-existing local urban culture prevented most of these urban development schemes from being realized in larger scale, the clash between them led to an official delegitimization and, later on, to an informalisation of Accra’s pre-existing urban culture. This was most strikingly underscored by the fact that the housing schemes developed and propagated by the post-colonial governments of the 1950s and 1960s drew heavily on these colonial-modernist development plans.

JAVED IQBAL WANI (Delhi) presented the case study of communal conflicts in 1938 Bombay and the measures taken to prevent them by the provincial government.[3] Wani stressed the mundane trigger – a game of cards – of the violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The provincial congress, only elected in 1937, saw itself forced to resort to the same sort of repressive instruments which local politicians had rejected as part of the colonial regime shortly before. Furthermore, in the description of the incident colonially tainted categories like “Mawaali” and “hooligan” were in current use. Therefore, Wani argued, the 1938 local unrest in Bombay demonstrates the partial continuation of colonial practices under Indian-dominated administration.

GEERT CASTRYCK (Leipzig) presented the examples of the small town of Ujiji-Kigoma at Lake Tanganyika, in today’s Tanzania, to demonstrate the impact of colonial rule on local social constellations. Whereas most inhabitants of Ujiji had their roots in the area of Lake Tanganyika, the dominant class in the settlement was formed by caravan traders from the Manyema region. This conflictual setting drew the attention of British colonial authorities after violent clashes erupted in 1932. The local administration was reorganized according to the ethnically defined Manyema-Tanganyika divide. This, however, became increasingly problematic as the social stratification of the inhabitants of the town had shifted not with ethnicity but place of residence as the pre-eminent category by the 1940s. Here, a new contrast between the neighbourhoods of Ujiji and Kigoma had emerged. Castryck demonstrated the complex social composition and the ensuing delicate political power balance of a remote colonial town and the unintended implications an intervention by the distant and often poorly informed colonial administration could have on local contexts.

The second panel focussed on “Places of Encounter.” The role of missionary schools in the urban development of Beirut was the subject of YASMINA EL CHAMI’s (Cardiff) paper. El Chami analysed the American-funded Syrian Protestant College (SPC) and the Jesuit Université Saint-Joseph (USJ) and the interdependence between the spread of missionary educational institutions in different Beirut neighbourhoods and the urbanisation of Beirut in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She underlined that both institutions relied on and fostered different social groups in their respective neighbourhoods: Sunni and converted Protestant groups in the case of SPC, the Maronite community for USJ. The differentiation and alienation between social groups was deepened by missionary activity. Their ideological differences were manifested within the respective neighbourhoods both through their tight grip on education and impact on local youth and through their differing architectural styles which permanently manifested these contrasts within the built environments of their neighbourhoods.

MICHAEL YEO (Singapore) used the towns of Sandakan and Jesselton on the coast of the British protectorate of North Borneo to challenge current scholarship’s focus on the larger colonial centres. Taking the small coast towns of Sandakan and Hesselton as examples, Yeo demonstrated how an analysis of the colonial social order of smaller towns can add nuance to previous discussions. Though comparably small and remote, Sandakan and Jesselton hosted a wide variety of religiously, socially, or ethnically defined social groups. These groups intermingled to a degree, but everyday life was characterised by separated social spheres that often prevented socially mixed encounters. The boundaries were thus palpable yet negotiable.

ROBERT PASCOE and CHRIS McCONVILLE (Melbourne) picked up the theme of “uneasiness” and combined it with Kevin Lynch’s concept of sensory geography in the analysis of market neighbourhoods and communal infrastructure in colonial Calcutta. Focussing on marketplaces as central nodes of city landscapes, Pascoe and McConville argued that the traditional market neighbourhood of Barabazar was disliked by the British colonial authorities, who found themselves unable to “read” the underlying social structure and meaning of the neighbourhood for its inhabitants and therefore dismissed it as disorganised, unruly, filthy, and potentially dangerous. This colonial “uneasiness” with Barabazar stood in stark contrast to the so-called New Market which followed European ideas of orderly and functional architecture and was thus more “readable” to British authorities. As the authors demonstrated, this was not the case with the local population and traders of the market, who, sensing themselves an uneasiness with New Market, quickly adapted its structure to their own needs and practices.

