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Below the waterline: actors, spaces, and practices of informal empire

Add to calendar 2024-06-10 09:00 2024-06-11 18:00 Europe/Rome Below the waterline: actors, spaces, and practices of informal empire Sala degli Stemmi Villa Salviati - Castle YYYY-MM-DD


Mon 10 Jun 2024 09.00 - 18.00

Tue 11 Jun 2024 09.00 - 18.00


Sala degli Stemmi

Villa Salviati - Castle

Organised by

Workshop on informal empire

What would the history of modern imperialism look like if we studied it from the point of view of practices and actors, instead of from the perspective of states? What actors, practices, and networks otherwise invisible to historians might this approach reveal? How would such an approach transform our understanding of the geography, chronologies, and identifications of Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries? These questions lie at the basis of our efforts to develop the concept of informal empire as a tool for creating a different European history of empires.

Already in 1953, Gallagher and Robinson famously argued that the historian, is largely ‘at the mercy of his own concept of empire’: the concept of what an empire is tends to define what s/he goes looking for and what s/he eventually finds. They argued that the sheer size of the formal British empire overwhelmingly influenced our general conceptualisation of empire and obscured a range of different forms of European imperialism and a variety of informal practices. To focus only on formal state-based dominion was, as Gallagher and Robinson remarked, ‘rather like judging the size and character of icebergs solely from the parts above the water-line.’ 

We are interested in looking below that ‘water line’ at non-sovereign forms of imperial practice. We do not seek to develop a new concept of empire, but to develop interpretive strategies that make visible actors, spaces and practices who are otherwise deemed peripheral to an imagined mainstream of European imperial power. The history of these actors, spaces, and practices are crucial to understanding the emergence and persistence of a European ‘world’ in the 19th and early-20th centuries. But as long as historians focus on formal imperial domination (or on defining what an empire is, as opposed to what it does), the empirical importance of this history will remain obscured.

Gallagher and Robinson’s seminal 1953 article created a huge body of literature on a British ‘empire of free trade.’ This work focused on the initiatives of private companies, investors, and institutions, to re-think the standard narratives and chronologies of British imperialism. More recently, David Todd’s pathbreaking study of informal empire in France, argued that mid-19th-century France ‘acquired a vast empire while hardly expanding its territorial jurisdiction.’ Todd significantly broadens the concept of informal empire by looking at the spread of culture and science, the involvement of small investors in foreign loans and debt, and the overlap between formal and informal empire in Algeria. Nevertheless, he ties empire to France, that is, a single nation-state. By contrast, we seek to challenge this concept of nation-state empire by examining those people, groups, and non-state institutions that moved across or outside the sphere of formal state sovereignty, while still pursuing imperial aims. In doing so, we want to reframe dominant narratives about the key centers and geographical frontiers of empire. 

A study of informal practices of empire such as trade, mobility, and scientific enquiry allows us to re-think the geography of empire. It changes the classic focus from the nation-states of northwest Europe, with their territorial empires in North and sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, towards informal imperialism situated in eastern and southern European societies, in the Americas, and in East Asia. It takes us to different sites such as the Pacific and the Mediterranean, to smaller spaces such as islands, port cities, and the links between them. But it can also locate imperial practices in debt regimes created by banks, missionary activism, or private settlement projects that can take place across national or imperial borders.

This approach can also alter the established chronologies of empire. It links 19th-century practices more fully to earlier histories and imperial powers, focusing more on neglected periods such as the early or mid-19th-century or the period following the First World War. Individuals or groups of actors – merchants, engineers, scientists, migrants, colonists – who pioneered new imperial routes outside formal empires, and actants such as transformative infrastructures offer alternative histories and new archives to research. The intimate association between imperial mobility and environmental change can be studied as a connected process, however uneven in impact, rather than as a set of policies emanating from London or Paris. An emphasis on informal practices also alters the trajectory of empire, away from a European-driven centre and closer to a model of dispersed relations or circulations. It challenges us to rethink where exactly to locate Europe and Europeans. 

Programme to be announced.

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