Recent historical scholarship has emphasized the importance of placing empires in context instead of treating them in isolation. To understand how empires operated, it helps to adopt a transimperial perspective that captures interactions between empires as well as the movement of people, goods, and ideas across imperial boundaries. This approach has yet to be applied to one characteristic feature of modern empires, however: namely, the use of violence. This omission inspired a recent two-day workshop jointly organised by the University of Cologne and the Käte Hamburger Kolleg global dis:connect at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Building on the themes of the research centre in Munich where the event took place, participants were encouraged to adopt a critical view of transimperial connections, with an emphasis on absences, misunderstandings, distortions, and appropriations. By broadening the analytical frame to encompass these complex entanglements, the objective was to develop a more complete understanding of colonial violence as a transimperial phenomenon.
In their opening remarks, workshop organisers ULRIKE LINDNER (Cologne), TOM MENGER (Munich), and DOMINIQUE BIEHL (Basel) — fellow organiser MARKUS WURZER (Halle) was unable to attend — situated the conference within this recent historiographical turn towards transimperial histories. The organisers pointed out that although historians of science, for example, have highlighted the influence of experts who moved between empires, historians of colonial violence have so far neglected to consider how encounter and exchange may equally have informed the use of violence in colonial settings, albeit in distinctive ways. The fact that theories of white supremacy were shared across national borders, they argued, gives us reason to think that racialized forms of violence may have been a transimperial phenomenon, too. Uncovering this connected history enables us to challenge entrenched narratives of national exceptionalism; it also raises the question of why these transimperial exchanges have since been remembered or forgotten.
In his keynote lecture, BERNHARD SCHÄR (Lausanne) expanded on these opening remarks by interrogating the usefulness of transimperial history as an analytical framework. Using the example of Switzerland, Schär argued that a transimperial approach can illuminate the involvement of European countries not usually identified as colonial powers. In the Swiss case, the activities of mercenaries serving in the Dutch East Indies provides a compelling counterpoint to exceptionalist narratives wherein Switzerland is associated with stability, neutrality, and peace. Whereas the organisers identified transimperial ideas of race as an important factor shaping acts of colonial violence, Schär also suggested gender as a further point of connection informing attitudes to colonial warfare, one that historians of violence should consider with care.
The first panel of the day used the African theatre of World War One as a case study of transimperial connection and exchange. OLISA MUOJAMA (Ibadan) described how imperial rivals France and Britain collaborated to invade and occupy the German colonies of Togo and Cameroon in West Africa, sharing knowledge and practices in the process. MICHELLE MOYD (East Lansing, MI) used the examples of the Battle of Karonga (Nyasaland) and the occupations of Tabora – a town that changed hands several times between 1914 and 1920 – to demonstrate how a transimperial approach better reflects African perspectives. For Moyd, a transimperial approach makes sense in a context where the advent of invading armies was experienced as an exacerbation of violence perpetrated under colonial regimes, and where populations were subject to violence from a succession of colonial powers. Finally, DANIEL STEINBACH (Copenhagen) identified the distinctive features of the conflict as it unfolded in East Africa, focusing on the different ways in which combat was conceptualized by European soldiers, the violence committed by European soldiers against the Indian and African military personnel who served alongside them, and the ways in which this violence was erased in popular memory of the conflict as a ‘gentleman’s war’. Overall, the panel highlighted how the agents of rival European empires were united by a common sense of white supremacy that was expressed through violence.
The second panel elaborated on themes in Steinbach’s paper by focusing on how violence was conceptualized and described from a transimperial perspective. Analysing the written testimonies of three European medical practitioners recruited by the Dutch Colonial Army to serve in the Aceh War (1873-1904), MONIQUE LIGTENBERG (Zurich) demonstrated how the Dutch empire provided opportunities for Swiss, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian subjects who, despite not being Dutch themselves, shared a common white male identity that they perceived to be under threat in tropical environments. KATE STEVENS (Waikato) argued that satirical depictions of joint Anglo-French colonial governance over Vanuatu, particularly in the form of musical comedy, have caused both contemporaries and modern historians to focus on the inefficiencies of the New Hebrides Condominium at the expense of the brutal violence enacted by its punitive naval expeditions. Lastly, HAOCHEN KU (Frankfurt am Main), focusing on Chinese attacks on Catholic missions, examined the different ways in which the Catholic Church and Chinese authorities understood and narrated these incidents. Whereas Chinese officials viewed these attacks as a problem of governance, missionaries interpreted them as part of a longer tradition of martyrdom.