“Conflict, Protest, and Control” was the theme of the third panel. MIKKO TOIVANEN’s (Warsaw) paper dealt with the staging and public enactment of colonial rule in 19th century Batavia (present-day Jakarta).[4] Analysing public processions and festivities, Toivanen stressed that the colonial order was made visible through the hierarchical order in which different social groups, mostly defined by their ethnic background, were represented in public spaces. Colonial officials alone decided what constituted a recognised and recognisable social or ethnic group and the way in which this attribution was made visible also followed strictly European imaginations. In this way, the colonial administration created an artificial, simplified, and idealised image of the colonised society which superseded and overshadowed the complex social reality of local urban fabrics. Therefore, the study of colonial cities and neighbourhoods can serve to de-construct colonial images and reconstruct the complexity of urban colonial society.

SUGATA NANDI (Berunanpukuria) discussed the interrelation between the social life of four Calcutta neighbourhoods and the Indian nationalist movement of Mahatma Gandhi by studying the communal riots of 1926. Stressing the diverse religious, social, and economic backgrounds of the mostly Indian inhabitants of Jorsanko, Jorabagan, Barabazar, and Manicktola, Nandi emphasized the extraordinary unity that was discernible among these quarters in their support of the Indian nationalists’ non-cooperation movement between 1920 and 1922. This unity, however, began to crumble quickly after the end of the campaign, with extremely violent clashes breaking out between Hindu and Muslim communalist movements in 1926. Nandi demonstrated how the study of neighbourhood-based alliances and rivalries can enhance our understanding of larger political issues, such as the interplay between local unrest and large-scale political resistance.

NORMAN ASELMEYER (Bremen) used the comparative analysis of three Nairobi neighbourhoods to come to a fresh and more nuanced view of anti-colonial protest in 1940s and 1950s Kenya. While scholars have seen the country’s nationalist movement in the context of the Mau Mau rebellion, Aselmeyer emphasised that a look at urban centres shows that the anti-colonial struggle was far more diverse. The scholarly interest in the forest war of the Mau Mau rebels, he argued, has overshadowed the intersection of their fight with the struggles of various other social groups. Aselmeyer unearthed some of these other actors and their overlapping struggles. The socio-spatial study of Kiburi House in the European-controlled Central Business District, Desai House in the Indian-dominated residential quarter of Parklands, and the African neighbourhood of Pumwani showed that different forms of space engender different forms of protest. The close examination of specific urban locations helps to decipher the distinct and at times contradictory motives, alliances and solidarities of protest movements in the colonial city.

In the keynote lecture, MICHAEL GOEBEL (Berlin), addressed one of the main themes of the conference: the complex relationship between colonialism and segregation. He challenged not only the widely spread notion that colonialism was the main cause or at least a catalyst for the increased spatial segregation of colonial cities, but also questioned the very categories of “colonial city” and “segregation”. He stressed that too often segregation serves as the main criterion for a general definition of the colonial city, thus creating a circular argument: The colonial city is segregated, and the segregated city is colonial. Moreover, Goebel pointed out the conceptual limits of the wide-spread quantitative approach in determining whether or not a city can be considered segregated. This approach mostly stems from the social sciences and tends to define segregation as the uneven distribution of certain social groups obtained from official census data, often overlooking other forms of segregated social reality. Rather than the overriding broad terms of “segregation” and “colonial city”, Goebel suggested a focus on regional differences and correlating local path dependencies as a promising approach for understanding the various and complex forms and implications of urban colonial rule.

