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Race-ing Soldiers Across Imperial Boundaries

Heather Streets
Washington State University


     What I'm about to say for the next twenty minutes is really the first time I've presented anything about this project. In fact, had it not been for Marc Gilbert assuring me that I need to begin presenting on this material right away, I probably would not be standing here right now. But Marc is right, and one of the reasons we present at conferences like this is so that we can field questions and get suggestions and other kinds of ideas while our work is still in its early stages.

     Let me first explain the project itself. After that I'd like to say a few words about my background in this field, why I decided to do this project, and where it fits in the field of imperial and world history. Finally, I'd like to briefly share some of my preliminary research findings and what I think their implications are for the history of empire as well as the history of race.

This project will one day become a book, which I have tentatively titled Empire Crossings: Connections Across Imperial Boundaries in Southeast Asia. Its focus will be to explore the avenues by which both imperial administrators and indigenous nationalists sought to borrow policies and ideas from the colonies of other contemporaneous national empires; in this case, specifically, French Indochina, British Malaysia, and the Dutch East Indies. The idea is to explore if and/or how colonial powers and nationalist activists learned from one another, communicated with one another, and sought inspiration and organizational skills across colonial boundaries. I chose these three colonies partially because of their relative geographical proximity in southeast Asia, and because that proximity lent itself to other similarities in terms of economics and trade—especially in terms of natural rubber production and plantation agriculture. From a practical standpoint, each of the three have a certain appeal for me: for British Malaysia, I was trained as an historian of the British Empire and thus this history as well as the British archives are very familiar to me; for French Indochina, because I read French; and for the Dutch East Indies, because I spent much of my childhood in Indonesia and was fluent in Bahasa Indonesia (I am far from fluent now), which also helps in Malaysia. My purpose is not to conflate the three colonies—obviously, each was different from the other in multiple ways. Instead, I wanted to look at the colonies of several different national empires not simply in order to compare them, but to explore the explicit connections between them.

     Why do I think this is important? Well, as some of you may know, the historiography of late nineteenth and early twentieth century European empires overwhelmingly, with few exceptions, explores the structure and administration of individual empires mainly as national phenomena. In other words, according to conventional historiography, French imperial administration reflected a particularly French set of ideologies based on the French past (assimilation, later association), whereas British, Dutch, and German imperial practices each reflected their own particular national priorities and histories. As a result, historians have studied individual European imperial systems as isolated structures rather than as related entities. And, since few studies have ever looked beyond such a national framework to explore two or more European empires in unison, this historiography has seldom been challenged. I certainly was never taught that it might be helpful to look outside the British Empire at other colonial territories—they simply were not seen as relevant.

     As world historians, one of our interests is to study connections, not just for the sake of it but because sometimes looking at connections actually changes the whole picture of the past for us. Sometimes what seems to us to be unique phenomena are in fact only pieces of a much larger whole, and it becomes clear that those phenomena we thought were unique cannot be explained only by internal, national, or local events, but rather that they must be explained as part of that larger whole.

     One of the things that changed the way I think about imperialism—as well as the questions I began asking about it—was my teaching. My training was pretty standard in many ways as a British Empire specialist, and I had not done much comparative reading in other national empires before I became employed. Then suddenly, in 1998, I found myself teaching a course on Modern Imperialism broadly defined, and I discovered that many of the events, issues, problems, etc. in British Imperialism were strikingly similar to other contemporaneous empires. Further reading spurred me to think beyond simply comparing colonial experiences to thinking about modern imperialism as a system, and then from there to wondering if all of the empires were explicitly connected and, if so, how.

     From this initial question I developed the purpose for my book, which is to challenge the ways that most imperial history has been written by demonstrating that neither colonizers nor colonized operated within purely national imperial frameworks. Instead, it has become clear to me that neither national nor colonial boundaries were impermeable, and that national systems of imperialism shared far more similarities and were far more linked—especially in terms of administration, resource extraction, and resistance—than has commonly been acknowledged. And, I believe, given that the European empires dominated nearly three-quarters of the world's landmass between 1885 and 1950, such a revision in our understanding of how empires functioned could significantly alter the way historians understand the past.

     So let me share briefly with you some of my initial findings generally, and then move to talk about some specifics with regard to race. So far, the research for this project has involved two consecutive month-long trips to the colonial Archives d'outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, France in 2006 and 2007. Also, this last spring I was lucky enough to be on sabbatical, and I spent six weeks combined in Vietnam and in Malaysia, conducting interviews with people who remember the colonial period and, in the case of Malaysia, visiting the national archives. There is much more research to be done, but it is a start and I have found some promising leads thus far.

