In reading for my longer project, I have been thinking about its colonial context. A point was raised about terminology in the reading and in the seminar last week, and about what we can consider to be transnational. I feel that my project is transnational in scope as it follows the experience that migration had on the intellectual elites that would eventually become leaders of African national liberation movements. . However, I think that I have perhaps taken for granted that the starting point of this migration would be included as a ‘nation’ for these figures to move beyond. As we saw last week, colonialism inevitably complicates things as the territories are far removed from the nation they are part of. Further complicating this is the fact that I am concerned with the experience of the colonised rather than the colonisers. I was drawn to the point made last week that actors in a network take the ‘baggage’ of previous ideas and identities with them when they move. An interesting question is what is the identity of figures moving from a colony and can it be viewed, as Kiran Patel suggests, in the same way we view a national identity due to cultural ties? This question is important in examining how the colonial experience affected this transnational migration network, yet there are some problems with how we view this colonial experience that also need to be considered.

Frederick Cooper identifies a trend towards seeing non-Europe as static and backward in general writings on colonialism. In searching for reading on my project, I have found that I agree with Cooper’s assessment. Particularly in the study of colonial migration, there seems to be a large focus on the movement of nameless, non-skilled multitudes. This creates a somewhat homogenising picture of Africa that overlooks the existence of social stratification within different colonies. While traditional historiography has made us more than aware of the racial hierarchies in place during the colonial period, it can be criticised as treating the levels of these hierarchies as distinctive groups with unifying characteristics and little variation. For example, the work of Ghai et al on the experience of the Asian population of East Africa argues that the compartmentalisation of society was one of the largest economic problems facing the region. However, the existence of elite migration challenges this view of colonial societies being rigidly compartmentalised. The fact that figures such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta were able to travel for education suggests that there was a level of privilege available to some black Africans that the traditional histories infrequently acknowledge. This is important as it could be argued that this privilege is an important factor in facilitating the growth of the national liberation movements in Africa as it allowed those who used it to gain access to the transnational network of intellectuals who shared their political ideas.

Ghai, Dharam, Ghai, Yash, ‘Asians in East Africa: Problems and Prospects’, The Journal of Modern African Studies’, 1965

Rodogno, Davide, Struck, Bernhard, Vogel, Jakob, Shaping the Transnational Sphere, Berghahn, (2014)

Questioning Colonialism in my Project
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One thought on “Questioning Colonialism in my Project

  • April 5, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Thank you for a very interesting post indeed! I really like your ideas about providing nuances to the transnational story, being alert to the social backgrounds of the agents in your study, as well as the influence of the ‘colonial context’ on the transnational framework that you choose to write under. Tied in with your question about ‘baggage’, I was wondering whether we can talk of transnational history when the agents themselves do not exhibit any sense of ‘national consciousness’ at all? Or even, if some colonised subjects were fully assimilated, and think of themselves as working for the empire, when their actions could in some ways be said to impact on the formation of the nation in the future? A good example would perhaps be the British army recruiting colonial subjects to fight – could we spot conflicting allegiances there? I think the important thing here is to return these figures in the past to who they are – based on all the information we can garner – rather than imposing the view of posterity onto them.

    I think a good way to make sure you address the questions you’ve raised in your project is to dig out the personal details of the agents you’re studying, both looking structurally to see where they fit in on the social ladder, but also if you can find any of their personal writings, to trace the ideas they espouse- which will be a painstaking process, but also rewarding I’m sure. This way, your study will be incredibly rigorous and solid.

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