Monthly Archives: January 2014

Research in Focus: Katy Roscoe on the Australian Penal Colonies of Rottnest and Cockatoo Islands

One of the aims of the Network is to provide early career researchers with an opportunity to profile their research and thereby bring it to the attention of a much wider audience. In the first of our series ‘Research in Focus’, Katy Roscoe, a PhD Student from the University of Leicester, talks about her research on the Australian penal colonies of Rottnest and Cockatoo Islands. To profile your research here on the blog please contact one of the convenors.   

I am a first year PhD student at the University of Leicester, where I am working as part of the European Research Council (ERC)-funded project Carceral Archipelago, which is led by Prof. Clare Anderson. My research looks at the construction and experience of space on the Australian penal colonies Rottnest and Cockatoo Islands from 1839 to 1918. During this time both islands went through several transmutations, whilst remaining sites of confinement: from prisons, to juvenile reformatories, to prisoner of war camps.

wiki cockatoo panorama

The formal penal establishment of Cockatoo Island.

I take a broad view of space, understanding it to be physically and socially constructed within a range of possibilities that are geographically determined. I see space operating on many levels of different scopes. Firstly, the exterior level: the location of the islands between maritime and mainland geographies. Secondly, the interior level: the division of space within the island, which includes the natural environment, prison architecture, and the segregation of convict and non-convict buildings. And finally on an individual level: how prisoners found and created their own spaces away from authority, from recreating old social networks in communal barracks to escape attempts. By doing so I hope to centre the prisoner experience, rather than abstracting space to a background constant.


The aim of the Carceral Archipelago is to analyse the relationship between convict transportation, penal colonies and labour, migration, coercion and confinement.

The movement of convicts to penal colonies in Australia was just one aspect in a global network of convict transportation. In fact, people were transported to far more locales and for far longer, with the principal aim of exploiting their labour for national and imperial expansion, than has been acknowledged by historians. Therefore, the aim of the wider Carceral Archipelago project is to theorise all the multifarious convict flows across the world between 1415 and 1960. By doing so the project challenges several widely held assumptions – namely that the transition from ‘unfree’ to ‘free’ labour underpinned the movement to modernity, that Europeans were largely ‘free’ migrants and non-Europeans were largely unfree, and that transportation was a movement from metropole to empire. Rather penal transportation was characterised by circulations of people, both convicts and administrators, and ideas, such as different types of discipline and labour practices.


The Carceral Archipelago is an ERC-funded project led by Professor Clare Anderson.

The transformation of spaces from one type of confinement to another and the overlap of disciplinary practices from other forms of labour migration, such as enslavement and indenture, are visible only by locating convict transportation in the context of a global network. The work for the Carceral Archipelago is being undertaken by an international team of researchers working on an ever-increasing number of case-studies, including Australia, Russia, Latin America, Zanzibar, Japan and the Caribbean. As well as mapping and enumerating convict flows in the period, the meaning of race, the creation of gendered space, the management of work and the operation of convict agency will form the comparative indicators around which these various case studies will coalesce. This should enable the project to bring the history of labour migration into dialogue with the history of confinement. The Carceral Archipelago International Conference will take place the University of Leicester in Autumn 2015, followed by a transportation volume writing workshop in the Spring of 2016 (dates tbc). 

My work examines at the micro-level the wider contentions of the project as a whole. Firstly, that economics drove forward confinement whilst simultaneously offering a form of mobility, complicating the free/unfree labour binary. Secondly, that penal islands were paradoxically spaces of displacement and spaces of incorporation into wider commercial, legal and political networks. Thirdly, that sexual and racial anxieties defined the organisation of space on penal colonies – though in practice these boundaries were continually crossed. And finally, how issues of memory and legacy play out in the (re)allocation of space on these islands as modern-day tourist sites.

In addition to my PhD research, I am also on the committee of a University of Leicester postgraduate society, New History Lab, and I am part of the organising committee for the Inaugural Conference for the Imperial and Global History Network. If you’d like to hear more about my work you can email me, follow me on twitter or view my academic profile.

