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About the Centre

Research themes

The key themes that frame the field-leading research produced by Centre members are: 

The postcolonial turn in the writing of history began as a political project: to contribute to a genuine liberation of knowledge in the present from colonial and neo-colonial frames of thought. The political edge to that project may no longer be felt so keenly but the intellectual project remains. We recognize the colonial (and neo-colonial) archive to be a space of commencement and commandment; where our thought begins but is simultaneously disciplined and conditioned. We recognize the need to explore the historicizable past beyond what was cropped, edited and domiciled in English and beyond what lies in the traditional archive. And, we look to produce history that is not just disseminated and consumed in Europe and North America but accessible to and by our audience in the Global South. Our researchers engage with multiple forms of archive and evidence: from Nandini Chatterjee’s work on early modern Persianate legal documentation, to Silvia Espelt Bombin’s eighteenth-century indigenous treaties, to Emily Bridger’s oral histories of former anti-apartheid activists in Soweto. Many of our scholars adopt interdisciplinary methodologies, such as Rebecca William’s engagement with medical anthropology and public health to investigate Indian family planning policies, and Stacey Hynd’s drawing on sociology, anthropology and postcolonial literary analysis to analyse humanitarian campaigning against the recruitment of child soldiers.  Our PGR students are also involved in developing new, interdisciplinary research methodologies to trace the history of contemporary crises. Diana Valencia Duarte combines her scientific background in engineering and food security with oral history and environmental history perspectives to trace the history of the impact of agrarian counter-reforms on food sovereignty and in/security in late twentieth century Colombia, bringing indigenous peasant voices and knowledge to the fore.  

Imperialism was predicated on processes of colonizing both the minds and bodies of its subjects, but those processes were always incomplete and contested. Decolonizing minds and bodies is an ongoing project of postcolonial theory and decolonial thought, a project many of our scholars are involved with as they seek to trace the history of such cultural, psychological and physical colonization.  One key strand of this research is our strength in (post-)colonial gender histories, where we have a particular focus on African and Indian gender histories, investigating how colonialism and its structural and cultural legacies have impacted men and women in similar and dissimilar ways.  Emily Bridger’s research has highlighted the importance of female youth to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, exploring why female students and youth joined the liberation struggle, the roles they played, and how they today narrate and make sense of their former activism. Her current research tackles questions surrounding South Africa’s contemporary ‘rape epidemic’ by providing a history of sexual violence in the country, investigating how African women have conceptualised, experienced, and sought justice against the ubiquitous violence that shapes their day-to-day lives. Stacey Hynd researches the comparative experiences of girl and boy soldiers in contemporary African conflicts and works more broadly on histories of African women in colonial courts. PhD students Rhian Keyse and Bethany Rebisz are illuminating the gendered dimensions of British colonial welfare and development policies, focusing on forced marriage and on rehabilitation and population-centric counterinsurgency in the Mau Mau Emergency respectively. Moving to Indian experiences, Gajendra Singh’s work on Indian soldiers’ testimonies about their experiences of the First and Second World Wars highlights their fragmented masculine identities as both colonial subjects and imperial policemen, whilst PhD student Prashant researches the position of women in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Maratha Empire law and society. Aside from gender, our researchers also have a strong interest in (post-)colonial youth identities and youth politics in Africa and former socialist countries, with Stacey Hynd and Emily Bridger researching children in political violence and Ljubica Spaskovska working on youth politics in Yugoslavia.  

Through our connections with Centre for Medical History and the Wellcome Centre for Environments and Cultures of Health, we also have a particular strength in global and (post-)colonial medical histories. The project offers the first historical account of the role of non-Western experts and patients in shaping emerging global networks of knowledge production and exchange. Dora Vargha’s work explores the global and local dimensions of public health emergencies, most notably the series of polio epidemics in communist Hungary. Her current research on ‘Socialist Medicine’ pioneers a new history of global health that for the first time explores the impact of socialist internationalism in co-producing global health in the twentieth century. Rebecca Williams examines how and why India became a ‘laboratory’ for population control intervention in the post-war period, looking particularly at sterilisation campaigns during the 1975-77 Emergency and at the gendering of family planning programmes, whilst PGR student Meg Kanazawa investigates tensions between global and local responses to HIV/AIDS in India.

