Internationalization of colonial knowledge production in an age of empire

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 324


Please note that there is a break from 12 pm - 1.30 pm.


With this panel we envisage bringing together current trends in sub-fields of historiography addressing the transnational workings of knowledge production in relation to dominant world orders and world-views. Colonial history increasingly pays attention to both the scientific underpinnings and pretences of colonialism and the colonial underpinnings of the 19th- and 20th-century history of science. Historians of science in turn analyse the transnational and institutional driving forces of knowledge production in that same era. International history scholars highlight the importance of transnational associations, meetings and individuals as driving forces of the political and intellectual enterprises of the day. Taken together, this points to a reappraisal of the entangled nature of national, imperial and colonial dynamics, which for too long have been approached as separate spatial, temporal or ideational frames of reference and fields of study.

By focusing on the transnational workings of colonial knowledge production, we want to contribute to a convergence of national, imperial and colonial historical approaches on one hand, and of research on Eurocentric knowledge production and European imperialism on the other. In our understanding this nexus underpins 19th- and 20th-century academia as much as it facilitated colonization in Africa and Asia.

We particularly want to emphasize (1) the institutionalization of transnational and transimperial 'colonial sciences'; (2) its contribution to the establishment of academic disciplines, with all its Eurocentric, universalistic and imperialist underpinnings; and (3) the enmeshment with colonial policy-making and lived realities in African and Asian colonies under control - or out of control.

To this aim we brought together papers fitting in one of the following - complementary - strands of transnational colonial knowledge production:

1) associations, organizations or conferences where researchers with different national backgrounds meet in order to exchange experiences with and perhaps solutions for colonial challenges. Possible examples are the Institut Colonial International, the International African Institute, Geographic Conferences etc.

2) topical colonial problems which are dealt with transnationally/ transimperially, and in so doing contribute to the establishment of scientific fields - either as colonial or tropical subfields of existing disciplines (thereby introducing a colonially inspired distinction within allegedly universalistic disciplines) or foundational to the disciplinary make-p of academia as we know it (thereby introducing a colonially inspired distinction between allegedly universalistic disciplines). Examples can be anthropology/ethnography; orientalism/philology; tropical medicine, veterinary medicine or agronomy; geography etc.

Convenors / Chairs

Katja Naumann (Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO)

Geert Castryck (Leipzig University)


Florian Wagner (University of Erfurt)

Maria Rhode (University of Göttingen)

Stefan Esselborn (Technical University of Munich)

Stephan Scheuzger (University of Bern)

Klemens Wedekind (University Trier)

Anne Kwaschik (German Historical Institute Paris / Free University Berlin)

Damiano Matasci (University of Lausanne)



Florian Wagner: The International Colonial Institute and the scientific legitimization of colonial rule (1890s-1920s)

While colonial studies have developed into a vibrant field of historiography, the international cooperation among colonial experts has long been neglected. Between 1890 and 1914, colonial cooperation reached its climax and materialized in the creation of the International Colonial Institute (1893), whose membership amounted to almost 200 by 1914. The non-governmental Institute was the most important international and colonial institution prior to the First World War. It developed into a hub of exchange between colonial experts, who contributed in a significant way to making colonial domination more efficient and establishing a form of best practice of colonial rule.

Their fields of interest ranged from tropical hygiene, the training of professional administrators and colonial agronomy to colonial law and methods to stimulate economic development. Transnational transfers among experts in those fields brought about a “modern” version of reformed colonialism that was based on cooperation with the “native” peoples. Far from granting the colonized a say, however, the colonizers tried to profit from their collaboration without treating them on equal terms. In this paper, I argue that colonial internationalists in the International Colonial Institute transformed both European science and colonial rule. While they made European science more colonial, they made colonial rule appear to be scientific. Science and colonialism alike benefitted from the turn to colonial internationalism. Scientists could apply their theoretical knowledge to the practice of colonial administration. And colonial administrators could portray their rule as rational by evoking its scientific grounding. Adding to this win-win situation was the general need to legitimize colonial rule after nationalism had ceased to be the main source of colonial legitimacy. In the paper I will use several case studies from the fields of colonial law and agronomy to illustrate how the transnational circulation of people, techniques and knowledge contributed to perpetuate and sustain colonial rule.

Maria Rhode: Liberia? Angola? Brazil? Colonial dreams and scientific practices in interwar Poland

Poland certainly was not a colonial power. In the era of colonialism it did not have any scientific or administrative institutions committed to colonial issues. Nevertheless, in the 19th century Poles were part of colonial endeavours and participated in European scientific networks and institutions. Polish society had its own debates about the pros and cons of colonies. After gaining independence in 1918, Poland’s colonial ambitions grew. During the peace negotiations in Versailles Polish politicians formulated the idea of postulating German colonies as compensation for Poland’s partitions in the 19th century. With growing economic problems the idea of overseas colonies as a solution for ‚overpopulation’ found a wide societal approval. Simultaneously, particular disciplines, especially geography, ethnology and anthropology tried to get financial support from the state pointing to the applicability of their research results for colonial involvement.By discussing the International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology in Coimbra 1930 and the Polish Uganda expedition of 1938 the paper shows the transnational and trans-imperial entanglement of European ethnologists and anthropologists. It scrutinizes the impact of lacking established institutional traditions. In doing so it points to their substitution by personal relations within the European academia and to a Polish specificity: family based research practices.

