Yellow Peril: The Rise of an Imperial Scare

Tom Harper
University of Surrey

The Yellow Peril – symbolised by British author Sax Rohmer’s Chinese mastermind Fu Manchu, the self-described ‘Yellow Peril incarnate in one man’ (1913) –  is possibly the most influential paradigm informing the image of China and East Asia in Western popular consciousness [1]. This image depicts China as an implacable oriental opponent of the Western world, a uniform mass with little or no individuality and prone to extreme cruelty. While the perception of the China threat, such as fears over a full blown Sino-American trade war or fears over Chinese ‘student spies’, might appear to be a more recent development, it actually follows a path long trod in the European imperial imaginarium and perpetuated through American strategies in Asia during the 20th century [2]. These same policies have played an important role in influencing and proliferating the Yellow Peril paradigm. Continue reading “Yellow Peril: The Rise of an Imperial Scare”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

A mural in Bogside in Derry/Londonderry near the site of the events of Bloody Sunday. murielle29/flickr, CC BY-SA

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From England’s unreadiness for self-government to the continuing divisiveness of Bloody Sunday, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

Keynote Lecture by Paul Kennedy – The Second World War at Sea, from Top to Bottom: A Braudelian Look at the Allied Victory

Centre for Maritime Historical Studies Keynote Lecture

Professor Paul Kennedy, CBE (Yale University)

‘The Second World War at Sea, from Top to Bottom: A Braudelian Look at the Allied Victory’

When: Wednesday 20 March, 2019, 1700-1830

Where: Amory C417 (University of Exeter, Streatham Campus)

All Welcome

Paul Kennedy is one of Britain’s leading historians. Perhaps best known for his seminal publication The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, his earlier work focused on the history of the Royal Navy and the wider contexts in which it operated. Paul’s book The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, published in 1976, examined the diverse elements that contributed to a nation’s exercise of naval power, including geopolitics, economics and logistics. This was a landmark publication, and one of the first academic works dealing with naval history to intervene in and enlighten wider historiographical debates; it was recently re-issued with a new introduction to coincide with the 40th anniversary of its publication. Paul continues to write and publish on the intersections between naval history, international relations and grand strategy. Paul was made a CBE in 2001, elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003, and was awarded the Caird Medal in 2005 for his contributions to naval history.  

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Image taken from page 186 of ‘[Our Earth and its Story: a popular treatise on physical geography. Edited by R. Brown. With … coloured plates and maps, etc.]’ London, 1899. Courtesy of the British Library’s ‘Women of the World‘ digitization project.
Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the lost internationalism of Wendell Willkie to a history of authoritarian time changes, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

Whitehouse on Foster, ‘African Catholic Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church’

Elizabeth A. Foster. African Catholic Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2019. 369 pp. £32.95 (hardcover), ISBN 9780674987661.

Reviewed by David Whitehouse (University of Exeter)

On July 1, 1888, Charles Lavigerie, founder of the White Fathers Catholic missionary order, gave a speech to a packed Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris in which he denounced the evils of slavery in Africa. The event was a public relations triumph, with African children who had been repurchased from slavery being paraded by the Fathers, clad in white burnouses with red fezzes on their heads, on the church steps. In the late nineteenth century as in the 1950s, slavery was used by the Catholic Church to galvanize public opinion and to raise funds. Lavigerie was not an isolated forerunner of post-war Catholic radicalism. He trained a generation of missionaries to enter the field as convinced anti-slavery activists, as well as supporting a series of military operations against slavery in Africa, with varying degrees of success. And yet until now Catholic missionaries have usually been relegated by historians to the status of obedient cogs in colonial state machines. Elizabeth Foster’s new book offers a major challenge by showing how missionary leaders like Lavigerie and his successors had aims that were often in clear conflict with those of the colonial state – a conflict between French Catholic missionaries and the colonial powers that resurfaced in a big way after the Second World War.

