Security and Empire: Mechanics of Securitization in Imperial Spaces

Benedikt Stuchtey / Andrea Wiegeshoff. University of Marburg; Peter Haslinger, Herder Institute, Marburg /SFB/TRR 138 “Dynamics of Security”
16.03.2016 - 18.03.2016
Stephen Foose / Florian Neiske, Faculty of History and Cultural Studies, University of Marburg

Empires desired security, empires struggled for security, and empires established security. Both at home and on the spot decisions were made, actions were taken, and consequences were evaluated. Nevertheless, security remained elusive, contested and dependent upon perspective. With this in mind, empires were on the other hand fragile, porous and themselves created insecurity. The complex realities between concepts, creation, implementation and outcome of security influenced historical processes. Furthermore, they present an analytical opportunity to explore academic connections between security studies and empire studies: How did empires respond to issues of security and insecurity in different imperial settings? Did empires compete or cooperate with each other? What exchanges took place between them?

Exploring the relationship between these two academic fields acted as catalyst and guideline for the international conference Security and Empire: Mechanics of Securitization in Imperial Spaces, held at the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe in Marburg, Germany 16-18 March, 2016. After PETER HASLINGER (Marburg, Germany) offered a warm welcome to start the conference, BENEDIKT STUCHTEY (Marburg, Germany) and ANDREA WIEGESHOFF (Marburg, Germany) expanded on such questions and outlined larger concepts of empire and security, respectively, in their introductory remarks. To encourage comparative perspectives, the five panels of the conference were organized around various imperial spaces, within a timeframe of 1850 to 1930. Space was conceptualized both as a material dimension as well as a social construction, created through human actions and perceptions. This understanding of space thus allowed the presentations to transcend individual empires, and explore overarching realities of (in)securities. Examples were taken from a number of empires, including the British, Dutch, French, Japanese, Russian, and U.S.

The first panel centred on punitive spaces: penal colonies and prisons. Thematically, the relationships between punitive measures, penal locations and security of empire were examined. JONATHAN DALY (Chicago, USA) presented on the deeply rooted use of exile as a means for security in Russia. Considering the territorial space available and lack of sufficient administrative structures, he argued that exile was perceived to embody a cost effective and humane form of punishment. In this way, exile was used (by authorities) as a means to create security in the centre. At the same time though, this form of removal had the potential to create insecurity in distanced spaces, where exiles could evade close state control. Moving from open spaces to enclosed ones, STEPHAN SCHEUZGER (Bern, Switzerland) discussed the global spread of prisons in the 19th century and its connection to security. Prisons, he contended, represented multifunctional institutions built around concepts of social-control. Depending on available resources, they could be used to deter political disagreement and criminality, act as space for individual reformation, or to provide labour. In colonial contexts, for example, the practice of penal labour was emphasized. Regarding security and prisons, discourses tended to focus on the prevention of jail breaks or external attacks, rather than on ensuring state/imperial security. Given this, Scheuzger suggested that security is an insufficient analysis-category for prisons and proposed social-control as a better alternative.

In the keynote lecture, MARTIN THOMAS (Exeter, UK) discussed violence, civilians and insecurities of colonial counter-insurgency. Thomas presented colonial violence, not as a binary of for/against colonialism, but rather entwined with local rivalry and militia fragmentation, similar to civil war frameworks. This dynamic lead to a reduction of civilian space, where involvement in the conflict could be avoided. In response, governments enacted lawfare, or emergency laws that legalized excessive action, further decreasing civilian space. Unable to declare neutrality, civilians were coerced to position themselves in the conflict and became targets. Colonial conflict and governmental permissive violence, therefore, denied civilian agency and closed space open to non-commitment.

The next panel moved away from the fixed, and explored floating spaces. Areas of mobility, the transportation of ideas and people, and attempts to control or secure moveable objects were discussed. KRIS ALEXANDERSON (Stockton, USA) demonstrated how oceans and ships were perceived as potential areas of danger. Using the example of Dutch shipping companies in Asia, she discussed measures of on board surveillance and policing, adopted to combat the spread of anti-west ideologies. As part of this process, non-state actors, like captains and European crew members, were integrated into a larger network of colonial security practices. Alexanderson thus illustrated how empires were active beyond their fixed borders. FRITHJOF BENJAMIN SCHENK (Basel, Switzerland) moved inside the Russian empire and explored the ambiguous connections between railways and security. Railways, he argued, were seen as a modern tool of imperial rule, valuable for controlling space, transporting military forces and goods, and encouraging territorial integration. Increased mobility, however, generated new challenges, as people or ideas needed to be monitored. At the same time, tracks and trains became popular targets for attacks, leaving railroads as a valuable, yet vulnerable tool. Using the Crippen Murder Case, ROLAND WENZLHUEMER (Heidelberg, Germany) illustrated the challenges of dealing with the movement, control and access of in-transit information. In the Crippenis case, the ship captain controlled the coming and going of information from on board, giving access to both security forces and media outlets. At the same time constant reporting and emerging public interest established uncontrolled spaces, where reputations of metropolitan institutions were challenged. Wenzlhuemer highlighted the difficulties and chances of policing/securing under the watch of the public eye.

