Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire

Jeffrey A. Auerbach. Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. pp.320. ISBN: 9780198827375; £35.00

Reviewed by Amina Marzouk Chouchene (PhD candidate, Manouba University)

The British Empire has been firmly tied to myth, adventure, and victory. For many Britons, “the empire was the mythic landscape of romance and adventure. It was that quarter of the globe that was colored and included darkest Africa and the mysterious East.”[1]Cultural artifacts such as music, films, cigarette cards, and fiction have long constructed and reflected this rosy vision of the empire as a place of adventure and excitement. Against this widely held view of the empire, Jeffrey Auerbach identifies an overwhelming emotion that filled the psyche of many Britons as they moved to new lands: imperial boredom. Auerbach defines boredom as “an emotional state that individuals experience when they find themselves without anything particular to do and are uninterested in their surroundings.”[2]

Auerbach identifies the feeling as a “modern construct” closely associated with the mid-eighteenth century. This does not mean that people were never bored before this, but that they “did not know it or express it.”[3] Rather, it was with the spread of industrial capitalism and the Enlightenment emphasis on individual rights and happiness that the concept came to the fore.

In a well-researched and enjoyable book, the author argues “that despite the many and famous tales of glory and adventure, a significant and overlooked feature of the nineteenth century British imperial experience was boredom and disappointment.”[4] In other words, instead of focusing on the exploits of imperial luminaries such as Walter Raleigh, James Cook, Robert Clive, David Livingstone, Cecil Rhodes and others, Auerbach pays particular attention to the moments when many travelers, colonial officers, governors, soldiers, and settlers were gripped by an intense sense of boredom in India, Australia, and southern Africa. Continue reading “Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire”

The Habsburg Empire: A New History by Pieter Judson (2016)

Jonathan Parker
University of Texas at Austin

Cross-posted from Not Even Past

This excellent work by historian Pieter Judson shows how the Hapsburg empire was a modernizing force that sustained a complex but often mutually beneficial relationship with the various nationalist movements within its borders.  To support this argument, Judson synthesizes an impressive number of existing works on narrower topics into a cohesive narrative history of the empire from the late eighteenth century until its demise at the end of World War I. Judson claims that the empire was hardly doomed prior to 1914, arguing against long-standing nationalist histories of the empire’s inevitable collapse. While The Habsburg Empire is not without its flaws, it will surely remain required reading for anyone interested not only in the empire itself, but more broadly in the history of state-building, modernization, and nationalism in the nineteenth century. Continue reading “The Habsburg Empire: A New History by Pieter Judson (2016)”

Anxieties, Fear, and Panic in Colonial Settings

Harald Fischer-Tiné. Anxieties, Fear, and Panic in Colonial Settings: Empires on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. pp. 404. ISBN 978-3-319-45135-0

Reviewed by Amina Marzouk Chouchene (PhD Candidate, Manouba University)

Twenty-first-century Britain brims with a revival of rosy visions of Britain’s imperial past. Nowhere is such a tendency clearer than in the restless efforts to rehabilitate the empire by prominent conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson. Britain’s imperial glories and its benign influence over the rest of the world are dominant themes in Ferguson’s popular writings such as his Empire: the Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. According to him, the colonies hugely benefited from British colonialism’s gifts of free trade, free capital movements, and the abolition of slavery.

This celebratory examination of the British Empire has also become a part of the official political discourse at the highest levels of government. In his speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2011, David Cameroon looked back with Tory nostalgia to the lost days of empire. His speech evoked a mythologized version of Britain’s imperial past in which the empire was the ultimate force for good in the world. Theresa May also recently exalted the virtues of a “Global Britain,” “a great, global, trading nation that is respected around the world and strong.”[1] Most importantly, debates surrounding Brexit have highlighted how, for many Britons, the British Empire often reads as “a success story” about Britain’s “ruling the waves.”

In contrast to this rosy vision of Britain’s imperial past, scholars are increasingly interested in tracing British imperial emotions: the feelings of fear, anxiety, and panic that gripped many Britons as they moved to foreign lands. Robert Peckham’s Empires of Panic: Epidemics and Colonial Anxieties (2015), Marc Condos’s The Insecurity State: Punjab and the Making of Colonial Power in British India (2018), the 2018 special issue in Itinerario on “The Private Lives of Empire: Emotion, Intimacy, and Colonial Rule,” and Kim Wagner’s Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre (2019) highlight the sense of vulnerability felt by the British in the colonies. Harald Fisher-Tiné’s edited volume Anxieties, Fear, and Panic in Colonial Settings is a welcome addition to this growing body of literature.

