Some Reflections on Imperial Port Cities in the Age of Steam

Lasse Heerten, Freie Universität Berlin, and Daniel Tödt, Center for Metropolitan Studies, Technische Universität Berlin

Let’s judge some books by their covers. In the recently flourishing literature on global and imperial history, port cities have become ubiquitous icons, visual shorthand for globalization, world economy, and migration, as we can see on the covers of many of the field’s classics. But once you actually open these books, the port cities, the steamships, and dockyards tend to disappear. This is surprising because during the late nineteenth century port cities grew physically and became more politically and economically significant, both in Western Europe and worldwide. The urban docklands did not simply keep pace with the “transformation of the world” (Osterhammel 2014), they set the pace.

tristram-hunt-ten-cities-that-made-an-empireWith the steadily increasing interest in global history, the relationship between port cities and projects of imperial rule and expansion has recently attracted the interest of a growing number of historians. But book titles like Ten Cities Made an Empire (Hunt 2014) still keep quiet about the fact that nine of these cities had a port. In our respective research projects on Hamburg in Imperial Germany (Lasse Heerten) and African workers in Marseille and Antwerp (Daniel Tödt), we approach these ports as hubs – both in the material and heuristic sense – enabling us to explore the intersection of cities and seas, imperialism, globalization, and urbanization. By considering port cities as sites embedded in wider processes and not as bounded entities, we aim to counteract global history’s tendency to neglect the urban scale.

mageeIn July 2016 we assembled an international group of historians whose current research projects investigate the role of “Imperial Port Cities in the Age of Steam.”[1] The workshop comparatively explored the entanglements and interplay of port cities worldwide. Focusing on cities such as Osaka, Dar es Salaam, Shanghai, Beirut, and Marseille between the early nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century, the workshop brought together case studies on ports in different imperial settings. In the existing literature, there is a tendency to explain the expansion of ports as the result of relatively amorphous globalization processes. In contrast, the workshop brought experts of different world regions into dialogue to analyze these processes within specific – national, urban, regional, maritime, and imperial – contexts and comparative frameworks. The contributions and discussions illustrated how port cities shaped and were shaped by early globalization and imperialism, underscoring the importance of these specific places within a complex, mutually constitutive yet asymmetric imperial world.

The workshop papers evinced three main tendencies how historians develop their narratives composed around port cities – overlaps notwithstanding. The first option is to focus on the port. Catherine Phipps, for instance, zoomed in on the port of Osaka to closely study the traces that Japanese imperialism left in the port. A second possibility is to focus on the city. In her paper, Isabella Jackson analyzed in detail the functioning of the international settlement in Shanghai, highlighting the colonial character of the transnational presence in Chinese treaty ports. While her analytical lens focused upon the city, the port receded to the background. The third possibility is probably the most popular right now: to study the port as a hub, a starting point to follow connections into different directions. Alison Frank Johnson, for instance, studied the port of Trieste as a transshipment point within the global cocaine trade. Largely bypassing the city itself, she tracked the connections from Imperial Austria’s maritime hub to India, and also back to the labs of Germany’s drug industry. The connections studied along such lines were often formatted by imperial structures and networks of trans-imperial cooperation and competition. In his paper on Dar es Salaam as a “Gateway to the Global Cattle Frontier,” Thaddeus Sunseri showed how, in the project to develop this East African port, the German Empire entered a competition with British ports in the region. Jon Hyslop stressed the close entanglements between Southampton and Durban and the role they played for the expansion of these ports and the Union Castle Line.

As these – and many other – papers showed, port cities acted as hubs of communication, migration, transport, and commodity flows, and thus were turned into nodal points of multiple connections, integrated into different spaces, different networks, and territories. Accordingly, like the field in general, the workshop papers were characterized by a remarkable diversity of themes and approaches. Port city history can thus be used to bring a number of different entanglements into focus.


Anders Svarstad, The Port of London (1911-12). Bergen Kunstmuseum

But that is also a danger: the danger of getting lost in connections. The workshop was hence also meant to stress the importance of the “city” in “imperial port city.” In the field, ports are so far mostly analyzed as portals of circulation, as gateways. This is not urban history in the usual sense, and a lot of the potential of this historiography lies exactly there. But, in effect, the city tends to disappear. At present the danger is that local contexts, the city societies within which most of our actors – merchants, laborers – operated turn into a rather blurry backdrop to a story of flows and connections. A challenge for historians interested in these entanglements is to nevertheless do justice to port cities as urban spaces.