Floating spaces drifted away to subversive meeting points in the next panel. Both papers examined surveillance measures by empires beyond their own borders, as they tracked the movement of presumed subversive individuals. To begin, KATHLEEN KELLER (St. Peter, USA) discussed growing anxiety and practices of surveillance in French West Africa. The interwar period marked a time of crisis for the French Empire, where uncertainty lead to broadened concepts of suspicious activities. In this context, authorities associated the spread of radical ideas with foreigners who displayed non-conformist behaviours. Foreigners were thus viewed as potentially dangerous and disproportionately put under surveillance. Such measures, she argued, exemplified an ever expanding culture of suspicion, leading to exaggerated responses. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, SEEMA SOHI (Boulder, USA) presented inter-imperial security practices aimed at the Indian anti-colonial movement in the US. Using the example of international entry points, she outlined cooperation between the British, American and Canadian authorities on surveillance and border control. Whereas for the US, anti-immigration and racism dominated the discourse, the fear of anti-colonial movements lead the British. Yet shared ideologies of anti-radical repression warranted collaboration. Sohi’s example illustrated the imperial desire and ability to practice security beyond their borders.

Port cities, the topic of the next panel, represented contact zones not only of actors or goods, but also diseases or ideas. MARK HARRISON (Oxford, UK) began the panel with his examination of the British Empire’s responses to the spread of cholera throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The spread, Harrison argued, was at the time not viewed as a direct security issue, and questioned if securitization of public health was relevant in the 19th Century. Imperial authorities, rather, were concerned about potential indirect consequences, such as loss of economic influence or reputation. Therefore, reactions were not consistent and depended on local circumstances, as Harrison’s examples of Bombay (Mumbai), Sydney, Calcutta (Kolkata) and Nagasaki showed. Illustrating the realities of security and disease from a different lens, JEONG-RAN KIM (Oxford, UK) presented on the example of Japanese controlled Dairen. During the early 20th Century, Dairen was hit by a series of different diseases. Japanese authorities were quick to blame Chinese coolies, unfree migrant labourers, for the spread, leading them to impose quarantine and health measures. Despite being labelled a security issue, coolies were necessary for the labour force. Their need grew during wartime, as the focus shifted towards expanding labour mobilization. The balancing act of imperial security issues and economic interests was central to Kim’s work.

DANIELA HETTSTEDT (Basel, Switzerland) next presented on the duality of inter-imperial cooperation and competition in the neutral city of Tangier. Without formal control, security issues and common problems lead to the formation of platforms for negotiation. Cooperation, however, could not be separated from competition, as Empires had different reasoning for participating. A desire to ensure involvement was most often mixed with a fear of exclusion. The erection of the Cape Spartel lighthouse exemplified such imperial practice, where maritime security brought multiple nations together to ensure access to greater strategic interests. Turning towards the east, KERSTIN SUSANNE JOBST (Vienna, Austria) discussed competing narratives of the Crimean city of Sevastopol and its harbour. In an effort to challenge the success narrative so often found in Russian memory regarding Sevastopol, Jobst compared aspirations and realities surrounding the city. Success narratives emphasize the city as built out of imperial victory, representing the symbioses between nature and Russian power. Reality, though, reminds that Sevastopol failed to become economically dominant, and was conquered by multiple foreign invaders, though tales of Russian heroics during sieges persisted.

Leaving the shores behind, the last panel trekked across frontiers and borderlands. The thematic focus of the panel included notions of challenged sovereignty and fixed borders. ERIC LEWIS BEVERLY (Stony Brook, USA) concentrated on the subordinate, but formally sovereign Indian state Hyderabad and complexities of local competing securities. Existing within British India, Hyderabad’s border became a contested area. By securitizing their border, the British (Raj) looked to control the movement of people and goods. However, for Hyderabad, the border was crucial for everyday securities – food, health, and work - of their population. Each state therefore had competing concepts of security, with state security often creating insecurity for people. Beverley thus reminded us of the importance of reflecting on the question of ‘whose security?’. Continuing with the challenges of multiple sovereignties, MAURUS REINKOWSKI (Basel, Switzerland) presented on the Ottoman imperial presence in Egypt. He claimed, formal Ottoman control was rather weak. Such weakness allowed foreign empires to gain influence and informal power, as the British did in the late 19th century. Foreign influence lead the Ottomans to examine the security of their position as sovereign power, as it was challenged from without and within. The British aimed to protect their interests, e.g. the Suez Canal, while internal Egyptian expansion into Sudan created its own security issues. Through this, Reinkowski illustrated how multiple layers of sovereignty produced competing securities.