     In a general sense, my initial research has confirmed for me that all of the colonial empires were deeply aware of one another, and that they did not leave this awareness to casual links or to hearsay. Rather, most of the various national colonies maintained direct and sustained contact with one another through offices of consul-generals located in important imperial capitals. So, for example, the French appointed a consul-general to the Dutch East Indies as well as to India as an ambassador, mouth-piece, and intelligence collector. The consul-general, in turn, kept up a steady stream of correspondence with the Governor-General in Indochina, informing him of recent developments in the East Indies or India, communicating warnings based on experiences in the colony he was visiting, and serving as a liaison between nations.

     Although I have not yet had the chance to read as much about the consulate in India, I have thoroughly explored those of the French Consul to the East Indies. These papers are remarkable in that they provided such a store of information. When there was a rebellion in Java, for example, the French consul would provide details to the Governor General in Indochina, pointing out the ways the lessons of the rebellion might or might not apply to Indochina. The consuls in the colonies also oversaw official visits of their countrymen to the colony where they were located—visits intended to cement ties between the various national empires.1

     In addition to consuls stationed in the important colonies themselves, foreign consuls within the metropolitan capitals also dealt with colonial affairs, writing to their home countries as well as to colonial officials about colonial news that might be of interest. Military facts and figures were one such area to which consuls paid close attention. All of the national empires wanted to know the military strength of their rivals, and much energy was spent in compiling reports about military reforms as well as numbers. The French in Indochina were particularly interested in the structure of the British army in India, and a wide variety of French reports explicitly sought to use the model of that army as an ideal to which the French in Indochina could aspire.2 There was even more direct contact: in the early twentieth century, colonies not uncommonly invited military officials from other national empires to observe their own military manoeuvres.3 The purposes of this could be multiple: partially to intimidate, partially to impress, and partially to learn.

     While some of these connections between the empires and between the colonies seem like they might be obvious, it is nevertheless true that virtually no imperial history ever talks about them. These connections were never mentioned when I studied the history of the British Empire, and I never heard them discussed in class. In fact, judging from the rust around the paper clips still attached to most of the many letters and reports from the French consul in the Dutch East Indies to the Governor General of Indochina, I am one of the first to actually use these papers. Yet here they were, spying on each other, paying attention to one another, learning from one another, and borrowing from one another.

     These connections were not just at the level of the colonizers, either. Colonized subjects, too, also were exposed to influences beyond their own colonies through word of mouth, news reports, and—less frequently—direct contact with colonial subjects from distant colonies. Sedition was a major worry for colonial administrators, especially from the late nineteenth century onwards. In British India, for example, concerns about the vernacular press reached fever pitch at certain times, and authorities attempted to control what the press could print about developments in other imperial locations. In India, as some of you may know, concerns over contact with Irish nationalists was a big deal. There were also serious concerns in all of the national empires about the effect of Japanese efforts to convince colonial subjects that they were being treated unfairly. So far most of my evidence comes from French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies, where authorities were deeply suspicious about Japanese intentions in contacting colonial subjects, and I am interested to see whether a similar issue existed in British Malaysia.4 There were also instances where nationalists in one colony or another sought to contact one another: I have found reports from the British authorities in India warning French authorities in Indochina about a group of Sindian merchants spreading anti-colonial propaganda in Indochina. By the 1930's authorities were keenly on the lookout for correspondence between Indian and Vietnamese nationalists, some of which was confiscated. It's not clear to me how much this was happening, but it is abundantly clear that the authorities were worried about it.5

     Again, it shouldn't be surprising that there were so many explicit connections between the empires and their various colonies. As world historians, we are aware that all of the nations involved in imperial projects between 1885 and 1950 were practicing variations on a theme: all had to rule resistant populations, all sought to extract as much wealth as possible from their territories, and all had to rely—to some degree—on force to do it. Every colonial project inspired both collaboration and resistance, and by the twentieth century nationalist movements had grown up in nearly every colony. There was much to be learned from the experiences of others. Certainly, some of that learning occurred within empires—administrators as well as nationalists in Britain's African colonies learned from events and processes in British India, for example. But sometimes the lessons of colonialism were just as relevant between empires.

     This can certainly be seen with regard to military issues, and through military issues with regard to race. Whether in India, Malaysia, the East Indies, or Indochina, military administrators were faced not just with having to rule ultimately by force, but—more interestingly for me—with the underlying racial issues that military rule highlighted. My first book, to give you just a bit of context, dealt with the intersections between the military and both gender and racial ideologies in Britain and British India. (called Martial Races: the Military, Race, and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture). To put it as briefly as possible, I looked at the ways in which British military officials in Britain and India manipulated the language of race for the purpose of recruiting their armies in the last half of the nineteenth century. In particular, the idea of 'martial races'—or the belief that some men were better suited to warfare than others—was used as a means to selectively recruit from certain populations in order to help ensure army loyalty. In this way, I argued that ideologies and assumptions about race fundamentally shaped both the policies and the structure of the British armies in Britain and India. Part and parcel of this preoccupation with race were fears over putting indigenous troops in positions of power, fears of indigenous troops building coalitions with the very colonial peoples they were supposed to be keeping in check, and fears about the abilities of indigenous troops' to withstand invading forces.