Imperial and Global History: A Marriage of Convenience? Part Four

In the fourth and final blog on the subject Dr Andrew Griffiths discusses disciplinary boundaries and the study of popular culture in imperial and global history:

As a scholar of literature discussing Imperial and Global history, I feel rather like an interloper. Consequently, I find that I have much to say about boundaries and about the transgression of boundaries. My presence here, I hope, is justified by the work of some of the academics who have helped to shape imperial and global history. In his survey of the field, Gareth Curless spoke of those leading figures in ‘New Imperial History’ – Catherine Hall, Stuart Ward, Andrew Thompson and, perhaps most significant of all, John M. MacKenzie.  Their work emphasises the interconnectedness of the domestic and the imperial. Of course, one key element of the domestic is popular culture.

Since the theoretical revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, literature departments have been increasingly engaged in the study of popular culture.  Indeed, scholarly engagement with popular and ephemeral cultural forms has accelerated at an extraordinary rate in recent decades and the expansion of interest in popular culture matches closely the increased interest in imperial and global history.  It is striking that John MacKenzie’s seminal books Propaganda and Empire and Imperialism and Popular Culture were published so shortly after Joanne Shattock and Michael Wolff’s equally influential 1982 collection, The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings.  Today no undergraduate course in Victorian literature or culture would be complete without a week or two focusing on periodicals, newspapers, and exhibitions. The Centre for Victorian Studies at Exeter University is a significant and growing centre for research into popular culture. The increased focus on popular culture has demonstrated the extent to which imperial ideology penetrated British culture. The extent and depth of this penetration has demanded engagement with imperial – and consequently global – history.

Literature as a discipline makes a significant contribution to the study of culture on a global scale, too.  The Global Circulations Project, led by Regenia Gagnier of the English department at Exeter, aims to examine – and I quote from the project’s website:

how key Anglophone works, authors, genres, and literary movements have been translated, received, imitated/mimicked, adapted, or syncretised outside Britain, Europe, and North America, and, conversely, how key works from outside these areas have been translated, received, imitated/mimicked, adapted, or syncretised within Anglophone literary traditions. It asks, what forms of intertextuality, reception, etc. are generated through cultural contact?

The Global Circulations Project is commendable for its breadth of focus and for the implicit emphasis it places upon the permeability of the boundaries of empires, of former empires and regions.  Instead of firm boundaries these are understood as sites of transmission and transformation. The imperial and the global are not easily separable.

The nature of imperial boundaries, of the frontier, has, of course, been explored by scholars of literature, culture and history before.  Paul Gilroy, among others, has explored the cultural importance of the sea as a liminal location, as a place of transition, exchange and circulation.  In her work on travel writing, Mary Louise Pratt uses the phrase “contact zone” to refer to “the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and intractable conflict.” “Contact zone” is a satisfyingly adaptable term.  One might reasonably identify contact zones within empires, or within nations, or within regions. The term might be of equal value to global history and to imperial history.

The absence of a clear demarcation between the interior and the exterior of an empire that this implies does not mean that our field of study is in an advanced state of entropy.  All that is solid does not melt into air.  It is, however, incumbent upon us to continually question and challenge the divisions and boundaries which we are compelled to erect in order to conduct our work.

Emboldened by this weakening of the defences with which we protect the fragile boundaries of our disciplines, I am going to discuss a case study selected from my doctoral research: the career of the novelist Henry Rider Haggard. We know him best for his novels King Solomon’s Mines and She, published in 1885 and 1887, respectively. However, they represent only a fraction of Haggard’s literary work. A bibliography compiled by the biographer Morton Cohen indicates that he wrote over thirty other novels and eight non-fiction books, some of them multi-volume works. Among these are a political history, several volumes on agriculture and horticulture, and a book describing the work of the Salvation Army.

Haggard was not only a chronicler of British imperialism but also an active participant in it.  He remained immensely proud of the fact that he had raised the Union flag over Pretoria in 1877 to mark the annexation of the Transvaal.  He was considerably less pleased by the fact that the negotiations which resulted in the retrocession of the Transvaal in 1881 were conducted in his farmhouse: this really does mark a convergence of imperialism, culture and domesticity. He spent some time as Master and Registrar of the High Court of the Transvaal (by virtue of which post Haggard became, at the age of twenty-one, the legal guardian of all orphans in the Transvaal). He volunteered for service as Adjutant of the Pretoria Horse during the Zulu War and attempted to earn a living farming ostriches.  This is an impressively varied colonial career and serves to underline the extent and range of Haggard’s personal investment in the British imperial project.  We might well reflect on the fact that Haggard constructed a career unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries.