HALIMAT TITILOLA SOMOTAN (Pittsburgh) opened the fourth panel on “Cities and Citizens” with a study of the neighbourhood of Epetedo in Lagos, Nigeria. She examined how property issues and conflicts of identity and belonging helped unify the community and eventually create new associations. The growing tensions between settlers arriving in Epetedo in the beginning of the 20th century from Europe and Brazil and the local residents, who regarded the area as a compensation for the previous loss of Lagos, culminated in violent confrontations in 1927. Conflicts led to a growing sense of solidarity among the inhabitants and the formation of the Epetedo Union with the demand of reforming the colonial land tenure regime. Twenty years later, the Epetedo Union contributed to the passing of a new land law. As this paper illustrates, protest movements can function as a means of social cohesion.

LARISSA KOPYTOFF’s (Tampa) paper turned to French colonial Senegal and the city of Dakar, which was the site of an important local movement for citizenship and rights in the early 20th century. The claims of the so-called Originaires to be granted the same rights as French citizens changed how members of the community thought about themselves and about their relationship with the colonisers. Even when this right was granted to the Originaires and their descendants by law in 1916, their actual status remained contested. Moreover, the new legal status of Dakar residents as French citizens strained the relationship with the surrounding rural areas. Senegalese migration and the constant changing of Dakar’s boundaries made the control of citizenship by French officials difficult and resulted in an ongoing debate about the legal status of the residents. The legal norms, although mutually exclusive as categories introduced by the colonisers, were in practice often used side by side. The legal status of the residents of the city of Dakar is an example of the discrepancy between colonial categories and social reality. This example also shows the way in which different legal norms regarding the status of citizenship introduced in colonised societies led to tensions.

The migration of women and mechanisms of the colonial government to control it were the focus of the paper by MADHU (Delhi) who analysed the gender aspect of migration in Indian neighbourhoods. Families and local authorities tried to limit the movement of women to the cities and imposed a social order in which men became migrant workers while women looked after the families and the land. The marriage act of 1901 gave husbands the right to decide whether their wives were allowed to be employed. Local communities had their own possibilities to circumvent legislation. Different statements about the marital status or remarriage were tools used to facilitate mobility and to avoid legal consequences. Neighbourhoods and cities as social sites played an important role in both making possible and regulating female migration, as they formed the setting in which migration took place.

The fifth panel was concerned with “Old Neighbourhoods, New Neighbourhoods.” ELIA ETKIN (Haifa) explored the case study of Hatikva, a rural community close to Tel Aviv in British-mandate Palestine.[6] The neighbourhood was built in the 1930s, at a time of escalating ethno-territorial conflict between the Zionist and Palestinian national movement, when urban space was being re-arranged along national lines. The neighbourhood of Hatikva is an example of how the boycott on “Arab products” and “Arab work” imposed by the Zionist movement’s institutions was bypassed by local residents. The case of this community, situated between the city and the countryside, illustrates the complex character of everyday Arab-Jewish relations in the 1930s and 1940s.

MONIA BOUSNINA (Sétif) analysed the “Harat” building complexes in the city of Sétif in Algeria during French colonial rule to study how coexistence between different ethnoreligious groups was organised in a relatively small space. Grouped housing was a concept important for architecture and living habits of the residents of Sétif before Algerian independence. Such complexes were constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Housing both Jewish and Muslim families, they defied colonial categories of ethnic and religious groups. As Bousnina argued, these complexes gave rise to a sense of sharing the same status of perceived inferiority between Jews and Muslims in comparison with French residents. After Algerian independence in 1962 and the mass emigration of Algerian Jews, Muslim families moved into former Jewish families’ rooms. The memory of a neighbourhood once shared with Jews was not preserved, illustrating the influence of post-colonial politics and transnational conflicts on the memory of neighbourhood.

