Fifth Symposium. Imperial Subjects: Britain and French Algeria

From Subject of Empire to Citizen of Commonwealth
By · 23 November 2013
From Subject of Empire to Citizen of Commonwealth
Jack Harrington’s paper, presented at the 5th Oecumene Symposium, explores the radical distinctions between metropolitan ideas of citizenship and society, and differing imperial ideas of ‘otherness’. The paper takes an interconnective approach, exploring the commonalities and differences between British and French colonial rule in 19th century Algeria. It examines how these have been applied through governmental policies and strategies by the hegemonic powers of the different empires, in a broader synchronic context.
 
The central focus of the paper is the British perception of French Algeria and, more specifically, how French Algerian issues of the metropol, imperial occupation, race, the civilising mission and settler society were understood by British commentators. Situating the discussion within the broader context of the contested spaces between different hegemonic, imperial forces, Jack highlights key events such as the Great Reform Act of 1832 which signalled a highpoint in the formation of British political identity and the decades that followed, tracing a new phase in imperial expansion. He explores the various challenges to colonial rule and oppression, considering the indigenous uprisings and the ongoing humanitarian atrocities that unfolded in India, Jamaica and New Zealand, of the 19th century.
 
The primary sources for the paper were the writings which specifically compared the British and French colonial projects, including contemporary travel accounts, journalism, and diplomatic records for the French and Ottoman Embassies and Consul of Algiers, as well as key political theorists such as John Stuart Mill and De Tocqueville. To understand more precisely how French and Western Imperial ‘others’ influenced British ideas of Empire in the 19th Century, Jack’s exploration of comparative intellectual history is invaluable. It highlights the complex relationship between the prevalent ideas of imperial citizenship and subjecthood, and the notions of metropolitan political thought.
 
In response, Catherine Hall (University College London) reiterated the importance of the comparative and interconnective approach taken by Jack when thinking about different empires, complex and vast in scale as it may be. While emphasising the challenge at hand with such an endeavour and the reluctance of many British to overcome linguistic barriers when exploring often polyglot populations, she argued that this approach to studying colonialism is developing, albeit gradually, but there are at last some tools for this work.
 
Catherine made three key contributions: first she expanded on a longer history of Anglo-French colonialism and underlinied the significance that Jack attributed to the historical specificity when thinking in this way. Secondly, she related the example of Canada under British and French rule between 1837 -1838, with different colonial influences as a similar contested space to Algeria in the Mid-19th Century. Thirdly she introduced the English feminist Barbara Leigh Smith to highlight how the colonies had become cites of exploration and experimentation. While the indigenous populations were impoverished, exploited and famished, the colonies were often used by settlers as a space for social and political experimentation, introducing policies and practices that were prohibited on often more conservative home territory.
               
Alan Lester’s (University of Sussex) response reinforced the value of an interconnective and relational study of history as taken by Jack. With this in mind he explored what constitutes imperial subjecthood, which he extends to a geographical, heterogeneous approach. This, he asserted, allows for a critical examination of how ideas and histories have shaped and reciprocally constituted one another.
 
Alan also highlighted how the discourses on citizenship and subjecthood in the colonies were often in conflict with newer, divinely sanctioned civilizing missions. Broadly, he argues there were two kinds of struggles over different kinds of subjecthood in different places. On the one hand prompted by the brutality of the settlers, humanitarians were arguing for the inclusion of indigenous people, in a variety of ways. On the other, the settlers sought to extend their sphere of subjecthood so as to gain the right to representative government.
 
In the discussion that ensued, Humeria Iqtidar (King’s College London) made the point of the very different understandings of liberty that existed in Britain and France and the significant impact this had with respect to their different approaches to colonialism. There was considerable discussion of the question put forward by Lisa Pilgram (Open University) about the distinctions between ‘incorporation’, ‘accommodation’ and ‘assimilation’, which was expanded on by Catherine Hall (UCL) and Dana Rubin (Open University) using Britain/Scotland and Israel and the West Bank to come to a clearer understanding of the use of these terms. The discussion concluded with several people suggesting readings and strategies for navigating the overwhelming task of balancing the general and the specific when exploring such complex and densely layered histories.
 
Report by Anna Weedon

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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