Imagine Lagos: Mapping a Pre-Colonial West African City

By Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi, University of California, Riverside

Africa’s cities are now among the fastest growing in the world. But how well are their pre-colonial origins understood? Recent research on Lagos’s past reveals a thriving, indigenous yet cosmopolitan urban community, one which lasted through cycles of civil strife and peace, being bombarded and rebuilt, all prior to British annexation in 1861. Clear patterns emerge when we reimagine Lagos as it existed between 1845 and 1851, that is, the six years between the Ogun Olomiro (the Salt-Water War) and the British bombardment of Lagos Island.

Three themes frame the debates around pre-colonial urbanism in nineteenth-century West Africa: the use and interpretation of sources, the conceptual (and historical) boundaries of ethnicity as an explanatory factor, and the impact of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonialism on the growth and decline of port cities on the Atlantic coast. In plotting nineteenth-century Lagos, responses to these questions require an interdisciplinary framework, preferably one that relies on both narrative and visual cues.


Representation of colonial Lagos, ca. 1885. “Lagos looking West from Church Tower,” from the National Archives UK, CO, 1069/78.

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Imagining Johannesburg: A New Book on South Africa’s Metropolises

Vivian Bickford-Smith, The Emergence of the South African Metropolis: Cities and Identities in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016. 340 pp., $ 99.99 / £ 64.99 / € 94.99. ISBN 978-1-107-00293-7.

Reviewed by Jonathan Hyslop, Colgate University and University of Pretoria

Can Themba was one of the great generation of black South African writers grouped around the renowned 1950s Johannesburg magazine Drum. He had his home in the brutally tough but immensely culturally and politically creative slumland of Sophiatown. Themba once commented that: “Sometimes I think … only Charles Dickens – or perhaps Victor Hugo – could have understood Sophiatown.” South Africa’s cities have been much discussed in recent scholarship but, usually, simply as theatres in which racial conflict took place, and in nationally specific terms. This point of departure has led to an attenuation of thought about these cities as cities. Contestations over South African urban spaces were central to the production of social cleavages and identities. While these battles always crucially interacted with the politics of race, they were not reducible to it. And what contemporary scholarship frequently misses is that historical actors often understood the places in which they lived in a transnational framework of discourses about urbanization and urban life. Themba imagined the city in terms that ranged as far as the worlds of Oliver Twist and Les Misérables.


Sophiatown in the 1950s

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Conveying Urban History Through Apps: Berlin’s Kudamm ’31

By Viola Benz and Birgit Wienand, Freie Universität Berlin

Recent years have seen an enormous growth of possibilities for historians to engage with a wider public beyond the academy. Urban history has benefited from these changes, particularly as cheaper airfare has encouraged short-term city tourism. In Berlin, one of the most popular places for tourists to explore twentieth-century German history because of its central role in World War II and the Cold War, websites, interactive elements in museums, historical images, audio walks and, more recently, smartphone apps provide a wide audience with an interpretation of the city’s history.

Kurfürstendamm in Berlin

Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, in 1931

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Global Ottoman: The Cairo-Istanbul Axis

By Adam Mestyan, Duke University

On a Sunday at the end of January 1863 groups of sheikhs, notables, merchants, consuls, and soldiers gathered in the Citadel of Cairo. They came to witness a crucial event: the reading aloud of the imperial firman that affirmed the governorship of Ismail Pasha over the rich province of Egypt. The firman was brought by the Ottoman sultan’s imperial envoy. After the announcement, which occurred, of course, in Ottoman Turkish, Ismail held a reception. Local Turkic notables and army leaders came to congratulate and express their loyalty. A few months later, in April 1863, they received Sultan Abdülaziz in person in Alexandria—something that had not occurred since the Ottomans occupied Egypt in the sixteenth century. From Alexandria the sultan took the train to Cairo. This was the first trip of a caliph on the tracks.


The Fountain of the Valide (the mother of the khedive), between 1867 and 1890, by Maison Bonfils, Library of Congress.

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“The ‘Urban Question’ is Now at the Center of Intellectual Life”: A Conversation with Rosemary Wakeman

The Conversations section of our blog seeks to foster critical exchange about the theoretical and methodological implications of bringing together global and urban history. The blog’s editors will occasionally interview scholars to discuss questions of global urban history, spanning across different regional and thematic concerns.


Rosemary Wakeman

For this post, we had the honor of speaking with Rosemary Wakeman, Professor of History and Coordinator of University Urban Initiatives at Fordham University. Wakeman is the author of Practicing Utopia: An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement (University of Chicago Press, 2016), The Heroic City: Paris 1945-1958 (University of Chicago Press, 2009), and Modernizing the Provincial City: Toulouse 1945-1975 (Harvard University Press, 1998). Wakeman has published numerous articles on urban history and on cities including most recently “Rethinking Postwar Planning History” in Planning Perspectives 29 (2014) and “Was there an Ideal Socialist City? Socialist New Town as Modern Dreamscapes” in Transnationalism and the German City (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Her current book project is An Urban History of Modern Europe: 1815 to the Present to be published by Bloomsbury Press. She is on the Editorial Board of Fordham University Press and the journal Planning Perspectives, and was Guest Researcher at the Faculty of Architecture & the Built Environment at TU Delft in 2016.

