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,

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”

Victoria & Abdul: Simulacra & Simulation

Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, 1893 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gajendra Singh
University of Exeter

Cross-posted from Not Even Past

One of the earliest films to be shot and then screened throughout India were scenes from the Delhi Durbar between 29th December 1902 and 10th January 1903.[1] The Imperial Durbar, created to celebrate the accession of Edward VII as Emperor of India following the death of Victoria, was the most expensive and elaborate act of British Imperial pageantry that had ever been attempted. Nathaniel Curzon, as Viceroy of India, oversaw the construction of a tent city housing 150,000 guests north of Delhi proper and what occurred in Delhi was to be replicated (on a smaller scale) in towns and cities across India.

The purpose of the Durbar was to contrast British modernity with Indian tradition. Europeans at the Durbar were instructed to dress in contemporary styles even when celebrating an older British Imperial past (as with veterans of the ‘Mutiny’). Indians, however, were to wear Oriental (perceptibly Oriental) costumes as motifs of their Otherness. This construction of an exaggerated sense of Imperial difference, and through it Imperial order and Imperial continuity, was significant. It was a statement of the permanence of Empire, of Britain’s Empire being at the vanguard of modernity even as the Empire itself was increasingly anxious about nascent nationalist movements and rocked by perpetual Imperial crises.[2]

It’s unlikely that Stephen Frears watched these films from 1902 or 1903 upon finalising the screenplay and then shooting Victoria & Abdul. They have only recently been digitized and archived by the British Film Institute.[3] But his recent movie, filmed when most visions of the past are obscured by the myopia of the present, is an unconscious reproduction of films produced and shown when Empire was an idée fixe in the British mind. Abdul Karim, one of several Indians at Victoria’s court during her long reign,[4] is a cypher throughout the film who has no emotion or sentiment or stirring rhetoric except when genuflecting before his Empress – kissing her feet upon their first meeting, stoically holding her hand upon her death, sitting as a sentinel by her statue in Agra into his dotage. Continue reading “Victoria & Abdul: Simulacra & Simulation”

H-Diplo Review of “The Imperialism of Economic Nationalism”

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Marc-William Palen.  “The Imperialism of Economic Nationalism, 1890-1913.”  Diplomatic History 39:1 (January 2015):  157-185.  DOI:  10.1093/dh/dht135.

Cross-posted from H-Diplo

Reviewed by David Sim, University College London

The Obama administration’s engagement with the Cuban government has led politicians and pundits of all stripes to reflect on the relationship between commerce and politics and, in so doing, to reanimate the concept of ‘the open door.’ Marc-William Palen, a Lecturer in Imperial History at the University of Exeter, argues that this concept has been misunderstood and misapplied by historians of American foreign relations from the 1960s to the present.  Building on his work on the global impact of the highly protectionist McKinley Tariff of 1890, Palen sets out to rethink the characterisation of American power at the end of the nineteenth century by outlining what he describes as the “imperialism of economic nationalism,” as distinct from the “imperialism of free trade” (163).1

What is striking, he suggests, is not the American commitment to liberalised trade and the free movement of goods, people and capital, but rather the tenacity with which a band of influential Republican statesmen married their commitment to a high tariff to a programme of reciprocity and, ultimately, to an imperial foreign policy in the late nineteenth century. Convinced of the maturity of American industry but anxious that the U.S. domestic market had become saturated, these statesmen sought a solution in what Palen calls “an expansive closed door,” as administration after administration “coercively enforced a policy of closed colonial markets in Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.” (163).

Palen opens this sharp article with a smart pair of quotations. The first is from William Appleman Williams, arguably the single most influential historian of American foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century. “The Open Door Policy,” he writes, “was America’s version of the liberal policy of informal empire or free trade imperialism” (157). The second person quoted is Benjamin B. Wallace, long-time member of the U.S. Tariff Commission, who would not have recognised Williams’s characterisation. “The open door does not and should not mean free trade,” he bluntly stated in March 1924 (157). These two interpretations offer a neat frame for Palen’s study, and highlight a basic but important historiographical insight that informs the article. Historians have long noted the protectionist credentials of the late-nineteenth-century Republican Party, yet the analytical purchase of ‘free trade imperialism,’ formulated in the context of British imperial history by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson and imported to American historiography by Williams and others, has endured.2  Why have so many insightful historians persisted with such an obviously ill-fitting concept?

Continue reading “H-Diplo Review of “The Imperialism of Economic Nationalism””