Plural Pasts in Southeast Asian Port Cities

By Su Lin Lewis, University of Bristol

Conflict and division characterize the way we often think of race relations in the colonial era, but the social history of Asia’s most multi-ethnic cities gives us a different view.

The colonial scholar J.S. Furnivall’s notion of the “plural society” has proven to be remarkably resilient in Southeast Asia. Furnivall believed that the plural society was a creation of the colonial economy, as large numbers of Chinese and Indian migrants arrived to aid in administration, provide capital, and work in plantations and rice deltas. In his eyes, migrant communities, which included Europeans, were not bound together by any social bond but rather segregated themselves from other communities, and co-existed solely to make money out of each other.


The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in George Town, Penang. Photo: Su Lin Lewis

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Analyzing the Palimpsestic Petroleumscape of Rotterdam

By Carola Hein, Delft University of Technology

Petroleum – its extraction, refining, transformation, and consumption – has shaped our built environment in visible and invisible interconnected ways around the world over the last 150 years. Industrial structures, buildings, monuments, urban forms, and infrastructure stand as material witnesses to the ubiquity and power of petroleum. Many people will orient themselves in space referring to gas stations, others will point to oil headquarters as local urban icons, and a select few will be aware of local oil industry facilities or the educational, housing or leisure facilities of the petroleum industry employees. But while observers recognize the connection to oil in select buildings, they do not picture the enormous collective presence of oil in the built environment, its impact on production processes, financial flows, and associated social and cultural patterns in our everyday environment, or the long history of oil’s impact on our lives.


Figure 1: Invitation for the exhibtion “Oliedam: Rotterdam in the oild era, 1862-today” at Museum Rotterdam. The exhibtion has been extended until November 2, 2016.

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Sex Work Regulation and the Colonial Order in Late Nineteenth-Century Cairo

By Francesca Biancani, University of Bologna

In modern cities, flows of people, capital, and desires intermingled and structured a new spatial order. Straight streets, airy boulevards, agreeable parks, coffee houses, and taverns constituted the backdrop of a new type of sociability linked to the emergence of a middle class endowed with purchasing power and increased mobility through technological advancements (macadamization, street lighting, public transportation, etc.).

A panoptic regime, organized along axes of class and gender informed the urban landscape. The city was now conceived as a space built to be seen and scrutinized by the gaze of the flâneur, the male bourgeois prototype strolling around a clean, orderly, and mappable city. A constant tension between such a disciplinarian urge and the multiplication of occasions for human contacts and interactions between sexes and social classes defined the order of the modern city. Together with the demarcation of spaces to which potentially non-conformist and subversive subjectivities and practices were relegated- the poor in the slums-, the new urban order was evident in new performative acts of social life- the choreographies and display of public life in the streets, promenades, parks, and theaters of the metropolis, in its department stores, and hotels. Here, social interactions between the sexes were carefully coded and “domesticated,” and transgression, to a certain extent, condoned and therefore normalized.

Document from the Powerhouse Museum Collection

Post Card showing Clot Bey Street in Cairo, 1915. Photography by Au Carto-Sport, Max H. Rudmann.

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From Rural to City Dwellers: A New Book on Indians in Kenya

Sana Aiyar, Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015, 384 pp., $49.95 / £36.95 / €45.00.

Reviewed by Saima Nasar, University of Birmingham

Indians have contributed to Kenya’s multiracial tapestry for centuries. At Independence, Indians constituted two percent of the population and formed its petty bourgeoisie. By 1968 Kenya hosted over 170,000 Indian residents. Occupying key roles in the economy and civil service, Indians played no small part in the twentieth-century history of Kenya. Yet, as Sana Aiyar argues in Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora, an overwhelming emphasis placed on singular territoriality, coupled with the racially bounded nature of scholarship on Kenyan nationhood, has resulted in the historiographical marginalization of Indians, who are assumed to be historically insignificant (p.2).

9780674289888-lgConcerned with constructions of immigrant identities, Aiyar navigates the Indian Ocean world in order to disentangle the various narratives of people, place, and movement. The overarching thesis of this compelling, well-researched, and propulsive book is that diasporic populations have multiple homelands: these can be civilizational and/or territorial. As such, it interrogates the emergence of Kenyan Indian diasporic consciousness between 1895 and 1968, and traces its attachments to its civilizational homeland, India, within its territorial homeland, Kenya. Continue reading

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“Urban and Global History Have Been Converging”: A Conversation With Shane Ewen

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. For this post, we are thrilled to have spoken with Shane Ewen, Senior Lecturer in History at Leeds Beckett University. He is the author of What is Urban History? (Polity Press, 2015). He has written extensively about urban transnational history, urban governance, and environmental disasters. He is one of the editors of Urban History. He is also a member of the International Committee of the European Association for Urban History, one of the Board of Directors for the Urban History Association, and is on the Conference Steering Committee for the Urban History Group.


Shane Ewen

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“World History Needs More Urban Mess”: A Conversation with Carl H. Nightingale

Since its launch in November 2015, the Global Urban History Blog has published posts on a range of different cities and topics. The blog grew out of the observation that an increasing number of historians are bringing together global and urban history in innovative ways, possibly creating a new field of historical research. The blog aims at facilitating exchanges between these scholars, since we feel that historians working on cities in different world regions, who also share an interest in global history, need to connect better. It also seeks to foster a critical conversation about the theoretical and methodological implications of bringing together global and urban history. Since global urban history is a research field in formation, this is an ideal moment to take stock and reflect on the direction in which scholars are heading. The new conversation section of our blog is designed to provide a home for these reflections. The blog’s editors will occasionally interview scholars to discuss questions of global urban history, spanning across different regional and thematic concerns.