It should come as no surprise at all that Haggard published both fictional and non-fictional works. This is entirely characteristic of a nineteenth-century author. The distinctions between journalist, historian and novelist which form a part of our mental landscape would have been quite alien to the nineteenth-century reading public. Even within a single work those distinctions might be blurred. As Matthew Rubery has observed, “the division between journalists and novelists would have made little sense to those Victorian authors whose prose bore some relationship to the press in terms of style, subject or source.” One consequence of this in Haggard’s case is that the ideas of an author deeply committed to empire penetrate fields superficially removed from those in which we usually seek the imperial.

This is significant. As I have already suggested, it is no accident that the study of print media has burgeoned in approximately the same period in which we may note a resurgence of interest in imperial history. It was, of course, quite easy for postcolonial critics to dismiss the odd canonical author with an investment in matters imperial as ideologically unsound, as the product of the patrician ruling class or of that professional class dependent on jobs in the administration of empire – in other words, as an aberration. Rudyard Kipling’s works could be dropped from reading lists. In 1977, Chinua Achebe could call Joseph Conrad a ‘thoroughgoing racist’ without causing any very grave consequences for the study of literature or of history. However, when imperialist ideology is also exposed in the penny newspapers read by ordinary working people and in the intellectual debates in the monthly and quarterly reviews, more profound questions about the generation, communication and perpetuation of ideologies are raised. This explains the urgency and longevity of those scholarly debates surrounding imperialism and popular culture in which John MacKenzie, Bernard Porter and John Darwin have been so prominent and which have been such a feature of the rise of imperial history.

Let us return to Haggard. Once established as a public figure by the success of his literary works, Haggard’s focus widened. He went global, engaging with the world beyond the British Empire. Travels in Iceland and Mexico informed new fictions. A journey to America was arranged at the behest of the Colonial Secretary and Haggard was briefed to inspect Salvation Army Labour Colonies there to determine whether the system might be viable in Britain and the Empire. That working visit to the United States resulted in a warm friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt and a long-running correspondence between the two men. An agricultural tour of Denmark generated a volume entitled Rural Denmark and Its Lessons.  As that title suggests, the latter journey was undertaken with a view to learning lessons applicable to the agriculture of Britain and the empire. For Rider Haggard, engagement with the imperial project did not preclude engagement with regions of the globe beyond the bounds of empire. On the contrary, it frequently demanded such engagement. If a man so intimately connected with British imperialism as Henry Rider Haggard could not avoid this, then neither can we.

There is one more way in which Haggard has a global reach. Between 1932 and 1955, ninety-eight translations of Haggard’s works were produced. In 1960, his novel She was available in various translations into languages including Catalan, Esperanto, Hindi, Tamil, and Urdu. Other works appeared in Chinese, Japanese and Afrikaans. The popular culture of British imperialism circulates globally.  There is no prospect of understanding its impact without taking an interdisciplinary approach which embraces the perspectives of global and imperial history.

So what are the wider implications of all this? What can we conclude about the marriage of global and imperial history? Imperial history is a history of connections and of failures to connect; of conflicts and of collaborations; of repression and of resistance. In this sense it is necessarily also global history. As John Darwin has suggested, all study of history – from the local to the global – is engaged with the processes of domination, repression, resistance and competition that we associate with imperialism.

The marriage of global and imperial history is not one of convenience but of necessity. There are just two problems with the marriage of “imperial and global history”. One is the juxtaposition that the phrase implies: marrying the global and the imperial implies an initial separation between the two which is not sustainable. The second problem is the word ‘history’. It is problematic in both disciplinary and chronological senses. Global and imperial ‘history’ is as much about culture as about history in the disciplinary sense and it is as much about the present as about the past. To fail to recognise this is to risk making our work irrelevant.

Our thanks to the convenors of Ex Historia’s seminar series for allowing us to reproduce the papers from the Imperial and Global History Colloquium on the blog over the course of this week.

PhD Funding Opportunities in Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter

Cross-Posted from the Imperial and Global History Forum.