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Infrastructural Statecraft and the Rise of Just-in-Time Urbanism

By Boris Vormann, Freie Universität Berlin

Containerization has led international trade to triple since the mid-1970s. This massive expansion and deepening of exchange networks would have been unthinkable without the construction of material transportation infrastructures in the world’s metropolitan agglomerations. From the relocation of New York City’s port activities to New Jersey to the construction of entire logistics cities such as Nanhui New City in China: For flows of containerized cargo to circulate around the globe in ever longer and more complex supply chains, logistics hubs needed to be built in new geostrategic locations, city rivers needed to be dredged and bridges heightened. Sediment by infrastructural sediment, the urban logistics landscapes of today are reminders of our economies’ dependence on the seamless circulation of resources and commodities.


Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, 2004.

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Liberal Cities? What Recent Elections Mean for Global Urban History

By Michael Goebel, Freie Universität Berlin

The agitated politics of 2016 have led intellectuals the world over to ponder the “end of the Anglo-American order,” the “bankruptcy of the post-war world order,” and the death of “liberalism.” That this death has been diagnosed before—for instance by the late Chris Bayly in the conclusion of his magisterial study of the globalizing nineteenth century—makes today’s echoes of the past all the more eerie. But the precedent may also make historians chary of issuing premature death certificates. Urban history and global history can be combined fruitfully in thinking about past and current trends in democracy and populism. Continue reading

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Pardo is the New Black: The Urban Origins of Argentina’s Myth of Black Disappearance

By Erika Edwards, University of North Carolina, Charlotte


“Woman with Jug and Skinny Dog.” Photograph from Córdoba, 1890. Archivo General de la Nación

It was a typical day, nothing out of the ordinary. I, a young, small-town girl had landed in a foreign country to begin my study abroad. I knew nothing about Argentina and was excited to discover the country. It did not take long for me to realize that my experience would be life changing. Black in a very white country, I stood out like a sore thumb. I was the “other.” At first I was uncomfortable, but then, I realized that my blackness was not the same in Argentina as in the United States. My blackness meant something else. I was exotic, if not exceptional, and surprisingly I was not black! Instead I was morocha (a non-offensive term referring to darker skin). How could that be? I had transformed into a lighter version of myself. As I grew accustomed to being called morocha, I could not help wondering who constituted a morocha.  Over time the answer became apparent: anyone who was not white. Other countries had mestizos (Indian and white mixture/descendant), or mulattos (black and white), but Argentina had grouped African and Indian descendants and people with tanned skin tones, often descendants of immigrants from Mediterranean countries, into a single category. Argentines proclaimed there “were no blacks in their country,” but the country certainly had a lot of morochos! Despite the lack of African descendants’ visibility today, in 1778 they had a significant share of the national population. Concentrated in cities, African descendants amounted to 44 percent of the inhabitants of the provincial city of Córdoba, for instance.[1] The decline of this population a national question for Argentina, whose black population dwindled from roughly 30 percent of the total population to 0.37 percent according to the 2010 census.

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Neoliberalism and the Structure of Settler Colonialism in a North American City

By John Munro, St. Mary’s University

It was, on the face of it, an unremarkable event. In the spring of 1989, a single-room-occupancy hotel and beer parlor was torn down in North Vancouver, Canada, and a new condominium tower was then put up in its place. Exemplifying the development model of the neoliberal city that time and again has seen the destruction of affordable housing in favor of pricey investment property, the residents and patrons of the St. Alice Hotel were displaced to make way for the Observatory, a luxury residential high rise.


St. Alice Hotel Demolition, 1989 (North Vancouver Museum and Archives)

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City Life and Automobility in Twentieth-Century Ghana

By Jennifer Hart, Wayne State University


Accra lorry park, 2016. Photograph by the author.

On the eve of his country’s independence in the mid-1950s, Ghanaian journalist Moses Danquah claimed: “We are riding confidently on the crest of the wave to greater economic prosperity, to greater social and cultural achievements, and to eventual independence. We have reached this glorious stage largely through our progressive and efficient facilities for transportation—through our progressive, almost dramatic change from a static society to a mobile society.”[1] Nationalists like Danquah and Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah seized on the symbolism of mobility, declaring a new slogan for the new nation-state: “Forward Ever, Backward Never.” For Ghanaian nationalists, automobile technologies in particular embodied African creativity, resilience, and resistance to a form of British colonial rule that sought to limit African opportunities and control African economic development. However, automobiles and automobility were also symbols of the promise of a modernist future. That future vision was rooted in the dynamism of urban life, but new motor transport technologies ensured that even the most remote villages and farms were connected to the new Ghanaian culture of cosmopolitan automobility. In creating a “mobile society,” these nationalists claimed, Ghanaians were poised to seize their rightful place in a global community of prosperous nations.

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