From the outset of the book, Fisher-Tiné highlights the pervasiveness of feelings of fear, anxiety, and panic in many colonial sites. He acknowledges that: “the history of colonial empires has been shaped to a considerable extent by negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and embarrassment, as well as by the regular occurrence of panics” (1). Bringing case studies from the British Empire as well as Dutch and German colonialism, the contributors uncover not only the pervasiveness of these emotions, but also their significant impact on colonial discursive and institutional strategies.

The volume consists of four main parts. The first discusses the effects of anxieties and panics over colonial minds and bodies. In this respect, David Arnold, for example, examines the poisoning panics in British India that were precipitated by Europeans’ fears of the supposed treachery of their Indian servants. Arnold affirms that poisoning panics have long been rife in India. Indeed, “under colonial rule, the country was subject to a long series of alarms and scares, some of which were sufficiently intense, and protracted to amount to ‘panics’” (49). Yet they were attributed to racial and political overtones in the nineteenth century. That is, the white elites were seen as particularly prone to this major threat. Arnold suggests that these excessive emotional states were triggered by three main causes. First, the European population in British India was heavily dependent on Indian servants and subordinates who might retaliate against unfair masters or whose access to European dwellings could be used by malevolent others to empoison the white elite. Second, anxieties about the assumed toxic effects of the Indian climate fuelled also poisoning panics. Diseases such as malaria and cholera were considered to be the ultimate outcome of an “atmospheric poison” (53). Third, Indian therapeutics and the system of medicine were also identified as a potential cause of poisoning European communities. These poisoning panics only helped reinforce the racial categorizations of Indians, the moral supremacy of the white population, and the legitimacy of colonial rule.

The second section of the collection deals with the “various kinds of discursive responses to imperial panics” (13). Focusing on the assassination of a high-ranking colonial official in London in the summer of 1909 by a Hindu student, for example, Fischer-Tiné pinpoints that the incident was used to demonize Indian anti-colonial activists such as Shyamji Krishnavarma. The latter “was one of the most important spokesmen of the Indian national movement in Europe in the early 1900s…and a sober nationalist with liberal leanings” (14). Nevertheless, following the London murder, he “was presented almost unanimously in official and semi-official and media accounts as the loathsome head of an international terror network” (101).

The third part examines the practical and institutional measures that were adopted to contain threats. These included the establishment of new systems of surveillance and discipline and even military intervention. On this subject, for instance, Daniel Brückenhaus considers British and French authorities’ fears of the potential alliances between anti-colonialists and Germans from 1904 to 1939. Interestingly, the author contends that “fears of German anti-colonial alliances motivated governments to extend their surveillance across inner-European borders” (226).

The final section explores “epistemic anxieties.” It focuses on how anxieties and panics led to the production, use, and circulation of colonial knowledge in imperial settings (17). In this regard, for instances, the chapter by Richard Holzl uncovers how missionaries’ panic over native sexual education in German East Africa led to the production of anthropological and religious knowledge in order to enable their fellow missionaries to deal with particular issues such as circumcision, and female genital mutilation.

Taken together, the thirteen contributors show the persistence of fears, anxieties, and panics in a wide variety of imperial settings and how colonial authorities sought to come to terms with this sense of vulnerability. The volume thus expands our understanding of how a sense of fragility rather than strength shaped colonial policies.


[1] Koo Koram, and Kerem Nisancioglu. “Britain: The Empire that never was.” Critical Legal Thinking, 31 Oct 2017,

Cold War Triangle: How Scientists in East and West Tamed HIV

Renilde Loeckx. Cold War Triangle: How Scientists in East and West Tamed HIV. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2017. 192 pp. $29.50 (paper), ISBN 978-946270113-7.