Dr Stacey Hynd, the co-convenor of the Network, on the PhD funding opportunities available at the University of Exeter:

If you are seeking PhD funding in the fields of World/Global/Colonial/Imperial History, please may I draw your attention to the following funding opportunities at the University of Exeter.

  • AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership South West and Wales Consortium (SWWC) [up to 50 awards available, deadline 21 February, with an Open Day on 22 January]
  • ESRC South West Doctoral Training Centre +3 and 1+3 Studentships [25 Awards, deadline 13 February]
  • ESRC South West Doctoral Training Centre +3 and 1+3 Studentships in Security, Conflict and Justice [2 awards, deadline 13 February]
  • College of Humanities Graduate School Doctoral Awards [12 awards available, deadline 2 February].

For more details see

Details on how to apply for AHRC doctoral funding with the SWWC can be found here: – please note however that a number of staff are missing from the lists on these pages, so if you cannot see someone in your field, contact Stacey Hynd ( ) to check! Although the advanced registration deadline has now passed, candidates are still encouraged to register for the Open Day on 22 January, and can still apply after this date.

History at the University of Exeter has two research centres in the broad field of world history: the Centre of Imperial and Global History (led by Professor Andrew Thompson), and the Centre for War, State and Society (led by Professor Martin Thomas). Both offer internationally recognised supervision with geographical coverage from 28 staff across African, Asian (including Chinese), Middle Eastern, American, Imperial, and European history from early-modern to contemporary eras. Both Centres have a strong inter-disciplinary links across the humanities and social sciences. The Centres have particular research interests in:

  •    Globalisation’s past and present
  •    Comparative empires and transnationalism
  •    Humanitarianism, development and human rights
  •    Law and colonialism
  •    Political economy and the imperial state
  •    Europe, decolonisation and the legacies of empire
  •    The impact of armed conflict on society
  •    Colonial warfare and counterinsurgency
  •    Maritime history

More information about the research centres, and our current students, can be found on the following pages:

Imperial and Global History: A Marriage of Convenience? Part Three

In the third part of our series on the relationship between Imperial and Global History Simon Mackley investigates the impact of the ‘Global Turn’ on British Imperial History:

Is Imperial and Global history a marriage of convenience? As a name for a field of study it certainly implies a marriage of some sort. Indeed, comparing my own research topic – the history of Imperial Britain – with the research that Gareth Curless and Emily Bridger have been undertaking, it would certainly seem that the contributions to this blog could be viewed as a marriage between two separate and distinct fields.

To give a bit of background, my doctoral research explores the role of Empire as an issue within late-Victorian and Edwardian Liberal politics in Britain, focusing on the rhetoric deployed during moments of imperial significance. My research is thus almost entirely concentrated on the metropolitan experience of Empire, with developments on the periphery explored only in so much as they were reflected by the political climate in Britain. It is this apparent disconnect from the ‘Global’ in my own work that led me to develop the primary question for the Ex Historia seminar on which these blog contributions are based. The purpose of the question is to examine whether there is indeed something artificial or convenient about the development of the field.

If one were to adopt a cynical gaze over the issue, reasons could certainly be found for doubting the faithfulness of Imperial history’s marriage to the Global Turn. As a discipline, we now find ourselves operating in financially straitened times in which research, if it is to be funded, must be coordinated with the wider research aims of academic institutions and research councils. Indeed, here at Exeter historical research is now being driven by the Humanities and Social Sciences Strategy, which champions ‘Global Uncertainties’ as one of its major themes. Could it be that traditional Imperial history, and perhaps Political history more generally, has attached itself to Global history simply to shelter itself from the changing state of the academy?

I for one am inclined to reject this view. While nobody would deny the influence of practical considerations in the shaping of any field, it is clear that Imperial history gains a great deal more from collaborating with Global history than access to a funding pot. In my view one of the key successes of the Global Turn, both in its globalisation and area studies varieties, has been its impact in reducing the historical focus on the ‘national’. Imperial history in Britain has much to gain from the study of imperialism as a common phenomenon spanning across borders and national groupings. Indeed, an examination of the work being undertaken at the Exeter Centre for Imperial and Global History is highly illustrative of how the methods of the Global Turn can be adopted in this way. Even in stubbornly un-Global research topics such as my own, this reshaping of the wider field environment opens up new points of comparison and allows for a far more meaningful, departicularised understanding of the still-nebulous phenomenon of imperialism.