Looking at the Nigerian reservation Ikoyi, constructed by the British in 1923 and marked as “Residential Area”, TIM LIVSEY (Newcastle) discussed the issue of spatial segregation. Reservations were established as racialised spaces in which colonial hierarchies were played out. Accordingly, Ikoyi included facilities reserved to European residents and buildings assigned to mainly male Nigerian servants. The officially prohibited yet continuing presence of African women, children and other family members in the reservation challenged the colonial authority. Letters of complaint sent by the British residents show that many Nigerian families moved to the reservation. Moreover, servants won the support of some influential colonial functionaries allowing the presence of family members for reasons of health, convenience and efficiency. Racialised segregation was undermined, but racial hierarchies nevertheless remained in place. Nigerian families successfully challenged spatial segregation and racial conceptions but were ultimately unable to fully overcome racial hierarchy.

RILA MUKHERJEE (Hyderabad) opened the panel “Lost in Transition?” Her presentation on the Bengal Delta situated the colonial period and the question of segregation vs. contact within the broader context of mobility and cross-communal relation in their longue durée, from the 17th century to the present. Mukherjee traced the development of the Bengal Delta region and the area that would witness the emergence of the city of Calcutta as shaped above all by the danger of floods and repeated cyclones. Zooming out to the regional level and the longue durée, Mukherjee highlighted patterns of planning, cultivating, and migrating that transcend the colonial/post-colonial binary.

ORIT OUAKNINE-YEKUTIELI (Be'er Sheva) presented her research on neighbour relations in the so-called old town (“Medina”) in the Moroccan city of Fès under French colonial rule. Ouaknine-Yekutieli focused on the Jewish artisans who produced golden thread ornaments. When production was mechanised in the late 1920s, many of the artisans lost their livelihood. Petitions sent to the French authorities allow to trace their protest. The complaints about the changing conditions of production also castigated French rule in comparison to the former Sultan, portrayed as a just ruler who offered protection to his Jewish subjects. While the emigration of the Jewish artisans in the 1950s had strong effects on the city of Fès, and the Medina, Ouaknine-Yekutieli demonstrated the continuing presence not only of the craftsmanship, but of emigrants’ and their descendants’ connection with their former city.

NORA LAFI (Berlin) analysed the Medina of Tunis. When France occupied the former Ottoman region of Tunisia in 1881, it reinterpreted the very meaning of coexistence and neighbour relations. The paper discussed how local society interacted with colonial rule and how local identities were shaped by colonial policies. The Medina was often called “Ville Arabe” as opposed to the European City and its neighbourhood became a place of marginality. Registration of the houses and the requirement to document building ownership led to conflicts about housing, expropriation and infrastructure. These tensions continued after Tunisian independence. Reconfiguration of the city often meant the destruction of its identity, but local resistance created a new form of identity rooted in neighbourhood solidarity. Petitions give testimony of this solidarity and present a mirror of living together and of conflict in the colonial – and post-colonial – city.

The closing discussion focused on the precise meaning and analytical potential of the terms neighbour, neighbourhood, and urban proximity. Various participants argued that, while seemingly vague, such terms can add nuance to our understanding of colonial societies and to transcend simplified categories which are often derived from macro-level analysis of colonial settings. Here, a look at the micro level, the neighbourhood, can sharpen the historian’s view for the far more complex realities of colonial urbanity. In this sense, the study of neighbourhoods can enrich the field of colonial urban history. However, it remains to be seen whether colonial neighbourhoods can be more than an addendum to colonial urban history and an eye-sharpening analytical tool. For a more systematic treatment and further academic discussion, the scope of neighbourhood as an analytical category needs to be delineated both spatially and with regard to types of social organisation. The challenge of an overarching definition of the term also concerns its analytical potential, as it was used during the conference in the analysis of a variety of cases that differed not only in area and population size but also in social cohesion.

