[Co-authored by Feng Bo and Yu Shi)

Edward Said’s text ‘Orientalism’ has become exceptionally famous in terms of promoting the negatives of colonial history. The ideas of the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other,’ have led to a lot of focus on the impact that colonial history has had on modern day thinking of racial hierarchy. Said’s insight has opened our eyes to the biases that are implicit in any kinds of writing. With a focus on the colonised and the coloniser, the binary’s of discourse are put into focus, and they are usually very static. Tagged on to that, is the idea that colonial history is all about ‘oppression and resistance’ – the coloniser is always the oppressor, and the colonised always suffer the brunt, or will eventually end up in revolt and being liberated. The pitfall of this is that historians will tend to construct a narrative which is rather homogenous. For instance, a lot of colonial history has been written about how the British empire exploited the resources in her colonies, shedding light on the ways that the colony is administered, or trading benefits that were resulted.

But colonial history cannot be so black or white, there are a lot more links that only through a transnational perspective can these be put into focus. With the concept of ‘agency’ that transnational history focuses on, the people living under the colony can perform so many more activities than simply ‘resisting colonial rule’ or ‘plotting to overthrow the colonial overlords’. As we see in Lindner’s text, those within the colony can make their own identity through their movement. In Lindner’s example, those within the British Cape Colony moved across colonial borders to the German colony Luderitzbucht, and utilising their affiliation with the British empire, were successful in negotiating with the German employers for a pay rise. This is an example that moves away from the concrete terms that Said uses of the ‘colonised’ or the ‘coloniser’ and shows that there is a fluidity to the terms, to emphasise that there are not set binaries. While not arguing against Said’s ideology that there is a power discourse, as there will always be a power imbalance between peoples, merely making clear that within colonial history the colonised cannot always be linked together as the repressed. Lindner’s text raises this point, for instance where migrant workers from the Cape town ‘changed their racial status successfully’, thus showing the instability of racial categories, and that strict demarcation lines were not available.

In significant ways, transnational history expands the horizons of imperial history, first by shifting the focus away from the power relations between the ‘coloniser and the colonised’, the ‘oppressor and the oppressed’ or the ‘Self and the Other’. The assumption of transnational history is that the stories and experiences of people who cannot be so easily categorised in one of these binaries also merit our attention – people who occupy the grey areas, possessing ambiguous identities (as in the case of ‘coloured people’ in Luderitzbucht) and more than one affiliation (German and British). These migrant workers’ protests against German authorities had less to do with colonial politics (gaining autonomy from their colonial overlords) than with personal economic benefits (pay rise). Lindner’s piece is a good example to show how transnational history can broaden the scope of imperial history by re-focusing on the diverse kinds of ‘people’ who make up colonial history, and in the process empowering them with a sense of agency.

Note from Clarence (Feng Bo):

Before coming back to edit this blog post, I browsed the course handbook to find any other relevant readings, and came across Anthony Hopkins’ piece (see bibliography below)  which I also recommend. His discussion is relevant here for a couple of reasons: 1. He talks of the concepts of ‘dominant centre’ and ‘centres of influence’ as ‘unacceptable anachronisms’ because it perpetuates Eurocentrism and possibly covert racism. And from our discussion so far, reconceptualising the importance of the spatial dimension is key to transnational history. 2. Hopkins suggests that a re-cast of imperial history after postmodernism means a ‘retreat from hard political and economic questions that were once central to imperial history’ and that postmodernism has helped to enlarge the field of cultural history. I think this is a useful observation. The challenge would be to incorporate these macro-frameworks into other equally valid (macro or micro) frameworks. Lindner’s piece does it quite well by using the case of migrant workforce to bring in discussions on aspects of culture, such as identity. 3. We mentioned Orientalism in our post, but Hopkins also warns of it as a ‘totalising project’ that ‘generalises about Western views of the rest of the world by assembling a composite known as “Orientalism”,’ which I find apt. So the kind of ‘writing-back’ to imperial history is not to commit the same errors that it is criticised for, but to pay close attention to variations due to regional, ethnic, political, and other such differences.


Hopkins, Anthony, ‘Back to the Future: From National History to Imperial History’, Past and Present 164 (1999), 198-243

Lindner, Ulrike. “Transnational Movements between Colonial Empires: Migrant Workers from the British Cape Colony in the German Diamond Town of Lüderitzbucht.” European Review of History: Revue Europeenne D’histoire 16, no. 5 (2009): 679–95

Said, Edward, Orientalism, (London, 2013)

How Transnational History can Enrich Colonial History

One thought on “How Transnational History can Enrich Colonial History

  • April 19, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Your research topic on colonial maps, various blog-postings here, and explanations in class all made me think of a chapter I’d read recently; Richard Drayton, ‘Maritime Networks and the Making of Knowledge’, in David Cannadine (ed.), Empire, the Sea and Global History: Britain’s Maritime World, c. 1760-1840 (Hampshire & New York, 2007), pp. 72-82. Essentially, Drayton argues that our perceptions of colonialism are distorted by maps and popular images, and that we over-estimate both the extent of territory European colonizers actually practically controlled in white-minority colonies (and underestimate the agency of native peoples), and we under-state the maritime connections between the colonies themselves (the vast blue areas on the map that we automatically overlook). He argues moving away from the “secure pink space” of this mindset is essential for us to create a post-Whig history of (British) empire. It’s very readable and short (only 10 pages), and at its close, Drayton explicitly calls for a new transnational focus in imperial history, so I hope it’d be useful for your own research.

    A second thought comes from reading I’ve done separately for an environmental history course, in John M. Mackenzie, The Empire of Nature (New York, 1988). In one of its chapters (somewhere after page 200, but I didn’t note the specific reference), there’s a quote from a Victorian game warden’s memoirs about just how few personnel (something like ‘two white guides and a handful of Negros’) the British actually had on the ground in certain areas to enforce colonial environmental policy over huge expanses of land they theoretically ‘controlled’ in Africa. So in looking at the territories on your maps, this is something to consider as well, the way in which claims asserted are not actually practicable, and the way that empire was a question of both wishful perception and of actual administrative practice.

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