And yet, as a historian of Britain, as well as a historian of Empire, I feel obliged to sound a note of caution. Since its rehabilitation as a respectable field of study, much of the energies of British Imperial history have been devoted to reintegrating the Empire into mainstream British history – on ‘putting the Empire back in’. Manchester University Press’ extensive and long-running ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series stands as perhaps the most visible embodiment of this effort. Yet the question is raised however: can this process of reintegration, which I would consider vital to the UK’s ability to comprehend its imperial legacy, exist alongside the Global Turn? Or will the Global Turn ‘take the Empire out again’? While I do not think it is necessarily a case of either/or, I think there is indeed a real risk of disengagement, and that British Imperial history must necessarily retain at least some of its national focus if it is to retain a foothold in the wider historical understanding of Britain’s past.

To conclude, Imperial and Global history is in my view certainly not a marriage of convenience: the two fields have much to offer each other. Yet given the changes Imperial history has itself undergone over the last half-century, and the still-unfinished task of reintegrating the Empire into British history, I think there are questions to be considered as to whether this will be a marriage that lasts – or whether in twenty or thirty years from now the pairing of Imperial and Global history will seem decidedly outdated.

Our thanks go to organisers of Ex Historia’s seminar series for allowing us to reproduce the papers here on the blog.

Imperial and Global History A Marriage of Convenience? Part Two

In the second part of our series on the relationship between Imperial and Global History, Emily Bridger, discusses why the two fields have converged in recent years and the potential threat this poses to the recovery of ‘subaltern’ voices: 

Imperial history and Global history have long existed in an inverse and oppositional relationship with one another.  As Imperial History declined in popularity in the 1970s and 80s, global history rose to academic prominence. The timing of this shift was no mere coincidence. Imperial history arose in the late nineteenth century as an ideological accessory to empire, that served to both document the successes of the British abroad, and also justify the acquisition and continued dominance over its colonies. Yet, with the rapid decolonization of Africa in the 1960s, imperial history was robbed of its practical implications. Over the following decades the field fell increasingly out of vogue, as it was tied to a worldview that was no longer deemed acceptable by a large number of academics.

And thus began the rise of Global history.  In rejection of all that Imperial history stood for, a new wave of historians began to study the lives of those that lived in the shadow of Europe and ‘the West’. Their work took on a strong ethical and political aspect, as the challenges it posed to Eurocentric visions of history were seen as a “form of intellectual independence that mirrored newfound political independence” of many African countries.[i]


 In March 1961 Tanzanians celebrate the news that independence will be achieved within the year. In the 1970s the priority for historians was to restore agency to colonial peoples, particularly through the study of the pre-colonial past and the triumph of anti-colonial nationalism.

This new field of Global history was given a further boost by the increasing interest in ‘globalization’ from the early 1990s onwards. Globalization provided historians with new opportunities and research agendas, as scholars sought to uncover the various themes and forces that had brought communities across the globe into contact and conflict. While acknowledging that empire had been a powerful sponsor of international contact, global historians illuminated how imperialism was not the sole source of cultural exchange. They demonstrated how ideas, capital and people flowed reciprocally between the metropole and its colonies, and between colonies themselves. The large picture global historians painted was one of a multi-centred or even de-centred globe, in rejection of Imperial history’s vision of a dominant metropole affecting lesser peripheries.[ii]

Yet in recent years, the gap between Imperial and Global history, and the ensuing animosity between the two fields, has narrowed. Imperial history has undergone a reinvention of sorts, in which old understandings of empire and its geographies of power have been questioned and re-evaluated. This ‘New Imperial History’, as it has been coined, is now often hardly distinguishable from Global history. It is increasingly engaged with the reciprocal flow of ideas between the metropole and its colonies; it carefully balances the idea of imperial power with the reality of empire’s fragility and precariousness; and acknowledges that the dichotomy between colonizer and colonized was elusive, difficult to police and at times entirely artificial. Thus, while the lumping together of Imperial and Global history thirty years ago would have been a marriage destined for disaster, their amalgamation today is not simply a marriage of convenience, but a relationship that actually makes academic sense; for both fields’ broad current goal is to uncover the forces and themes that have connected various communities across the globe throughout history. However, this marriage does have a number of potential pitfalls for the future of history.

