Mobile subjects: British nationality and consular protection on the edges of empire, c. 1900-1950

Project: Research project

Project Details


How was membership of a political community defined and what did it mean for individuals on the edges of empire, where the state was often remote and where multi- level forms of belonging existed? Focusing principally on the Chinese treaty ports with comparative material from, Japan, Siam (Thailand) and Egypt, this research will elucidate the importance of political and social contexts on the colonial periphery to the trial, interpretation, and contestation of British nationality legislation in the first half of the twentieth century. A major aim is to investigate how the specific political and social conditions of colonial sites beyond the boundaries of the territorial British empire, particularly the existence of extraterritorial legal regimes and cosmopolitan demographics, brought to the forefront the tension between inclusive ideals of universal imperial citizenship and a contradictory impulse to contain cross- colonial migration by narrowing the eligibility criteria for British nationality. In doing so, this study will demonstrate how analysis of Britishness overseas must be anchored in specific local legal, demographic, and political conditions rather than only sentiment and identity.

This research will establish how individual, community, national, and imperial identities – and the tensions between them – were negotiated and established through technologies of control and identification, such as the passport. Examination of petitions for British passports or protected person status in extra-imperial sites demonstrate how settlers and expatriates performed their Britishness to consuls charged with enforcing nationality laws, often by asserting links to British institutions and people rather than bona fide legal credentials. Consular deliberations about these applications, on the other hand, bring to light subjective understandings of imperial loyalties, and the extent to which they were perceived to be dissipated by place, race, and gender.

Above all, this project seeks to integrate humanity into legal history by elucidating the profound ways in which the enforcement of increasingly narrow definitions of British citizenship overseas impinged upon the lived experiences of liminal individuals and communities. The research will highlight the experiences of three groups of people whose national statuses were frequently contested: 1) children born to a British parent outside of British territory; 2) formerly British women married to Chinese subjects and women of other nationalities married to British subjects, and 3) British imperial subjects who sought to assert British national and legal identities in the course of cross-colonial travels to semicolonial sites, such as the Chinese treaty ports.

Effective start/end date1/01/2231/12/23


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