Stefan Esselborn: European scholars, American philanthropists, African subjects? The International African Institute (IIALC/IAI) and the global invention of African studies, 1925 to 1965

In the aftermath of the First World War, most of the colonial powers redefined their imperial mission to include the “human development” of their African subjects. Although this created a new demand for knowledge on African languages and cultures, colonial bureaucracies initially refused to grant substantial support for research in “soft” disciplines like linguistics and anthropology. Against this background, it was a transnational project that took a lead role in establishing an “applied” branch of African studies: The International African Institute (IIALC/IAI), founded in 1926 by a coalition of missionaries, scholars and administrators from ten different nations, soon began channeling substantial amounts of funds into this endeavor, provided mainly by American philanthropic organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation. The Institute succeeded not only in convincing the (British) colonial apparatus of the merits of “practical anthropology” (as Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the leading influences on the IAI’s program, called it). With its proven record of expertise, the Institute also had an important part the set-up of African Studies programs in the US after 1945, remaining the most important international organization in its field until in the mid-1960s. Seen through the institutional prism of the IAI, African studies appear as a transnational as well as a political project, which was torn from the beginning between the imperial rationale of colonial development, and its ambition to act as an ambassador for African culture and interests.

Stephan Scheuzger: Prison science and colonial knowledge

In the long nineteenth century, the prison became the most important form of modern pun-ishment worldwide. Imperialism played a crucial role in the global spread of penal confine-ment. And the circulation of knowledge about criminality and the ways to combat it consti-tuted the basis of the entanglements of penal regimes over long geographic distances. How-ever, there was no unidirectional, continuous diffusion of penological norms and techniques from the centres of prison reform in Western Europe and the United States to the rest of the world. As early as the first half of the nineteenth century, there emerged in regions thought to be peripheral in the geography of modernity centres of prison reform that established in-stitutions and practices that served as models at the continental level at least – at a time when many of the most important model institutions in Europe were yet to be built and penal pe-ripheries were still vast even in the European and U.S. heartlands of prison reform. For ex-ample, the largest prison in the world around the mid-nineteenth century was allegedly the central prison of Agra in British India. The transformation of penal regimes, corresponding-ly, took place all over the world in an increasingly global frame of reference within which local discourses and practices of punishment were negotiated. And as entanglements in-creased in the nineteenth century, the relative weights of ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’ shifted yet further. Already since the early nineteenth century, a considerable part of the production and circula-tion of penal knowledge took place with a scientific claim within the newly established field of prison science. Prison science was situated between jurisprudence and criminology and dealt with questions of the implementation of punishment. It was characterised by a high practical orientation: the prison was not only a place where penal knowledge was applied and embodied but itself an important site for the production of knowledge about criminality and how to combat it. Modern prisons were frequently laboratories in the literal sense, places where scientific knowledge about criminals and their treatment was generated. The cross-border exchange of knowledge among the expert community in prison science basically took place by way of correspondence, publications and – in the late nineteenth and early twenti-eth centuries – an international congress movement. In the early twentieth century, prison science increasingly lost its status as an independent scientific field. The paper explores the role that colonial knowledge played in prison science, not only with regard to the punishment of colonial subjects – considered by Europeans to be fundamental-ly different in both body and mind – in the British and French Empires but also for the pe-nology in Europe. In reconstructing and analysing the role of the colonies in the global pro-duction and circulation of knowledge about modern punishment, the contribution also pre-sents a critical reflection on the notion of colonial knowledge.

Klemens Wedekind: "The oversea veterinarian is out of touch with our problems": Veterinary research in Southern Africa and the formation of Tropical Veterinary Medicine (1896-1920)