First, many of the ‘themes’ or ‘forces’ that are seen to connect global communities remain largely Eurocentric. As Steve Feierman argues, other regions of the world continue to be measured by European standards of history. Categories of historical analysis are normally drawn from Europe, and therefore Feierman writes that the historian ‘looks in Africa for a familiar constellation of king, nobles, church and merchants.’[iii] Similarly, Frederick Cooper argues that the histories of former colonies continue to exist in the shadow of Europe because they are compared to a Eurocentric vision of historical progress against which they naturally appear as failures.[iv] Studies closely related to my own research conducted on feminist politics in apartheid South Africa commonly fall into this trap by searching for Western forms of feminism amongst non-Western women. As Nancy Rose Hunt writes, ‘At its most insidious, the literature on collective action is marked by a tendency to use African women’s political protest and rebellion as means of articulating Western feminist strategies.’[v]

My second concern relates to the recent trend among UK universities to hire or fund academics and projects that have a global outlook. My fear in this is that ‘Global and Imperial History’ is increasingly becoming a catchall category for those of us who don’t study European history. History departments seem to be circumventing the need to hire individual historians of Africa, India, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America by simply hiring ‘Global’ or ‘Imperial’ historians. This is problematic for two reasons. First, university history departments and the education they offer will suffer if academics with specific regional expertise are asked to speak for other regions they may know little about. And second, hiring global historians presumes that the global South, or non-European world, has a common history.  History is thus still being divided into ‘the West’ vs. ‘the Rest’ in ways that threaten to homogenize the experiences of the subaltern in search of common and connecting themes.


Jamaican agricultural labourers. The focus on global connections has revived concerns that the voices of subaltern groups, such women and children or slaves and labourers, could be neglected.

My final concern, and the one most closely related to my own research, is that the marriage of global and imperial history serves to obscure local experiences in search of meta-narratives and global commonalities. In particular, the experiences of woman and children, and other subaltern groups not typically seen as the makers of history, are often written out of global narratives. The large-scale perspective of global and imperial history tends to render such people invisible, and their contribution to the spread of ideas, capital and people across the globe is rarely acknowledged. In order to incorporate marginalised populations into current historical narratives, historians need to rely on methodologies pioneered by social and postcolonial historians in the 1970s, such as oral history, linguistics and the borrowing of anthropological and archaeological methods. Such methods are essential to the future of global history, for only by uncovering the experiences of the local and subaltern can we continue to de-centre narratives of Europe from history, and continue to narrow the gap between the imperial and the global. Emphasis must continue to be placed on the agency of indigenous people, women, children, peasants and migrants to affect changes and create cultural connections on a global scale. Global and imperial historians should strive to elevate such subaltern voices above the regional and limited frameworks that conventionally contain them. For only by acknowledging the ways in which those too often forgotten by history both affect and are affected by globalization can history claim to be truly global.

Our thanks again to the conveners at Ex Historia for allowing us to reproduce the seminar papes here on the blog.

[i] Jonathan T. Reynolds, “Africa and World History: From Antipathy to Synergy,” History Compass 5/6 (2007): 2002.

[ii] Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, “Introduction: Bodies, Empires, and World Histories,” in Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, ed. T. Ballantyne and A. Burton (Durham, Duke University Press, 2005), 12.

[iii] Steve Feierman, ‘African Histories and the Dissolution of World History’, in Africa and the Disciplines: The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities, ed. R. H. Bates, V. Y. Mudimbe, and J. O’Barr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 179.

[iv] Frederick Cooper, “Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History,” The American Historical Review 99:5 (1994): 1516.

[v] Hunt, Nancy Rose Hunt, “Placing African Women’s History and Locating Gender.” Social History 14:3 (1989): 363.

Imperial and Global History A Marriage of Convenience? Part One

Recently Ex Historia, the postgraduate journal run by research students at the University of Exeter, organised a colloquium on the subject of ‘Imperial and Global History: A Marriage of Convenience?’ The speakers, Dr Gareth Curless, Emily Bridger, Dr Andrew Griffiths, and Simon Mackley, were invited to give their responses to the question, which will be published here on the blog over the course of this week. 