The final panel of the day examined practices and policies relating to colonial violence. MICHELLE GORDON (Uppsala) analysed the use of extreme violence by British and German troops in the suppression of the Boxer Uprising in China (1900-1901). Gordon argued that British and German troops shared similar ideas about the kinds of violence appropriate to non-European settings, and that these ideas formed part of a repertoire of accepted practices for repressing episodes of anti-colonial resistance. Next, TOBIAS WAGEMANN (Paris) investigated the role of Melanesian policemen in maintaining social order at a time when newly established British and German colonies were taking shape in New Guinea between 1884 and 1918. Using a comparative lens, Wagemann argued, enables us to better understand how common practices of colonial policing emerged on the ground. Finally, NISHANT GOKHALE (Cambridge) traced the changing ways in which violence was used against the indigenous Bhil communities of western India in the transition between Maratha and British East India Company rule. Alongside these changes, Gokhale also emphasized continuities in how Bhils themselves strategically served or resisted these hostile regimes.
The second day of the workshop began with a panel highlighting transimperial mobilities, a theme which would emerge again and again throughout the day. JANNE LAHTI (Helsinki) mapped the imperial careers of officers John Y. F. Blake and Frederick Russell Burnham, using their lives to showcase the connected histories of violence in German Southwest Africa, British South Africa and Rhodesia, and the US-Mexico borderlands. Next, JANNIS GIRGSDIES (Berlin) described the motives and experiences of the diverse assemblage of European men who served in the Spanish foreign legion between 1920 and 1936. Finally, DOMINIC ALESSIO (London) highlighted the role of filibusters: private, non-state actors who initiate unauthorised military campaigns. The activities of these filibusters, Alessio argued, formed a common pattern within late nineteenth century empires. In short, the panel demonstrated how transimperial patterns could be identified and analysed by following individual trajectories.
After a brief coffee break, Kim Wagner (London) presented a keynote lecture based on research from his forthcoming book on the Bud Dajo massacre perpetrated by American soldiers in the Philippines in 1906. Using this example of extreme violence, Wagner traced how older traditions of imperial violence were applied by American soldiers in the Philippines. For example, officers drew on prior experiences in American frontier wars, while also invoking British colonial activities. Thus, Wagner argued, the Bud Dajo massacre should be understood as part of a distinctive tradition of ‘savage warfare’ perpetrated by American and Europeans forces in settler colonies and imperial settings.
The fifth panel was designed to highlight how military strategies circulated across imperial boundaries. JOHN HENNESSEY (Lund) identified expositions as an important site for the exchange of military technology, focusing on the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 hosted in London. Exhibits by weapons manufacturers such as Vickers, Sons & Maxim not only facilitated arms deals but also helped normalize colonial violence, enabling the Japanese to legitimate their own expansionary activities by making comparisons with European tactics. JOHANNES NAGEL (Gieβen) used American military journals to understand how U.S. military personnel differentiated between European and colonial warfare. In these journals, Nagel observes, there was a definite bias towards European wars and a corresponding disinterest in colonial wars, which were not seen as providing a useful model for military strategy until the Spanish-American War of 1898. Finally, VALENTINA KEZIĆ (Zagreb) considered the imperial career of the Croatian Carl Lehrman and his service in the Belgian Congo, building further on the theme of transimperial mobilities.
Transimperial mobilities was also the organizing theme of the sixth and final panel. TRISTAN OESTERMANN (Berlin) focused on the movement of West African soldiers from Liberia, Nigeria, and elsewhere who ended up in the Schutztruppe of the German colony of Cameroon after having accrued experience of colonial violence in the service of other empires. OLATUNDE TAIWO (Ago-Iwoye) analysed the negotiations surrounding the deportation of French Africans to British Nigeria. Lastly, IVAN SICCA GONÇALVES (Campinas) considered the role of Luso-African merchants in the warfare unfolding in Barotseland in the nineteenth century, describing the activities of traders who not only supplied strategic commodities (such as firearms) but also made political alliances and participated in joint military campaigns.
After a very full two days of discussion and debate, the organisers ended the workshop by summarizing the usefulness of the transimperial approach. Reviewing the research presented over the preceding two days, a few common threads were identified. First, a transimperial lens enables historians to identify and explicate patterns of racism across empires. Moreover, using a transimperial lens helps us to identify the influence of nonstate actors moving across borders. Finally, a transimperial approach can act as a useful corrective to nationalist narratives, with many participants observing that histories tended to be remembered in national terms.
