Anti-imperial biographies in transnational perspective

Date: 31 August 2017, 02:30–05:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 309



New Imperial History has in many ways challenged our historical understanding of modern empires. It offers a more integrated understanding of communication and exchange patterns between metropolitan Europe and the colonies. In doing so, New Imperial History has re-drawn our attention to “imperial biographies”, which provide historians with rich opportunities to analyse how empires evolved and declined.

This panel asks in how far the agenda of New Imperial History challenges our historical understanding of what could be called anti-imperial biographies. Empires as arenas of global professional careers, transcontinental communication patterns, and international knowledge transfer were not only relevant for European (‘white’) professionals, but also for local (‘non-white’) careerists born in the colonies. In particular since late 19th century local indigenous elites made increasingly use of globalising information networks, new travel opportunities, growing possibilities to study abroad, as well as imperial career options. As a consequence, they transcended their context of origin, migrated within and across imperial boundaries and thereby enhanced a transnational, anti-imperial agenda.

Our main assumption in this panel is that New Imperial History has so far not devoted enough attention to these anti-imperial biographies, i.e. the inter-related character of global imperialism on the one hand and the formation of anti-imperialism as a transnational and trans-imperial phenomenon on the other. More specifically, this panel addresses the following questions:

• How have anti-imperial activists, intellectuals, and artists designed their anti-imperialism as a global agenda? In how far can anti-imperial actions and thoughts be understood less as local or national phenomena within one particular colony but as a products of cosmopolitan milieus that emerged in Western but also colonial metropolitan cities?

• How has the experience of studying, living, and working abroad altered the agenda, strategies, and goals of anti-imperialist minds?

• How can historians understand the meaning of space in the constitution of these biographies manifest in crossing borders within but also across empires, migrating outside the reach of imperial authorities, and the deliberate return into the ‘empire of origin’?

• In how far have empires facilitated knowledge transfer that stimulated (or hindered) critical reflections on colonial stereotyping, orientalist forms of knowledge, racism, or notions of civilizational hierarchies?

• How have anti-imperial activists and intellectuals evaded colonial censorship through transnational forms of cooperation and coordination?

• How have empires enhanced or obstructed transnational activism and coordination through different forms of mobility restrictions such as border control, travel permits, or visa regulations as well as censorship and other forms of surveillance?

• In which way has transnational connectivity altered colonial subjectivity, i.e. the (individual or collective) awareness of being colonised and the criticism about it?

In brief, the aim of this panel is to strengthen the research agenda of New Imperial History in the field of anti-imperialism, Asian and African intellectualism, and ‘coloured cosmopolitanism’ in the late 19th and 20th century.


Maria Framke (University of Rostock)


Clemens Six (University Groningen)


Harald Fischer-Tiné (ETH Zurich)


Daniel Brückenhaus (Beloit College)

Maria Framke (University Rostock)

Clemens Six (University Groningen)

Klaas Stutje (International Institute of Social History Amsterdam)



Daniel Brückenhaus: Anti-imperial laughter: The use of irony and ridicule among anti-colonialists in early 20th century Europe

Focusing on a number of anti-colonialists from British India and French Indochina who were active in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, this talk examines how these global travelers made use of irony and ridicule in order to undermine the foundations of imperial rule. Bringing together the history of emotions with the history of transnational and trans-imperial networks, the talk examines how these activists laid open, through their satirical writings, the unstable foundations of colonial rule. In that context, the talk puts a special emphasis on how these anti-colonialists appropriated and reshaped for their own purposes the modes of ironical journalism that they encountered, during their time in exile, among members of European liberal and radical left-wing political movements.

Maria Framke: Anti-colonial rebel, false diplomat, endeavouring professor: The multiple lives of Devendra Nath Bannerjea

In the first half of the 20th century, European cities became vibrant meeting points for anti-imperial actors. Transcending local, national and/or imperial boundaries they lobbied like-minded individuals, civil society groups and international organisations to support their anti-imperialist agendas and established networks of protest, solidarity and knowledge exchanges. By tracing the life-history of one such actor, Devendra Nath Bannerjea (1889-1954), from Ludhiana in the British Indian Punjab, via Oxford, London, Geneva, Rome to Berlin, the presentation examines the changing nature of his political concerns and of the multiple alliances he formed. Bannerjea’s activities led to repeated conflicts with British and German authorities, not just because of his radical ideas, but also because of his ‘creative’ efforts to improve his often rather precarious living situation. Against this background, it is of interest to ask about the daily living conditions of anti-imperial actors and how these circumstances influenced and shaped the pursuance of their anti-imperial aims.

Clemens Six: Benoy Kumar Sarkar, social experience, and transnational anti-imperialism

B.K. Sarkar grew up around 1900 in British-Indian Bengal and became soon involved in national education reform as well as political activism against the colonial authorities. In 1914 Sarkar left India for 12 years which he spent mainly in Europe, the United States, and several Asian countries. His writings published ‘in exile’ illustrate the evolution of his ideas on colonial racism, Orientalism, and Social Darwinism which he sought to replace with concepts of inter-civilizational learning, historical comparison, and contemporary forms of transnational exchange. This paper analyses these ideas on the background of his social and personal life. It takes a closer look at Sarkar’s life mainly through the autobiography of his wife, Ida Sarkar. More specifically, it discusses what the impact of studying and working abroad was on his educational and social engagement back in Bengal after his return; how he combined his political struggle for equality with social elitism; and in how far his commitment to social reform corresponded with his personal life.

Klaas Stutje: Indonesian activism in Europe: The limitations of a boundless approach

In the interwar years, Indonesian anti-colonial activists in the Netherlands, united in the political association Perhimpoenan Indonesia, extended their political work to the wider European and global sphere. From 1922 onwards, students and activists such as Mohammad Hatta and Arnold Mononutu started to write about anti-colonial struggles abroad, and to seek contact with anti-colonial activists in Paris, Brussels and Berlin to gain support for their campaign for a free Indonesia.

The international stage was a major source of inspiration for the Indonesian students, which made them aware of a reality beyond that of everyday politics in the Dutch Indies. Moreover, the students felt the need to counter Dutch government propaganda about peace and tranquillity in the archipelago under the blessings of Dutch rule. Finally, they realised that the European capitals harboured many anti-colonial activists and representatives of powerful anticolonial movements, such as the Indian National Congress, the Chinese Guomindang Party and the Étoile nord-africaine. As a result of their international efforts the Indonesian students got involved – among others – with Annamite nationalist students in Paris, with Chinese activists in the League against Imperialism, and with Indian communists in Berlin and Moscow.

Indeed, the Indonesian nationalist students can serve as an excellent example of a group which – in accordance with the findings of the New Imperial History project – migrated within and across imperial boundaries and which designed its anti-imperialist agenda along the way. However, in its attempt to overcome essentializing notions of centre and periphery, the New Imperial History project risks of disregarding the various practical limitations, ideological confrontations and official restrictions that hindered the Indonesians in creating a global network. In this presentation, I will therefore discuss a few of the limitations that co-determined the eventual shape and character of the Indonesian political network of the 1920s and 1930s.

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