Transimperial history is an approach that begins from the assumption that empires both dominated world history until the 1960s and engendered postcolonial afterlives that continue to shape societies around the globe until the present, thus enabling us to reveal connections between and across empires.
Two groups in particular are at the center of this blog: those who joined forces regardless of national origin to establish and maintain empires and those who built alliances across empires to contest them. Colonized individuals and communities were never tied to their “natural environment,” as colonial propaganda had it, nor were the colonizers tied to their nation and their national identity. By highlighting the transimperial agency of both groups, this blog aims to think beyond discrete imperial, national and colonial projects.
Interactions across empires were not necessarily intentional, nor were they always directed by human action. Thus, by focusing on transfers and links between empires, transimperial history engaged with the movements of people, animals, plants, diseases, objects, ideas, and knowledge, through a variety of historical approaches – from political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental history to the history of emotions and knowledge, postcolonial theory, human-animal studies, and gender studies.
Transimperial history writing is also interested in postcolonial approaches that identify imperial structures and cultures that survived the official end of empires. Perceptions of an uneven world, global representations of “the West vs. the Rest,” and of “civilized” and “uncivilized” regions came into existence in the age of European expansion, reflecting a transimperial consensus about the imperial ordering of the world. Racism, a belief and praxis that shaped authoritarian and liberal societies alike, is one of the most evident transimperial phenomena that spread in space and time. Transimperial history seeks to explore how cooperation and transfers among imperial powers were institutionalized and thus affected the development and structure of international organizations in the 20th century, including the League of Nation’s mandate system, and the role played by international organizations after 1945 in preserving global inequalities rooted in the era of formal colonial rule.
In turn, colonized people also increasingly perceived imperial rule as a European or Western project, rather than a unilateral conflict between them and a single nation, fostering the emergence of pan-African and pan-Asian movements and a sense of solidarity among people suffering under colonial exploitation. The transimperial boost that arose from the Afro-Asian solidarity movements began long before the 1955 Bandung Conference and lasted longer than the attempts of newly independent states to transform the United Nations into an organization that could be used to advance decolonization. Beyond that, the governmentality of Europe’s expansionist techniques – as well as the contestation thereof – influenced colonizing and colonized societies alike, with lasting implications for the future of global economics, war and peace, violence, education, emotions and their expressions, gender relations, sexual identities, and structural discrimination.
A transimperial approach thus seeks to inspire historians to abandon traditional fields of historiography in order to move beyond Eurocentric traditions and decolonize historical knowledge production. It also challenges the notion of transnational history, which continues to center the nation and ignore the majority of those historically excluded from having a nationality. Building on recent debates in the fields of global history and area studies, an emphasis on transimperial history instead explores transregional links and transfers between and within a variety of geographical and political units as well as the networks, groups, objects, and organizations that transcended them. In so doing, it not only considers how imperial structures shaped these transfers and links, but also how border-crossing actions and ideas challenged or subverted colonial hierarchies. Methodologically, such an approach combines the micro and the macro to investigate both top-down and bottom-up processes in order to understand the multiplicity of actors, flows, and scales at work.
Contributions to this blog reflect the variety of transimperial history writing. At present, contributors of the blog are members of a network that emerged from the international conference “Trans-imperial Cooperation and Transfers in the Age of Colonial Globalization” held in Erfurt and Gotha, Germany, in March 2018, funded by the Forum for the Study of the Global Condition and the Ernst-Abbe-Stiftung. The event brought together researchers from various disciplines, specializing in different colonial empires, resulting in the foundation of an international network based at the History Department, University of Erfurt. The Transimperial History Blog gives researchers the opportunity to engage in scholarly exchange, publish their research, report from archives that hold relevant collections for transimperial history, and introduce their books. All contributions are non-anonymously peer-reviewed by two network members – for further information see our Stylesheet. We invite scholars from around the world to join our network and contribute. We are committed to engaging with a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints and especially invite individuals from underrepresented communities to participate in the project. If you are interested in joining us, please contact a member of the editorial team listed below.
We are grateful to the Ernst-Abbe-Stiftung for providing the funding to launch this blog and continue this exchange within the network and the wider public.