‘Zoning in’ on Geographies of Empire

In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said argues that empire rests on crucial spatial and geographical mappings that involve a ‘hierarchy of spaces’. For Said, the struggle over space is ‘complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings’ (Said 1993: 58). Over the last thirty years, historians, literary scholars, and cultural geographers have taken up Said’s challenge to think about the intersections between geography and postcolonial theory (Nash 2002), from ideas about transnational circulation or what Arjun Appadurai has called ‘process geographies’ (Appadurai 1996) to scalar frameworks surrounding the relationship between global imperial structures and more local, national, or regional affiliations (Smith 1992: 99; see also Brennar 2001 and Howitt 1993) to ‘local-global’ paradigms in globalisation theory to the ways in which the real and imagined ‘power-geometries’ of empire condition the production of colonial knowledge and culture (Massey 1994: 146).

In the field of empire studies, Alan Lester, Tony Ballantyne, James Belich, Sebastian Conrad, and Zoe Laidlaw, among others, have taught us that empires were made up of rhizomatic ‘webs’ of overlapping relationships across different spaces (both within colonies and between colonies and colonial powers), and that the relationship between these webs at various levels of scale was multi-directional rather than hierarchical. These new imperial history models have allowed for a much more complex and riven culture of empire than previous studies, highlighting the uneven quality of imperial relationships and networks, including the ways in which indigenous peoples were actively involved in creating hybrid cultures, as well as retaining and promoting their own networks of resilience and resistance. At the same time, as David Lambert and Alan Lester have noted, colonial networks were often temporary and partial, better seen as ‘bundles of networks, often overlapping and intersecting, but never unitary, never stable, always contested’ (Lambert and Lester 2004: 326-7).

Over the course of the nineteenth century, growing networks of connections certainly spread across Britain’s colonial holdings, linking England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales with the colonies, but also the colonies with each other, where strong regional identities and connections were formed because of the geographic and cultural distance from a remote metropole. Most obviously, British colonies were part of overlapping imperial networks of settlers, administrators, missionaries, and activists or what Belich has called ‘ongoing systems of long-range interaction’ (Belich 2009: 21). Some of these links were familial and intra-generational with members of the same family in positions of power spread across the globe. Other links were technological or material. Some countries in the region were connected by imperial shipping routes: for example, the journey to Van Dieman’s land from Britain in the early nineteenth century was via the Cape Colony, and there were therefore frequent interactions between the two colonies.

Many of the colonies in the Southern Hemisphere also had informal slave trades, and were engaged in acts of colonial violence and dispossession. There are key parallels, for example, between Australia and the Cape Colony (particularly the Northern Cape) as sites of frontier and eliminationist violence towards indigenous peoples. Lester’s work demonstrates the extent to which White settler communities in the region not only developed a common language about race but also thought of themselves as deeply interconnected as settler communities (Lester 2002: 24-48). Unsurprisingly, both Australia and Cape Colony saw the publication of large numbers of national tales and frontier adventure stories, as well as elegiac poetry to the dying races that they were simultaneously eliminating or de-possessing.

This is not to suggest that there were not important differences between the various colonies considered by the SouthHem project. Certainly, there is a need to examine the differences between settler or creole societies (that is, colonies where white or mixed settlers achieved numerical dominance over indigenous peoples such in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) and so-called ‘franchise’ colonies (where an indigenous majority remained or emigrated to form large diasporas, such as in Singapore and Malacca). It is also necessary to distinguish between colonies with free and penal settlements (see, for example, the well- known penal settlements in Botany Bay and the less well-known penal settlements in Singapore); colonies with different levels of frontier violence in ‘open’, ‘closed’, and ‘closing’ frontier zones; colonies with and without slaves and/or informal slave cultures; and colonies with previous colonial settlements and those without (see, for example, Afrikaner populations in the Cape Colony).

The three transnational zones considered in this project – “Zone 1” (Oceania): Australia and New Zealand; “Zone 2” (Southern Africa): the Cape Colony and Natal; and “Zone 3” (Straits Settlements): Singapore, Penang, and Malacca – are therefore interconnected spaces that can be thought of in relational terms because of their shared regional and imperial experiences, but they are nonetheless distinct and unique in terms of demographic make-up, public spheres, religious belief, and cultural productions. While the SouthHem project focuses on colonies where there was substantial physical and intellectual exchange within and between land areas and/or groups of people, the zones outlined above are nonetheless employed as elastic heuristic tools rather than as closed entities so as to emphasise the uneven and disjunctive relationships that occur in the multiple world spaces that make up the global field.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Belich, James. Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Brenner, Neil. ‘The limits to scale? Methodological Reflections on Scalar Structuration’. Progress in Human Geography 25.4 (2001): 591-614.

Howitt, Richard. ‘“A world in a grain of sand”: toward a reconceptualization of geographic scale’. Australian Geographer 24.1 (1993): 33-44

Lambert, David and Alan Lester. Eds. ‘Geographies of colonial philanthropy’. Progress in Human Geography 28.3 (2004): 320-341.

Lester, Alan. ‘British Settler Discourse and the Circuits of Empire’. History Workshop Journal 54.1 (2002): 24-48.

Massey, Doreen. Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Nash, Catherine. ‘Cultural geography: postcolonial cultural geographies’. Progress in Human Geography 26.2 (2002): 219-230.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Smith, Neil. ‘Contours of a Spacialized Politics: Homeless Vehicles and the Production of Geographical Scale’. Social Text 33 (1992): 54-81.

Porscha Fermanis is Professor of Romantic Literature at University College Dublin. Her research interests include global Romanticisms and colonial book history; Romantic historicism and the philosophy of history; the relationship between Enlightenment and Romanticism; and the work of John Keats. Her current research for the SouthHem project focuses on literary appreciation and the history of reading in the Straits Settlements. 

Image: Map of the World on Polar Projection, Northern and Southern Hemispheres by Thomas G. Bradford (1838).  Courtesy of the  David Ramsey Historical Map Collection

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