     Reading through the military papers of French Indochina as well as the consul's reports from the Dutch East Indies, all of these concerns were alive and well in those colonies as well. French imperial historiography, while certainly not ignoring the problem of race and racism, does tend to talk about the French approach as a somewhat unique way to look at race. The idea of assimilation—which was to bring indigenous people into the fold of Frenchness—was not an official policy of the British in the period of high imperialism. This has led some to argue that the racial ideologies of the French and the British differed in some significant ways.

     I would argue instead that in spite of some differences, the racial assumptions of the French, British, and the Dutch about colonial subjects seems to have been informed by the very same body of 'knowledge' that circulated through Europe and the Americas in this period. In this way of thinking, Europeans were racially superior to non-Europeans more or less across the board. This superiority—in biology, in custom, in tradition—gave them the right to rule. Certainly the language of race was palpably the same in all of the colonies I've looked at thus far. In Indochina, for example, discontent among Indochinese soldiers—just as in India—was likely to be met with derision among French commentators, with malcontents being talked about as 'caricatures of men,' or as 'effeminate.'6 Other demands by colonial soldiers or by nationalists in Indochina were met with the same demeaning and racially loaded language in Indochina as nationalists in India: barbs against indigenous 'odor,' about indigenous pretensions to becoming 'modern'—these could be taken from any colonial situation. And, in spite of differing military structures in each colony, each imperial administration was faced with military problems based on their own racial understanding: in each colony there was the worry that 'native' soldiers should not be placed in positions of power over even the lowliest European soldier, and each worried that indigenous soldiers—unless hand-picked by race or in the foreign legion—could be relied upon as effective deterrents against invasion because of their race.7 And, I would argue, many of these similar reactions and similar uses of language were reinforced not only by the pervasive concerns with racial superiority of the time, but because of deep knowledge about the problems, issues, and solutions of other colonial empires. So even though I am just beginning to work through and work out some of the inter-imperial connections that existed in this period, even preliminary investigation indicates that they were substantial, sustained, and explicit, especially on the administrative side.

     What might all of this mean? That partly depends on what I find, but at the very least I hope to contribute to a growing historiography that demonstrates that national approaches to historical events and processes are frequently limited in the picture of the past they can recreate for us. In British imperial historiography about two decades ago, a rush of studies began to point out that it was impossible to understand colonial events or metropolitan events without understanding the give and take between metropole and colony.8 Now it is time to move beyond that to argue that metropole-colonial connections themselves are still only part of a much bigger, much more connected imperial—and world—story.

Biographical Note: Heather Streets is associate professor of History at Washington State University, where she directs the graduate program in World History. She is also co-editor of World History Connected. Recent books include Martial Races: The Military, Race, and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture (2004), and—with Jerry Bentley and Herb Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History (2006).




1 The Affaires Politiques in the FM/Indo series at the CAOM are full of these reports, as is the category Relations Exterieures.

2 There are many such examples beginning in the 19th century, ie. Note Sur le Commandement et l'Administration de l'Armee des Indes, GGI 66210, 1899. CAOM, Aix-en-Provence.

3 For example, Envoi d'un Officier de l'armee Britannique aux Manouvres de l'Indochine en 1928. Affaires Militaires, FM indo/nf/2314, 2 Mars 1928. CAOM, Aix-en-Provence.

4 For worries about Japanese influence in Vietnam, see for example Depeche Telegrafique Chiffree, 5 Mars 1919. Affaires Politiques, FM Indo/nf/28(4). CAOM, Aix-en-Provence.

5 For a record of a confiscated letter between an Indian and Vietnamese subject, see the Police report from the Governor General in Indochina dated 22 Janvier 1931. FM Indo/nf/121, CAOM, Aix-en-Provence. For the Sind connection, see De Rapports Supposes Existant Entre Des Agents Ennemis et des Negociants de la Region du Sind (Indes) dont Certains Auraient des Etablissements dans des Colonies Francaises. Affaires Politiques, 24 Septembre 1918. FM Indo/nf/1038, CAOM, Aix-en-Provence.

6 Those particular examples were taken from "Notes d'un Tonkinoise," Le Courrier d'Haiphong, 11 Aout 1904.

7 For a great summary of this attitude in Indochina, see the Depeche Telegrafique Chiffree from 11 April 1919, which is an urgent telegram about the state of the military on the Chinese frontier of Indochina. It says, "En somme, si aggressions exterieures nous assaillent brusquement sur plusiers points, securite nos frontieres dependrait presque exclusivement de resistance de nos troupes indigenes dont la loyaute certaine mais dont la valeur combattive a besoin d'etre soutenue par le voisinage et l'amalgame d'autres troupes coloniales qui nous font defaut." Affaires Politiques, CAOM, Aix-en-Provence.

8 See, for example, Mrinalini Sinha's Colonial Masculinity (Manchester University Press, 1994).



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