An emphasis upon political transition from colonial regimes to independent states dominates the literature on African decolonization. But decolonization, defined by Foster as the “ending or limiting of European hegemony” that involved power systems that were clearly outside of state apparatus, was a much broader process (p. 11). The book effectively uncovers the conflict between colonial state and Catholic mission in Africa in the 1950s. Foster sees the emergence of a more robust Catholic Left in France against a backdrop of colonial crisis as a key development. Catholicism in France, Foster argues, had previously been the almost exclusive property of the conservative Right. The Catholic Church hierarchy therefore struggled in an “awkward dance” in the 1950s as it sought to reconcile conservatives with radical anti-colonialists (p. 14). To make its provocative case, the book draws on a rich supply of archival sources in France, Italy, and Senegal, as well as a wide range of periodicals.

Another main strength of the book lies in its illumination of the bifurcation between European and Christian identity that Catholic missionary work in Africa entailed. Catholic intellectuals such as Joseph Michel sought in the 1950s to “reclaim and reorient the church as a defender of the oppressed, colonized populations” of the French Empire (p. 100). As Foster argues, the Catholic church was considerably more successful in keeping its adherents in post-colonial Africa than in Europe. World War Two looms large as a turning point here, complementing other recent scholarship. According to Darcie Fontaine, for example, the war is similarly seen as the turning point in the development of French Catholic thinking about the colonies, as Christian theology was used in France as a basis for resistance to Nazism.[1] This can, however, lead to obscuring the continuity of missionary agendas and practice.

In Foster’s account, racial hierarchy keeps its orthodox place as a guiding paradigm of missionary thinking.[2] Foster argues that racist disdain for évolué Africans was common among missionaries and that blatant Catholic racism only became institutionally unacceptable in the 1950s. The new generation of post-war missionaries had more enlightened attitudes than the old guard they replaced. Missionary longevity in the field, the assumption appears to be, solidified racism. This begs the question of why Catholic missionaries would want to work among “unredeemable” and “inferior” peoples for so long.[3] For Lavigerie, setting Africans free from slavery and building the kingdom of Christ in Africa were intended as achievements that would fully match or surpass the establishment of Christianity in Europe. Why would these goals have resonated with peoples who were considered as inherently inferior? Foster’s book begins to provide answers.

Foster’s focus is on the period of decolonization, and the chronological gap between her discussion of Lavigerie and the 1950s paves the way for a new field of research. So, too, would the addition of Protestant missionary sources. After all, Foster makes quite clear the French hostility to American Protestant missionaries. Protestants usually answered back, and denominational rivalry was itself a potential driver of more polarised political stances taken by missionaries on the ground in Africa. Foster’s work thus raises big questions about how Catholic missionaries’ anti-slavery agenda shaped developments and denominational conflict in the first half of the twentieth century across the vast swathes of sub-Saharan Africa in which Christian missions operated. This important book starts the process of giving radical missionary currents their due place in models of colonialism and decolonization.

David Whitehouse is a freelance editor at the Africa Report published by Jeune Afrique in Paris and a PhD candidate at Exeter researching the impact of missionaries in Rwanda and Burundi 1900-1972.


[1] Darcie Fontaine, Decolonizing Christianity: Religion and the End of Empire in France and Algeria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[2] For example, Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[3] Adas has even argued that that Europeans in the early centuries of expansion into Africa and Asia rarely used race to explain what they saw as their superiority, but rather Christianity and, much later, technological accomplishment. See Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2014).

Job Klaxon! Lecturer in History of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula

University of Exeter – College of social Sciences and International Studies

Location: Exeter
Salary: £35,211 to £39,609 depending on qualifications and experience, Grade F
Hours: Full Time
Contract Type: Permanent
Placed On: 7th March 2019
Closes: 3rd April 2019
Job Ref: R12795
We are a Russell Group university boasting a vibrant academic community with over 21,000 students.  Ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world, 98% of our research is rated as being of international quality and focuses on some of the most fundamental issues facing the world today. We encourage proactive engagement with community partners, industry and business to enhance the impact of research and education and improve the employability of our students.
We therefore particularly welcome applications from academic staff with strong connections and funded projects with community partners and business and as well as those who are involved in projects which develop impact.

Continue reading “Job Klaxon! Lecturer in History of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Woodrow Wilson, center, in Europe for business relating to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the death of the Wilsonian Moment to the Liberal International Order and its discontents, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”