Especially in the settler colonies of Southern Africa, the European colonial system was literally built on the backs of domestic animals. While horses were used largely for personal transport and military purposes, cattle and sheep formed the backbone of the colonial socio-economic fabric. Due to this central role of livestock, animal diseases formed a major threat for colonial rule in Southern Africa. So far, research undertaken in this field has mostly explored the devastating socio-political repercussions of epizootics or the practical application of veterinary knowledge by the colonial governments as a “tool of empire”. Only a few specific studies have focused on the production and institutional anchoring of veterinary expertise. These studies are limited to the British Empire and are primarily concerned with the history of South African veterinary science. Until now, the transnational/transimperial entanglement of colonial veterinarians has received only marginal attention. Therefore, my talk adopts a transnational perspective to explore modalities and effects of the production of a special colonial knowledge as well as its influence on colonial policy. Until the 1890s the transimperial interaction in Southern Africa was marginal, because the German colonial rule in Namibia was in its infancy. This changed fundamentally in 1896, when the African rinderpest panzootic reached Southern Africa. In order to deal with this catastrophe, the colonial governments of German South-West Africa, the Cape Colony, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State established bacteriological research laboratories and called upon the help of leading European scientists, like Robert Koch. Since then, extensive research into animal diseases has been conducted in Southern Africa. Very soon, the colonial veterinarians realized that their European bacteriological and veterinary knowledge had its limits. Especially the research of endemic African diseases – these were primarily insect or tick-borne diseases which were caused by blood parasites – promoted the development of new “colonial” scientific approaches and understandings of diseases by integrating local knowledge into Western scientific methods. The rinderpest marked not only the starting point for the broader production of veterinary knowledge in Southern Africa, but also for the transimperial entanglement of colonial experts. Between 1896 and 1914, a total of seven intercolonial veterinary conferences were held in Southern Africa. Based on their specialist expertise, the veterinarians shared their research and discussed livestock disease control measures. In addition, the conferences were used to create uniform veterinary legislation and to standardize the organization of veterinary services in the various colonies of Southern Africa. After World War I, this provided an important basis for the personnel and institutional continuity to safeguard colonial rule in Namibia. In 1920, the South African mandatory power could easily build on the German veterinary legislation and integrated four former German veterinary officers into the veterinary service branch. The intensive “African” exchange on veterinary issues did not remain confined to the colonies. From the beginning European knowledge and leading experts acted as an important reference framework for colonial veterinary research. But only in 1905 at the 8th international veterinary congress, which was held in Budapest, the chief veterinary officer of Transvaal, Arnold Theiler, presented the first lecture about “tropical diseases of domestic animals”. From this time onwards, European research institutions intensified their efforts to establish departments for tropical veterinary medicine and hygiene. Their main tasks were the training of prospective colonial veterinarians and the support of research activities in the colonies. It soon became apparent that these measures were insufficient to improve the quality of the colonial veterinary services. After World War I, the British Colonial Office pursued the creation of scientific institutions in the colonies. This paved the way for the foundation of the veterinary faculty in Onderstepoort, near Pretoria, where the first students began studying veterinary science in 1922. Within in the next fifteen years Onderstepoort became one of the world’s leading institutions for tropical veterinary medicine and, to some extent, replaced Europe as the point of scientific reference in parts of Africa. Veterinarians were central, if not always direct, actors in transimperial developments. They helped to pioneer new technologies and practices that facilitated a vastly more effective exploitation of natural resources in Africa as well as the consolidation of colonial rule. Relying on their knowledge acquired in the colonies, the veterinarians successfully used the polycentric communications network of modern science to attain a degree of institutional autonomy. From the 1920s onwards, this lead to an increasing “disentanglement” of colonial veterinary medicine from its “metropolitan” counterpart.

Anne Kwaschik: The international congress of colonial sociology (1900) and the discovery of the social side of colonisation

At the turn of the 19th century, the emerging social sciences were developing new and integrated perspectives on cultures and societies as a whole. Social reform projects demanding socio-economic data and innovative modes of their use drove this development forward. However, the question of how to govern the colonies had an enormous impact as well. Despite the continuing interest in the history of science at one hand and the history of colonial knowledge at the other many elements of the 19th century history of the colonial sciences, remain unexplored. In this paper, I give some account on how closely colonialism and the rise of social sciences are linked. The paper explores this relationship as a specific mode of knowledge production by focusing on the transnational construction of a colonial sociology at the International Congress of Colonial Sociology (1900).

This congress took place under the political auspices of the new imperial wave in France. With the increasing importance of the association model (and the decline of the assimilation model), knowledge about indigenous people and their way of life became critical to colonial policy making in the Third Republic. The example of the Congress can help to illustrate the main functions of colonial sciences. Advocated by the European colonial communities, colonial sciences were constructing social knowledge about regions and people that later became the object of disciplines such as anthropology and sociology. However, this “midwife status” was the very reason for their disappearance from the 1920s on. The aim of this paper is to show how the international framework shaped the techniques of mapping otherness.

Damiano Matasci: Paradigms for colonial development: Education and trans-imperial cooperation in French Africa, 1945-1960

Against the backdrop of the crisis of colonialism and the rise of “development” policies of international organizations in the aftermath of the Second World War, colonial administrations saw education as a powerful tool to increase living standards in the colonies and thereby legitimate the imperial rule. In order to support such a policy, trans-imperial collaboration emerged as an effective strategy to provide innovative solutions for colonial problems. Taking French Africa as a case study, this paper explores the progressive institutionalization of intercolonial cooperation in the field of education, from the first informal conferences education, which was notably used to counter the increasing influence of international organizations on the continent. By examining the entangled nature of educational policies in colonial Africa, the paper will shed light on the complex interplays between international and imperial development aid policies as well as on the way the production of knowledge became a crucial issue of the decolonization process.

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