Reviewed by Dora Vargha (University of Exeter) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Cross-posted from H-Diplo

Printable Version:

Renilde Loeckx’s Cold War Triangle tells the story of an international scientific collaboration across the iron curtain that led to the development of HIV blockbuster drugs such as Viread and Truvada. It is as much a story of Cold War collaboration among scientists, as a story of collaboration between scientific institutions and pharmaceutical companies. In her introduction, Loeckx, a former ambassador of Belgium, sets out to bridge diplomacy and science to tell the story of Antonín Holy and Erik Le Clercq: the collaboration of a Czechoslovak and Belgian scientist with the American pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. As Loeckx writes, the book is “about the human face of science, how scientists from three different cultures collaborated to create the complex drugs that saved millions of lives” (p. 15). Continue reading “Cold War Triangle: How Scientists in East and West Tamed HIV”

Apartheid’s Secrets and Lies

Stuart Mole
University of Exeter

If the first casualty of war is truth, the last act of a tyrannical regime is to attempt to expunge all evidence of its crimes. In 1992, with apartheid’s end in sight, South Africa’s President, FW De Klerk, authorised the destruction by the National Intelligence Agency of 44 tonnes of incriminating material[1]. This was incinerated at night at a location outside Pretoria. Vast amounts of other sensitive records have also disappeared, in what Verne Harris has called a “large-scale and systematic sanitisation of official memory”.[2] But Hennie Van Vuuren and his team of researchers from the not-for-profit organisation ‘Open Secrets’ have been driven by the firm belief that apartheid’s secrets must be exposed, and that truth will out. Over five years of meticulous research they have examined around 2 million documents in over two dozen archives across the world. In South Africa itself, through fifty freedom of information requests, they were able to access recently de-classified papers in eight government departments.

The result is a 600-page blockbuster, now available in the UK (Apartheid, Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, London C. Hurst & Co 2018). With a focus on the last fifteen years of apartheid, the author argues that the apartheid regime went to increasingly covert and illegal lengths to defend its position in the face of international sanctions and growing unrest in the townships and on its borders. A war economy was built, and around one-third of the state budget was spent on security and the military (though the scale of the expenditure was concealed). Externally, a network of political, business, intelligence and criminal links were constructed in over fifty countries so that South Africa could evade the oil and arms embargo, launder money and circumvent sanctions. Those nations accused of giving succour to the regime are not only those of the West – such as the USA, France and the UK – but, surprisingly, countries such as East Germany, Russia and China who proclaimed their support for the liberation movements. In the case of China, van Vuuren’s remarkable accusation is that while ostensibly backing the Pan-Africanist Congress and, later, the African National Congress, the People’s Republic supplied arms to the South African regime throughout the 1980s (while also continuing to arm its liberation partners). Continue reading “Apartheid’s Secrets and Lies”

Rethinking Empire and Ethnic Diversity in East-Central Europe

Benno Gammerl. Subjects, Citizens and Others: Administering Ethnic Heterogeneity in the British and Habsburg Empires, 1867-1918, trans by J.W. Neuheiser, Berghahn, Oxford 2018. 92£/978-1-78533-709-3.

Reviewed by George Giannakopoulos (Durham University)

In the summer of 1906, a young Scottish historian embarked on an eight-week journey across the Hungarian end of the Habsburg Empire. Travelling from Vienna to Bratislava and Budapest, and from Cluj to Zagreb and Fiume, Robert W. Seton-Watson prided himself for being among the first foreign observers interested in the national and ethnic diversity in the region. Seton-Watson’s sojourn launched a lasting crusade against the forced assimilation of non-Hungarian populations living under Hungarian jurisdiction which has come to be known as the policies of “Magyarization”. His writings fractured the Victorian edifice of Hungarian liberalism and laid the foundation for the academic study of the Slavonic world in Britain under the auspices of the School of Slavonic Studies in London.

Reacting to Seton-Watson’s polemic, Hungarian liberals drew parallels between Hungary and Britain. They argued that Hungary’s “Magyarization” policy did not differ from similar processes of national homogenisation enforced across the British Empire. Both imperial states, the argument run, included culturally and ethnically heterogeneous populations and made space for cultural autonomy to the extent that freedoms offered did not fracture the unity of the state, the raison d’état. Such an assertion irked the Scottish historian. In his view, Britain and Austria-Hungary were not on the same plane; the long history of liberty and toleration in the British Isles did not measure up to the Magyar policies of “tyranny” and forced assimilation. There was an insurmountable geographical and mental barrier separating an empire of liberty and toleration from a monarchy which had partly fallen under the spell of oriental despotism. Continue reading “Rethinking Empire and Ethnic Diversity in East-Central Europe”

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. Continue reading “Whitehouse on Foster, ‘African Catholic Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church’”