Conference overview:

Avner Ofrath (University of Bremen): Urban Violence and Coexistence at the Twilight of Empire [Opening Remarks]

Panel 1: Governing Urban Spaces

Jennifer Hart (Wayne State University): Ideal Housing: The Politics of Building and Living in 20th Century Accra

Javed Iqbal Wani (Ambedkar University Delhi): Regulating ‘Hooligans’ and ‘Mawaalis’ in the City: Communalism, Collective Action and the Politics of Public Order in Late Colonial India

Geert Castryck (Leipzig University): From “Ethnic” to Spatial: Overcoming Inter-Community Conflict through the Reorganization of Neighbourhood Administration in Colonial Ujiji (1930s–1940s)

Panel 2: Places of Encounter

Yasmina El Chami (Anglia Ruskin University): ‘Collective’ Colonialism: Missionary Competition as Sectarian Project in Nineteenth-Century Beirut

Michael Yeo (Nanyang Technological University): Colonial Towns in the Periphery: The Social Worlds of Sandakan and Jesselton, c. 1900s–1930s

Robert Pascoe and Chris McConville (Victoria University): Bazaar Lives: Communities, Commodities and Urban Reform in Calcutta

Panel 3: Conflict, Protest, and Control

Mikko Toivanen (University of Warsaw): Staging a Colonial Capital: Managing Ethnic Diversity through Urban Culture and Public Spectacle in Singapore and Batavia, 1860–1900

Sugata Nandi (West Bengal State University): From Unity to Conflict: Nationalism and Communalism in Neighbourhoods of Colonial Calcutta, 1919–1926

Norman Aselmeyer (University of Bremen): Mau Mau in Nairobi: Urban Networks of Unrest

Michael Goebel (Free University Berlin): Did Colonialism Segregate Cities?

Panel 4: Cities and Citizens

Madhu (University of Delhi): Empowered or Exploited: Migrant Women and Mechanisms of Control in Colonial Cities

Halimat Titilola Somotan (Carnegie Mellon University): Property Disputes and Everyday Histories in Epetedo, Colonial Lagos, 1927–1946

Larissa Kopytoff (University of South Florida): Of Boundaries and Banlieues: Citizens, Subjects, and Neighbours in Senegal’s Four Communes

Panel 5: Old Neighbourhoods, New Neighbourhoods

Elia Etkin (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev): Neighbours Living Together and Apart: Intercommunal Dynamics in a Jewish Neighbourhood in Mandatory Palestine

Tim Livsey (Northumbria University): Nigerians and the Ikoyi ‘European Reservation’ in the 1920s and 1930s

Monia Bousnina (Université Sétif I): Coexistence in the Colonial City of Algeria: The Case of the Harat in Sétif

Panel 6: Lost in Transition?

Rila Mukherjee (University of Hyderabad): Re-Orienting the Bengal Delta (ca. 1690–1990)

Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev): Rage Against the Machine in the Mellah of Fes

Nora Lafi (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin): Traumatic Transitions and Forms of Popular Resilience in a Neighbourhood of Tunis from Colonisation to the Aftermaths of WWII

[1] For example: Carl H. Nightingale, Segregation. A Global History of Divided Cities, Chicago 2012.
[2] For example: Su-Lin Lewis, Cities in Motion. Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920-1940, Cambridge 2018; Sibel Zandi-Sayek, Ottoman Izmir. The Rise of a Cosmopolitan Port, 1840-1880, Minneapolis, 2012.
[3] This paper has already been published: Javed Iqbal Wani, Regulating Hooligans and Mawaalis. Collective Action and the Politics of Public Order in Late Colonial India, in: South Asia Journal of South Asian Studies 45/1 (2022), pp. 19-35.
[4] Mikko Toivanen: Putting Imperial Time on Show: Visual Culture in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Anniversaries of Singapore and Batavia, in: Early Popular Visual Culture 20/2-3 (2022), pp. 206-234.
[5] Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis. Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism, Cambridge 2015.
[6] The paper will be published soon: Elia Etkin / Paula Kabalo: A Lesson in Urban Renewal. The Role of Residents in Designing Clearance and Construction Policy in an Israeli Neighbourhood, in: Urban History (2022).

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