In the first installment on this topic, Gareth Curless explores the relationship between imperial and global history, examining both benefits and the constraints of such an approach:

Imperial and global history are currently experiencing something of a renaissance. So much so that in a recent review article David Bell remarked that history is in the midst of a ‘global turn’. Even when you factor in the pre-REF recruitment drive, you only have to look at the number of academic jobs advertised in the past 18 months for posts in global or world history to recognise that something is afoot. Here at the University of Exeter, there is the newly established Centre for Imperial and Global History, 12 members of staff connected with the field and a large cohort of postgraduate students. The developments at Exeter are part of a broader trend in U.K. universities, where, in addition to the well-established area studies programmes, there are also research groups and centres devoted to colonial and post-colonial, imperial, global, and world history, such as those in Cambridge, Leeds, Oxford, and Southampton.


The establishment of Exeter’s Imperial and Global History Centre, which publishes a popular blog and hosts this Network, is a testament to the growing interest in imperial and global history among U.K. universities.

The revival of imperial history is remarkable given that in the 1980s historians were predicting its slow demise. At the time area study programmes emphasised the importance of studying African and Asian societies, often within a regional or national framework. The aim in such studies was to restore agency to colonial peoples and in the process debunk the myth of the Western civilising mission. In contrast imperial history, with its focus on administrative and diplomatic elites and the political and strategic interests of the metropolitan powers appeared increasingly irrelevant.[i]

Given then the sense of pessimism that surrounded the field in the 1980s, how can the resurgence in imperial history be explained? It is partly because the history of imperialism, with its transborder flows of people, commodities, ideas, and institutions, has clear parallels with the modern phenomenon of globalisation. By investigating the imperial past, historians can aim to shed light on issues such as the persistence of formal and informal Western influence in the global south, the experience of post-imperial migration and the emergence of disaporic cultures, and global patterns of economic development, trade, and investment.

As the scholarship on the subject makes clear, many of these issues arose, if not in their ‘modern’ form, then at least in a form that we would recognise today during the age of European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The European empires not only helped to create many of the world’s nation states but imperialism, in both its formal and informal manifestations, was also instrumental in forging the political, economic, and cultural links that continue to bind distant parts of the world together.[ii]

The recognition of the way in which the imperial past continues to echo in the globalised present contributed, in part, to the emergence of New Imperial History, with historians such as Stuart Ward, Catherine Hall, and John MacKenzie arguing for greater synergy between Britain’s domestic and imperial histories.[iii] Building on the work of area studies, these imperial historians argued that it was no longer sufficient to simply demonstrate how the West influenced the wider world but to investigate what Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper referred to as ‘colonial circuits’: the process by which ideas, people, commodities, and capital flowed not just between the metropole and colony but within and between empires.[iv]

There is much to praise in this new globalised approach to imperial history. Rather than regard the European empires as homogenous entities, historians have been encouraged to focus on the networks that connected and facilitated exchange between distant parts of the world. One of example of this approach has been the development of the ‘British World’ concept. The term broadly refers to the political, commercial, and cultural experience of British settlers in the colonies, as well as the varied and contingent nature of British identity in the Anglophone world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contributors to the literature on the concept have argued that the notion or idea of a ‘Greater Britain’ among networks of British settlers was critical to the development of commercial, political, and cultural structures and institutions.[v] For example, in their book, Empire and Globalisation, Andrew Thompson and Gary Maghee have documented how a shared sense of cultural identity among British settlers helped to facilitate trade, migration, and investment across the British world. Such approaches have highlighted how even remote of imperial backwaters were often connected to broader global trends and transformative processes.[vi]

However, such an approach to imperial history is not without its limitations. Historians describe in great detail the transcontinental flow of people and goods during the age of imperialism but they often say very little about the lived experience of colonialism. There is also a risk, as Jonathan Saha has argued, that a focus on mobility and networks privileges the connected over the disconnected. The danger then of course is that such an approach will inevitably focus on European elites, such as administrators, traders, and missionaries – the very issue that made imperial history such a target for area studies. One solution to this is to focus on people, such as slaves or indentured labourers, for whom travel across the empire was not a choice but a result of coercion. Here Clare Anderson’s work, which explores the lived experience of convicts, slaves, and indentured labourers in the Indian Ocean region, is a good example of how the concept of a ‘networked empire’ can be used to study imperialism from the ‘bottom up’.

