By Mikko Toivanen, University of Edinburgh
How can historians relate urban spaces to the lives of city dwellers? Does it matter if the city is located in a colonial setting? Brenda Yeoh has argued that an excessive focus on abstract plans and specific structures has often led urban historians to view the colonial city as simply “a creation of its colonial masters” and disregard the cityscape as lived in and experienced by the varied communities of those cities. Recently, notable works have sought to provide more nuanced representations of the variety of urban life in colonial settings by focusing on phenomena like emotions or cosmopolitan communities. In this blog post, I wish to suggest an approach to colonial urban history that interrogates the meanings that people gave to the urban spaces they lived in, and one that zooms in on the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized through a careful analysis of public events and celebrations. Such events, though often directed from above, were only possible with the participation of different communities, and always open to contestation. A case study drawn from my current research on nineteenth-century Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, serves to highlight these issues.