Colonial and Global History

Description of the research programme

Colonial and Global History explores the global circulation of people, goods and ideas during early-modern and modern times. Taking a comparative perspective, this program investigates the development of transnational and transcontinental connections and their impact on the making of identities, societies, economies and states. As such it highlights how new hardware—from ships to cell phones—transformed spaces which seem to keep societies apart, such as the  Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the deserts of the African and Asian Arid Zones, into zones of contact between societies. This obviously had deep impacts on the various societies around the these zones, creating some, for instance the Swahili of the East African coast, annihilating others, as in the Caribbean, and invariably and profoundly influencing all of them. Thus the programme links routes to roots, by combining a global approach and knowledge of the globalizing societies, with a deep sensitivity for the vernacular context within which these contacts have taken place. It thus stresses the need to recover and exploit local primary sources, as a way of investigating the individual and collective agency of all those involved in the processes of global contacts.

The global in the making of the local
Hence Colonial and Global History combines profound knowledge of broad transnational processes such as empire-building, (de)colonization, modernization and globalization, with an in-depth engagement with specific regional societies, in particular in colonial and postcolonial Africa, the Caribbean and South and Southeast Asia. Whether they are studying cosmopolitanism among the elites at the Indo-Islamic courts or the modern life-styles of contemporary Africans, in all these areas, participants in this programme try to detect the global in the making of the local, often studied at the individual level gleaned through primary sources, and equally, the local in the global, as for instance in the spread of highly localized culinary or musical traditions to much wider areas. This entails the programme exploring such matters as changing consumption patterns or new perceptions of the self across the early modern world. These themes, and other similar ones, naturally can be continued into the history of more recent, and indeed current eras.

Impact of the colonial relationship
At the same time, the programme aims to study these global linkages from the awareness that they were shaped by extremely asymmetrical power relationships during colonial times, and indeed thereafter. Hence, the urgent need to study the colonial politics of the slave trade and slavery, of ethnic engineering and racial segregation. These have all in their various ways left their scars on modern nations. Again, the economic systems of many colonies were designed to facilitate the export of primary products and the import of manufactured goods, preferably deriving from the colonial power. This extraversion led to structural misformations which often still exist. To take another example: how did colonial administrators deal with natural disasters and how did this interact with the survival strategies which already existed at the grassroots? Within and outside the colonies, also, Christian missions impacted on people’s lives and worldviews and, equally importantly, how missionary messages were culturally absorbed into local cultures, often creating religious revivalist movements, which competed for the hearts and minds of the local population. In all this, the program is conscious of the full and problematic impact of the colonial relationship, and reflects critically upon the various ways in which people contest and cope with their colonial heritage.

Last Modified: 09-12-2015