Reflecting on the conference, the concluding panel debate aimed to not only address and answer the questions which spawned the conference, but to discuss and expand on the approaches and potential for further work. Introduced and chaired by Benedikt Stuchtey, the panel also included ECKART CONZE (Marburg, Germany), BEATRICE DE GRAAF (Utrecht, Netherlands) and MADELEINE HERREN-OESCH (Basel, Switzerland). Throughout the discussion, the issue of whose security remained central. In imperial contexts, it was noted, (state) security often entailed implicit euro-centrism, producing highly imbalanced views of security. To counter this, furthering research into examinations of indigenous or non-state concepts of security could be useful. Thereby, forcing re-conceptualization of what security (can) entail(s). Concepts of security, therefore, it was said, could be expanded to include everyday concerns, perceived threats, and dangers. Moreover, the issue of how the availability of resources could influence security perceptions and responses was raised. A proposal was suggested that by potentially including further semantic fields surrounding security into analysis, narrowness could be avoided. At the same time, however, concerns were raised that such broadening of security has the potential to reduce its analytical precision.

The panel then discussed the potential relationship between empire studies and security studies. It was proposed that security could be used not as a research topic, but as a lens to look at and analyse empires in their historical settings. Such an approach would introduce new research questions and encourage comparative perspectives, both within and between empires. In comparing, the possible existence of multiple layers of security could be exposed. While on the other hand, through inter-imperial comparison, larger questions, such as to the existence of an imperial security culture – either synchronically or diachronically, could be addressed and potentially answered. Members of the panel also addressed areas that were missing, or underrepresented during the conference. Topics and questions regarding gender, the environment or the role of individuals as negotiator between imperial and local actors, appeared only on the borders. Taking the presented works and the proposed areas for research, the panel concluded by highlighting the fruitfulness of combining empire and security studies.

Conference Overview:

Welcome: Peter Haslinger (Herder Institute Marburg)
Introduction: Benedikt Stuchtey / Andrea Wiegeshoff (University of Marburg)

Panel 1: Penal Colonies and Prisons
Chair: Benedikt Stuchtey (Marburg)

Jonathan Daly (University of Illinois at Chicago): Security on the Cheap: Exile in the Russian Empire
Stephan Scheuzger (University of Bern): Transforming Models of Social Control: The Prison in Imperial Contexts

Public Keynote Lecture
Martin Thomas (University of Exeter): Civilian Spaces and the Insecurities of Colonial Counter-Insurgency

Panel 2: Floating Spaces
Chair: Anna Veronika Wendland (Herder Institute Marburg)

Kris Alexanderson (University of the Pacific): Subversive Seas. Transoceanic Policing and Anti-Imperial Migrations in the Twentieth-Century Dutch Empire
Frithjof Benjamin Schenk (University of Basel): Connecting and Disconnecting the Empire’s Peripheries: Imperial Railroads and Security in late Tsarist Russia
Roland Wenzlhuemer (University of Heidelberg): Policing Between the Ship and the World: The Crippen Murder Case 1910

Panel 3: Subversive Meeting Points
Chair: Andrea Wiegeshoff (University of Marburg)

Kathleen Keller (Gustavus Adolphus College): A Culture of Suspicion and the Surveillance of Foreigners in Interwar French West Africa
Seema Sohi (University of Colorado Boulder): Repressing “Hindu Conspiracies” from Lahore to San Francisco: Tracing the Inter-Imperial Collaborations of the British and U.S. Empires

Panel 4: Port Cities
Chair: Friedrich Lenger (University of Gießen)

Mark Harrison (University of Oxford): Disease and Security in Britain's Maritime Empire: Cholera in the Asia-Pacific Region, c.1860-1900
Daniela Hettstedt (University of Basel): International Organizations as Inter-Imperial Actors? Negotiating Security at Tangier (Morocco), 1852-1914
Kerstin Susanne Jobst (University of Vienna): Concepts of Internal and External Security: Histories of Sevastopol in Tsarist Times
Jeong-Ran Kim (University of Oxford): Security and Disease in Japanese Controlled Dairen, 1900-1940

Panel 5: Frontier and Borderlands
Chair: Peter Haslinger (Herder Institute Marburg)

Eric Lewis Beverley (Stony Brook University): Securing Empire's Borderlands: Mobility, Sovereignty, and Legal Regimes in South Asia and Beyond
Maurus Reinkowski (University of Basel): “Unprotected Domains”: Ottoman Imperial Presence in Egypt under British Occupation

Panel Debate
Chair and Introduction: Benedikt Stuchtey (University of Marburg)

Eckart Conze (University of Marburg)
Beatrice de Graaf (Utrecht University)
Madeleine Herren-Oesch (University of Basel)

Tagungsbericht: Security and Empire: Mechanics of Securitization in Imperial Spaces, 16.03.2016 – 18.03.2016 Marburg, in: H-Soz-Kult, 16.06.2016, <>.
Editors Information
Published on
Additional Informations
Language Contribution
Country Event
Language Event