Yet, the organisers also identified important topics missing from the discussion. They warned of the need to avoid replicating Eurocentric narratives by interpreting transimperial to mean exchanges between European empires. Relatedly, they noted that anti-colonial actors also operate transimperially, and posed the question of how these exchanges might differ from the state-centered histories covered during this workshop. Returning to the theme of disconnection, participants were encouraged to think about the connections that don’t take shape, and why. Equally, the organisers observed that transimperial interactions can be diachronic as well as synchronic, noting that the ideas and practices of imperial actors are often informed by the empires that preceded them.
Overall, the conference provided a welcome opportunity for an international group of scholars to discuss topics of shared interest. Yet, a few questions remain. Many of the papers focused on transimperial contact zones and moments of interaction. In so doing, however, many papers simply recounted how European actors became violent collaborators employing similarly brutal tactics, without tracing the longer legacies of these encounters. What lessons were learned from these interactions, and how, if at all, did ideas and practices borrowed from or developed in collaboration with other powers subsequently become institutionalized? What is the explanatory power of a transimperial perspective, and can it help us to understand why ideas and practices of colonial violence developed in the way that they did? In sum, this workshop started an important conversation that will hopefully be pursued in future meetings and publications.
Bernhard Schär (Lausanne): Transimperial History: What it Did for Me and What it Might Do for Us
Panel I: Transimperiality in World War I Africa
Olisa Muojama (Ibadan): Franco-British Invasion and Occupation of German Colonies in West Africa during the First World War
Michelle Moyd (East Lansing, MI): Unlearning the Campaign Map: Transimperial Insights from World War I’s East African Battlefields
Daniel Steinbach (Copenhagen): Colonial Violence and the ‘Gentleman’s War’: Lines of Conflict in Wartime Africa, 1914-1918
Panel II: Representations
Monique Ligtenberg (Zurich): (Re-)negotiating Identities in the Kampoeng: Masculinities, Medical Mercenaries, and the Aceh War (c. 1873-1900)
Kate Stevens (Waikato): Violent Laughter: Commemorating Anglo-French Co-operation and Forgetting Violence in Colonial Vanuatu
Haochen Ku (Frankfurt am Main): Normalizing Violence: The Transimperial Epistemic Structures of Catholic Missionary Cases in Late Qing China (1860-1911)
Panel III: Practices and Policies
Michelle Gordon (Uppsala): British and German Practices of ‘Exceptional’ Colonial Violence in the Suppression of the Boxer Uprising 1900-1901
Tobias Wagemann (Paris): Colonial Policing in the Pacific Ocean: A Comparative Study of German and British New Guinea (1884-1918)
Nishant Gokhale (Cambridge): Bhils as Targets and Perpetrators of Violence in the Nineteenth-Century Maratha and British Empires
Panel IV: Transimperial Mobilities I
Janne Lahti (Helsinki): Settler Colonial Mobilities: US Southwest Borderlands and Southern Africa as Transimperial Spaces of Violence
Jannis Girgsdies (Berlin): Migration, Imagination, and Colonial Violence: A Global Microhistory of Spain’s Foreign Legionnaires, 1920-1936
Dominic Alessio (London): The Role of Non-State Filibusters in the Imperial Story
Keynote Lecture II
Kim Wagner (London): ‘A Merciless War Against Fantics’: The Bud Dajo Massacre and the Age of Savage Warfare
Panel V: Knowledge, Transfer and Euro-American Agents
John Hennessey (Lund): Carnival Rides and Maxim Guns: Expositions as Sites of Transimperial Military Exchange
Johannes Nagel (Gieβen): American Military Observations of European Colonial Warfare in Afroeurasia, 1865-1905
Valentina Kezić (Zagreb): ‘Pursuing Civilising Duties’: Carl Lehrman’s Reflections on Maintaining Authority and Discipline in the Belgian Congo (1888-1896)
Panel VI: Transimperial Mobilities II
Tristan Oestermann (Berlin): West Africa’s Mobile Soldiers: Mobility and Violence in the Early Cameroonian Schutztruppe
Olatunde Taiwo (Ago-Iwoye): Franco-British Deportation Entanglements in West Africa, 1895-1960
Ivan Sicca Gonçalves (Campinas): The Role of ‘Portuguese’ Merchants in Barotseland’s Warfare (1853-1866)