Carl H Nightingale

Carl H. Nightingale

We are thrilled that for our first conversation we were fortunate enough to speak to Carl H. Nightingale, Professor of Transnational Studies and American Studies at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Nightingale received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and has authored numerous works on race and American and transnational urban history. His widely acclaimed book Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (University of Chicago Press, 2012) was the co-winner of the Jerry Bentley Prize 2012. Continue reading

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The Paris Commune in Global Urban History

By Quentin Deluermoz, Université Paris 13

Translated from the French by Cecilia Terrero Fernández

Although the Paris Commune is considered a major event in the history of the modern world – just think about how the Russian and Chinese revolutions made use of its memory – it does not, at first glance, seem like a “natural” subject of global or of global urban history. The aim of my current research project is precisely to reexamine this event from a global perspective. Looking at the relevant historiographies available may help to offer a better understanding as for why this perspective has been avoided so far and why it is important to include it.

Soviet stamp

Soviet Stamp Commemorating the Commune

Paradoxically, the Commune has first been the subject of a form of international history: In studies of the workers’ movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a Marxist motivation (in the broad sense), the Commune is seen as the last urban revolution of the nineteenth and the first socialist revolution of the twentieth century. This interpretation, which was supported by numerous studies, began to fade roughly twenty years ago, for a number of well-known reasons. The questioning of its teleological narrative, a generational shift in the academic world, and the consequences of the global upheavals after 1989, all conspired to render this international-history approach to the Commune less common, no doubt wrongly so. Continue reading

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Between a Wall and the Sea: A New Book on Colonial Havana

Guadalupe García, Beyond the Walled City: Colonial Exclusion in Havana, Oakland: University of California Press, 2016,  296 pp., $34.95, £24.95 ISBN: 9780520286047

Reviewed by Cecilia T. Fernández, Freie Universität Berlin

Strolling through Havana’s so-called “casco histórico,” its colonial center, can be a bizarre experience: Tidy cobblestones line the streets, freshly painted facades look onto the spacious “plazas.” Amidst restaurants, cafés, and hotels, stores have emerged that sell designer fashion to no one really knows who. And yet, if one were to take a wrong turn and end up in one of the smaller side streets, the painted facades would quickly give way to crumbling walls and the famous Cuban “baches” – potholes of unpredictable dimensions.

9780520286047Since approximately the 1980s, Havana’s Oficina del Historiador has made extensive efforts to restore what is considered the core of the city’s colonial identity. However, the politics of the “city proper” are contested and the size of the funds invested in certain parts of the city is controversial given the desolate state of other areas.

In her book, Beyond the Walled City: Colonial Exclusion in Havana, Guadalupe García of Tulane University argues that these politics are influenced by the categories of intramuro and extramuro. That is to say that the part of the city that from the eighteenth until the late nineteenth century was surrounded by city walls is considered the genuine core of colonial Havana.

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African Urban History and Global History – a Comment

Liora Bigon, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Reflecting on Africa’s urban past in the context of African history and as part of a global phenomenon is a challenging mission situated at the intersection of three subfields of research: African history, urban history, and global history. The complexity of this task is further intensified since each of these subfields is framed by its own “psyche” of historiographic mentality, which is sometimes surprisingly positional. An eighteenth-century missionary report from the capital city of M’banza-Kongo could be considered as symptomatic:  In this report, the missionary complained about being able to cross the entire capital city without seeing a single house in the surrounding greenery of the equatorial. [[i]] In other words, urbanity in Africa is disavowed while Africa’s bucolic image is strengthened. The depiction of towns in sub-Saharan Africa as “villages” is persistent throughout the ages from Rousseau’s “noble savage” to nineteenth- and twentieth-century European colonial accounts. This perspective has been carried directly into some recent urban-studies textbooks. Thus, Peter Hall writes in the introduction of his book Cities of Tomorrow:

“This is supposed to be a global history, yet – given the all-too-evident confines of space and of the author’s competence – it must fail in the endeavor. The resulting account is glaringly Anglo-Americocentric. That can be justified, or at least excused: as will soon be seen, so many of the key ideas of twentieth-century western planning were conceived and nurtured in a remarkably small and cosy club based in London and New York. But this emphasis means that the book deals all too shortly with other important planning traditions, in Spain and Latin America, in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, in China. Those must provide matter for other books by other hands.” (p. 6)


Pre-colonial house on Gorée Island, Senegal. While this permanent architecture and imported materials are identified with the upper métis classes, the labor force was African. As a product of the transatlantic slave trade among other exchanges, it stands as a vociferous visual evidence of African slaves who are muted in the archival records. Photo by Liora Bigon.

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Reflections on “Global Urban History” at the Second Global History Student Conference

Philipp Kandler, Freie Universität Berlin, and Thomas Lindner, Max Planck Institute for Human Development


The Town of Palmira, Valle del Cauca, ca. 1900.  Photo: Biblioteca Departamental Jorge Garcés Borrero

The global history of cities is en vogue at the moment. Increasing numbers of historians interested in global history turn to cities as spaces of connectedness to ground their historical analysis and to explore the role of cities in limiting as well as enabling global interconnectedness in times of uneven globalization. At a student conference organized by students of Berlin’s Global History MA program in May 2016, a group of over forty students from sixteen countries discussed new perspectives on global history. The range of topics discussed mirrored the diversity of presenters: panels on post-colonialism, visual or gender history provided platforms for many interesting and fruitful discussions. The inclusion of a whole panel on “Global Urban History” at the conference certainly reflects the growing importance of the study of cities in global history. Continue reading

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