To enable frameworks for the comparative analysis of port cities, the workshop was meant to identify unifying themes. One such theme discussed in the workshop was the relationship between port cities and imperialism. Many of the expanding ports in the period had direct ties to projects of imperial expansion. Using Valeska Huber’s coinage of a “channeled mobility,” in his keynote John Darwin underlined that port cities did not create, “a uniform world but one characterised by new cores and peripheries – since nineteenth-century connectedness was, like connectedness before and since, inevitably uneven.”

Connected to the hierarchies and unevenness of these globalization processes in a world of empires, a theme that came up throughout the workshop discussions was that port cities were not only hubs, portals or gateways of flows and connections, of the movement of goods, ideas, and people. Port cities were also the sites of immobility. Port cityscapes present a rich sample of the “urban mess” that global history could use to complicate the often rather seamless flow of its narratives of connectivity. Wild arrays of connections are concentrated there, people mingled, goods and ideas flowed. But port cities were also places where these movements were controlled and channeled, where people were segregated or willfully distanced themselves from others. While Japan and China tried to restrict the access of Western merchants to foreign concessions and treaty ports, the Western empires’ urban planners designed port cities whose inhabitants were separated along the racial lines. Crews were also often not allowed ashore, confined to their ship as measures of quarantine or racial segregation.


Port of Valparaíso, Chile, in the Early Twentieth Century. Library of Congress

In the age of steam, the urban mess to be encountered in port cities was much closer to the everyday lives of most people than ports and shipping are today. In recent decades, as a result of the “container revolution,” port facilities, growing increasingly in size, have gradually been moved away from the cities. Omnipresent as iconic embodiments of the economic cycles of boom and bust, conventionally used in the daily press and news programs as signifiers of global trade, container ports are symbolically present, but disconnected from our everyday world. The United Kingdom’s biggest port today was constructed near the sleepy town of Felixstowe, Suffolk – in the middle of nowhere, this deserted landscape of containers and automated cranes could not be a more stunning contrast to Victorian London, then the world’s biggest port, situated in the heart of the British Empire’s first city.


Aerial View of Port of Felixstowe. Photo: John Fielding

Before the simultaneous onset of mass air travel and containerization in the 1960s and 1970s, port cities were the main nodal points of global passenger traffic and the movement of goods; and all that happened within the city. Ports in the age of steam were sites of massive manpower, part of a cityscape of manual labor and the merchants’ trade, situated closely to industrial as well as commercial zones, to warehouses and factories, to banks and stock markets. Studying these cities leads us into the machine room of globalization in an age of steam and empires. The possibilities for research are manifold. To again draw on a point made by John Darwin in his keynote “one of the strongest attractions of port city history is […] that it anchors the history of global processes in a particular place, the meeting ground of the ‘global’ and the ‘local’. In port city history, global, regional, national and local historians can have their cake and eat it.” With so much on our plates, we all left the workshop still hungry.


Lasse Heerten is head of the project “Imperial Gateway: Hamburg, the German Empire, and the Making of a Global Port” at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he was also awarded his doctorate (2014, “summa cum laude”). In 2014-2015, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow in Human Rights at UC Berkeley.

Daniel Tödt is a postdoctoral fellow at the International Graduate Program “The World in the City: Metropolitanism and Globalization from the 19th Century to the Present”. He studied European Ethnology, African Studies, and Political Science. His PhD dissertation at HU Berlin was awarded the ZEIT-Stiftung Prize by the German Historical Association.


[1] Generously funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, the workshop “Imperial Port Cities in the Age of Steam: Towards a Comparative History of Entanglements,” was held in Berlin, from July 14 to 16, 2016, at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (Technische Universität Berlin) and the International Research Center “Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History ,” (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) in cooperation with the research areas for global history and contemporary history at the Freie Universität Berlin.

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2 Responses to Some Reflections on Imperial Port Cities in the Age of Steam

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History – Imperial & Global Forum

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