Book Spotlight “Transimperial Histories of Knowledge: Exchange and Collaboration from the Margins of Imperial Europe, Comparativ 31/5-6 (2021)”

This thematic issue developed in the midst of the pandemic. We, the co-editors of the issue, embarked on our respective PhD projects at the Chair for Global History at ETH Zurich in the fall of 2019. By summer 2020, we were trying to find ways to do advance in our research and work collaboratively despite Covid restrictions that hindered much of our planned PhD work. Through our participation in the Doctoral Program of the Centre for History of Knowledge in Zurich, all three of us were engaging with the field of “History of Knowledge”. When we first brainstormed the idea of editing a special issue together, we were thinking about further links between our research interests, such as the fact that we all were interested in border-crossing actors, and in ’marginal’ countries in Imperial Europe. The theme for our special issue materialized in this spirit of exchange and collaboration. Editing a volume as PhD students with contributions from researchers at the postdoctoral and professorial level also felt like an unusual experience to make and an interesting challenge. We extended our collaborative approach by inviting all authors of the special issue to an online workshop at which we discussed early drafts of the contributions with each other and invited commentators.

Methodologically, the special issue is grounded in the history of knowledge as well as in transimperial history and related approaches that seek to view interactions across boundaries of individual empires or nation-states. In the introduction, we call “knowledge” an analytical tool (rather than seeking to define it as an object of study) that allows the authors in the special issue “to raise questions about the interplay of situatedness and relocation” (p. 537) of knowledge between various national and imperial settings. The introduction further spells out the main historiographical intervention the special issue seeks to make: Namely, to draw attention to the potential of a transimperial approach for scholarship on ‘colonialisms on the margins’, a concept which gained traction in the past decade as a framework for a postcolonial rethinking of Swiss and Scandinavian histories. Our special issue brings together different ‘marginal’ colonial histories by including contributions on the history of polities and actors from Germanophone Europe as well as Scandinavia.

While the thematic issue focuses on the production of knowledge about extra-European actors, environments, or epistemologies from within those spaces on the margins of European imperialism, our goal has not been to shine a light on the co-production of this knowledge through exchanges between colonized peoples and ‘Europeans’. Rather, we wanted to complicate this category of the ‘European’ in the colonies: The individual articles in this thematic issue zoom in on the politics and logistics of European actors with limited or no access to colonial holdings in their own polity collaborating with established European colonial powers. These collaborations make visible to what extent European knowledge cultures, so integral to the idea of an enlightened, modern ‘Europe’, were shaped by colonialism – even in countries without formal colonial possessions.

Pernille Røge starts off the special issue with a history of transimperial labour and intellectual marketplaces shaping mainstream discourse on the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and, simultaneously, European projects of colonization in Africa in the early modern period. Her article considers the engagement of a Prussian doctor (Paul Erdmann Isert) and a Swedish mineralogist (Carl Bernhard Wadström) with Danish colonial holdings in West Africa, thereby providing microhistorical insight into the transimperial infrastructures of collaboration that enabled their African excursions and their contributions to a shared set of economic, agricultural and moral knowledge on West Africa in Europe.

Monique Ligtenberg’s article focusses on the role of physicians in producing “racial knowledge”. Through a study of the career of the German physician and anthropologist Bernhard Hagen (1853–1919), Ligtenberg demonstrates that nineteenth-century race science was closely linked to a medicalized “race knowledge” that circulated between Dutch and German plantation regimes in Southeast Asia. She shows how moving and working between European colonies offered unique possibilities for middle-class men to climb the ladder of social recognition. Hagen’s mobility between diverse imperial and scientific contexts made it possible for his racial theories to reach not only experts such as fellow physicians and anthropologists but also broader bourgeois publics in Europe.  

Moritz von Brescius and Christof Dejung’s contribution zooms in on the tropical agronomist, Ernst Fickendey (1879–1958), to demonstrate how transimperial structures made it possible for German experts to use colonial settings to promote and extend their careers even after 1918. Their article argues that the transfer of agronomic knowledge across several continents made it possible for actors like Fickendey to change and refine agronomical know-how into patented knowledge that, as such, spread not only to Germany but also to England, France, Holland and to the colonies. Brescius and Dejung also show how this transimperial agriculture was embedded in global capitalism. 

Claire Louise Blaser’s article traces the roots of Indology in Switzerland and its ties to the Swiss Idiotikon, a dictionary of the Swiss German language. First, she unearths the transnational and transimperial networks that connected the Indological discipline and its scholars in Switzerland with Orientalist institutions and discourses in the European metropoles. Second, Blaser demonstrates how Switzerland claimed its belonging to European civilization by ascribing Swiss German a distinct and privileged position within Indo-Germanic language genealogy. Her contribution demonstrates how Swiss national identity formation was deeply entangled with European imaginaries of an Oriental ‘other’.

Josephine Selander studies the reception and mediation in the Swedish press of two competing theosophist leaders, Katherine Tingley and Annie Besant, between 1900 and 1925. She analyses Sweden as a cultural and political site for the production of knowledge on alternative spirituality and thereby reiterates how ‘Eastern’ thought and belief were prominent in bourgeois cultures at the margins of Imperial Europe. This ‘spiritual Orientalism’ was often mediated by the same actors (Tingley, Besant, and later ‘Indian wise men’ that travelled to Sweden) and at similar sites (bourgeois sites of culture and knowledge dissemination such as lecture halls, theatres, and operas) as in the cores of ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge production across Europe.

Finally, in her afterword, Nadin Heé reflects on the structural conditions that allowed actors from the margins of Imperial Europe to partake in the imperial projects of neighboring nations, on the commonalities they shared in producing knowledge that would become ‘useful’ to Empires as well as on the commensurability of supposedly distinct empires when viewed through a transimperial lens.

Across these distinct articles, three common themes emerged. First, the actors studied all belonged to an emerging European bourgeoisie and were – with the exception of Selander’s spiritual entrepreneurs – white and male. Transimperial mobility was thus premised on specific privileges not readily available to the majority of gendered, racialised and/or lower-class ‘others’ in European polities. A second common denominator is the reliance of these bourgeois actors on various forms of colonial infrastructures as well as transimperial labour markets. Negotiating their position within and outside of Europe’s centres of colonial knowledge production enabled them to intervene in highly topical and contested fields integral to the formation of the idea and reality of an ‘Imperial Europe’ – such as agriculture, philology, anthropology, or spirituality. Lastly, they disseminated and mediated their knowledge on extra-European worlds in ‘marginal’ European metropoles such as Zurich, Frankfurt, or Stockholm through a variety of sites that were firmly located within bourgeois, white culture. Museums, theatres, operas, universities, newspapers, town halls or learned societies were sites where imperial cultures permeated European regions that have largely stayed outside of the purview of imperial history so far. We believe that a transimperial perspective bears the potential to further illuminate the role of these hitherto ‘marginal’ histories of Imperial Europe.

Author profile

Claire Louise Blaser is a doctoral student at ETH Zurich with a dissertation project on the Global Biography of Frieda Hauswirth Das. She is interested in the politics of radical solidarities and the history of transnational/transimperial feminist and anticolonial activism.

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Monique Ligtenberg has been a doctoral student at the Chair for History of the Modern World since October 2019. She is currently working on a project on the history of physicians from Germanophone Europe in the Dutch East Indies at the turn of the 20th century.
Her research interests include (post-)colonial studies, the history of science and knowledge, global and transimperial history, and the history of modern Southeast Asia with a special focus on Indonesia.

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