By focusing on the hubs of connection – the trading centres, diplomatic outposts, and the port and railway towns – there is also a risk that imperialism will be reduced to an all-embracing, transformative force. Frederick Cooper, a sceptic of the globalisation concept, has repeatedly warned against such an approach, stating that:

The world has long been – and still is – a space where economic and political relations are very uneven; it is filled with lumps, places where power coalesces surrounded by those where it does not … structures and networks penetrate certain places and do certain things with great intensity but their effects tail off elsewhere.[vii]

Cooper goes further in his criticism of global history and the concept of globalisation in general. Using the example of Africa, he argues that at first glance the scramble for the continent and its subsequent colonisation appears to fit with the narrative of the integration of apparently isolated regions into a singular European or Western dominated world. However, Cooper argues that such a view not only obscures long term historical trends and networks, such as pilgrimages from the Sahara to Mecca or the links that connected merchants in West Africa, Europe, and South America, but it also ignores the fact that process of imperial conquest and colonisation imposed national borders on long distance networks, forced Africans into imperial economic systems that focused on a single European metropole, and isolated communities by dividing Africans into what were perceived to be distinct cultural and political units or ‘tribes’. In view of this, Cooper argues that a case could be made for the scramble for Africa constituting deglobalisation rather globalisation.[viii]

Cooper perhaps goes too far in his criticism but he nevertheless raises an important point. By no means can all of the features of nineteenth and twentieth century imperialism be said to resemble globalisation in the sense that we use the term today and certain features seem antithetical to the concept. This is something that Thompson and Magee acknowledge in their work, noting that ‘imperial globalisation … was far from being truly global in its reach’, focused as it was in the case of the British Empire before 1914 on particular territories and ethnic groups, namely white settler communities.[ix] In this sense then the challenge for historians is to trace the contours of imperial globalisation, explaining why ideas, people, and commodities flowed between some places but not others and to investigate how this history inclusion and exclusion shaped societies and individual peoples’ experience of imperial rule.

So is imperial and global history a marriage of convenience, nothing more than a cynical exercise designed in these times of impact to find historical echoes for contemporary problems? My answer to this is a definitive no. The growing body of scholarship on the subject has made plain the relationship between European imperialism and the more recent phenomenon of globalisation, demonstrating not only how historical trends relating to imperialism continue to have contemporary resonance but also how imperialism could be regarded as a precursor to or first wave of globalisation.

By characterising imperialism as a global network historians have been able to document how the European imperial powers were able to expand and then consolidate their colonial empires. Such an approach has not only challenged the binary division of metropole and colony but it has also revitalised the field of imperial studies, moving it away from its traditional focus on exploration and conquest and governance and administration to a transnational and transdiscplinary approach that views imperialism as a process of exchange, demonstrating how ideas and practices circulated within and between the European empires.

Nevertheless, although the merits of this globalised approach to imperial history are clear, my concern is that by focusing on transnational and global networks historians will reveal little about the lived experience of those subject to colonial rule and thereby deny or at least pay insufficient attention to the historical variety and complexity imperialism. So, as Saha points out, there continues to be an important need for detailed, local histories, because without these studies of specific places and peoples, the bigger imperial and global histories cannot be told.


[i] Stephen Howe, ‘Imperial an Colonial History,’, accessed 11 December 2013.
[ii] Stuart Ward, review of Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c.1850-1914, (review no. 1000) [online] date accessed: 11 December  2013.
[iii] Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination (Chicago, 2002), John MacKenzie, Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, 1989), and Stuart Ward (ed.) British Culture and the End of Empire (Manchester, 2001).
[iv] Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper, ‘Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda’, in Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper (eds) Tensions of Empire (Berkeley, 1997), p. 28.
[v]  Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich (eds) The British World: Diaspora, Culture and Identity (London, 2003).
[vi] Andrew Thompson and Gary Maghee, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c.1850-1914 (Cambridge, 2010).
[vii] Frederick Cooper, ‘What is the Concept of Globalization Good For? An African Historian’s Perspective’, African Affairs (2001), p. 190.
[viii] Ibid. pp. 205-06.
[ix] Thompson and Maghee, Empire and Globalization, p. 62 cited in Ward, review of Empire and Globalisation.