Marginal People in Liminal Places: Non-elite Europeans in colonial-era East Asian port cities

Project: Research project

Project Details


Through a study of the lives of non-elite ‘foreigners’ with connections to the British world this research redefines the contours of late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century East Asian port city communities, while also exploring the private and public institutions that controlled and supported them. In doing so, it examines assumptions about foreignness and Britishness, categories which were often determined as much by cultural sensibilities as by bona fide credentials. As this research shows, many marginal Europeans in East Asia were not ‘foreign’ at all, but rather had deep, multi-generational roots in the communities of Asian port cities. However, their cosmopolitan connections called into question their Britishness in the eyes of colonial authorities. This project will, therefore, contribute to historical understandings of imperial subjecthood by highlighting the ambivalences in imperial rhetoric and policy that emerged in the pluralistic environment of the port city.

As places that bridged the maritime world and the coastal hinterlands, port cities attracted mobile and multi-national populations. This project will emphasise the social interconnectedness of East and Southeast Asian port cities by charting the webs of professional, family and social connections that enabled non-elite Europeans to move between different colonial hubs. Yet, in addition to fostering cross-cultural connections, the liminal character of port cities meant that they could also be perceived as a threat to colonial stability, acting as gateways through which illegal goods, disease and ‘undesirables’ could enter. Marginal European communities, which elites associated with crime, poverty and the transgression of racial boundaries, were often perceived as a threat to colonial order.

This project will produce three journal articles, each of which will explore a distinct facet of non-elite European communities: 1. The mobility of non-elite Europeans and the international networks of family, friends, work and education that enabled these movements; 2. The perceived criminality of marginal Europeans and the attempts of colonial and treaty-port authorities to restrain these illicit activities; 3. Public and private philanthropic initiatives to provide aid to destitute Europeans and thereby enhance the status of foreign communities.

Non-elite Europeans were the most visible group of sojourners and settlers in East Asia’s port cities, yet their stories have so far been overshadowed by the aristocratic and middle-class projects of conquest, colonial governance and business in Asia. Overall, this project questions the continuing preoccupation of historical biography with ‘great’ men and women by emphasising the importance of marginal people to shaping the social character of the British empire world.
Effective start/end date1/01/1831/12/21


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