Issues of race, ethnicity and (im)migration have in recent years come to the forefront of British, and global, politics. The histories of these issues and identities are deeply interconnected with those of empire. Our researchers are analysing the historical roots of contemporary tensions around race and migration, and are highlighting the magnitude of the contributions made to British, imperial and global society by Black, Asian, Latinx, and indigenous communities. All Centre members analyse racial and ethnic identities and identifications, and the changing meanings of race and ethnicity as part of their research, but some have made this a core focus of their work, whilst others take a more intersectional approach. Ryan Hanley researches both the historic black presence in Britain and the role of race in British society, especially in relation to transatlantic slavery and its abolition. His current research project on slavery and the British working class resituates the history of British popular radicalism within its imperial and global contexts, to trace the origins of anti-immigration rhetoric, working-class backlashes against metropolitan elites, and racial populism, uncovering the deep roots of contemporary British political culture. Switching to African histories of slavery, Richard Anderson explores the social and cultural history of freed slaves settled in and around Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, highlighting how racial and ethnic identities developed. Looking at the Americas, Silvia Espelt Bombin undertakes ethnohistorical research on indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon and Guianas, looking at how imperial policies were shaped by indigenous agency. Focusing on histories of migration, Miguel Hernandez’ current research focuses on examining how white supremacist and nativist organizations perceived and interacted with Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American citizens in the period before the 1930s. Gajendra Singh is researching communities of migrant Indian labourers across the Pacific and their connection to revolutionary movements at home and abroad, showing how the global web of Empire that was for Britain a source of strength could also be the cause of colonial insurrection; that bodies and ideas could migrate to spaces they were not supposed to. James Mark is currently involved in researching histories of whiteness in Eastern Europe, writing the regional into global (post-)imperial formations. A cohort of our PhD students are also exploring how ideas of race shaped the politics and cultures of empire in the early twentieth century. Stuart Mole utilises unprecedented access to Commonwealth Secretariat archives to investigate the Commonwealth’s negotiations with apartheid South Africa, whilst Ghee Bowman’s doctoral research focused on recovering the experiences of Muslim Indian soldiers who served in Britain and Europe during the Second World War. Charlotte Kelsted meanwhile researches the multiple intimate colonialisms that British women were involved with in Mandate Palestine, showing how these were shaped by women’s understandings of Christian, Arab and Jewish racial and gender identities.

Violence was foundational to the colonial order, and to efforts to overthrow colonial rule. In conjunction with the Centre for Study of War, State and Society we have a core research focus on histories of (post-) colonial violence. Centre members have been heavily involved in the Leverhulme research network ‘Understanding Insurgencies’, led by Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless. We have particular expertise in histories of (post-)colonial state violence, repression and surveillance. Martin Thomas has written extensively on the nature and extent of political violence during contested decolonization in French and British empires across Africa and Asia, as well as researching the histories of imperial policing, colonial security services and state violence. Gajendra Singh is currently researching the Ghadar Movement, an anti-imperial revolutionary movement in India during the First World War, highlighting how surveillance methods created to combat subversion could drive imperial panic. Catriona Pennell works on post-war Middle East, particularly the British mandate period in Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan, examining imperial control in practice and the question of ‘power’ behind the mandated thrones. Some of our researchers explore particular forms of colonial, and anti-colonial, violence, with Gemma Clark’s research on the development of criminal fire setting as a social and political protest tool contextualising Ireland's history of non-lethal property damage in conflict within broader global histories of arson and fire-setting. Others highlight the agency and impact of particular violence agents. Stacey Hynd investigates the significance of child soldiers and youth fighters in anti-colonial and contemporary conflict in Africa, whilst Emily Bridger’s work contextualizes female fighters in South Africa against broader histories of women in war and Gareth Curless highlights the relationship between labour unrest, state repression of workers and decolonisation across Singapore, Guyana, Ghana and Sudan. More broadly, our scholars are interested in broader comparative analyses of violence and civil wars, at both local and global levels, with Ljubica Spaskovska currently working on a globalized account of the history of European violence, tracing the relationship between the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and the post-1945 wars of decolonization to show the evolution of interwar anti-imperialism into a broader Third World internationalist alliance.

Law was a key site of colonial control and violence, but also a vector of anti-colonial resistance. Several Centre members study the legal processes at work in colonial states, and the functionality of law as a form of imperial power and repression in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Nandini Chatterjee’s research on forms of law in the early modern Persianate world analyses Persian language legal documentation to investigate how people – commoners to kings – thought and spoke about law, and how their cultural backgrounds shaped their ideas and efforts to secure rights and justice. Silvia Espelt Bombin studies legal practices and peace-making as a lens to analyse cultural exchanges and negotiation of power between Indians, Africans and several competing European colonial powers in the frontier territories located in the Guianas and Brazilian Amazon. Stacey Hynd researches histories of crime and punishment in British colonial Africa, particularly focusing on how capital punishment and mercy in murder reveal the uneven landscape of colonial power. All are engaged with an exploration of how legal norms, discourses and structures were shaped in practice between colonized societies and imperial worlds. More broadly, the Centre is interested in the intersection between global and local histories of law in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Global and imperial histories have much to add to present debates on humanitarianism and human rights, exploring how the global spread of rights and development of humanitarian norms has occurred under the auspices of, or fashioned against, experiences of empire and decolonization. A lack of historical analysis in current policy has meant that lessons from the past have been ignored, fuelling tensions between donors and recipients of aid. Recent scholarship, including that by Centre members, however has begun to analyse the historical contingency of humanitarian intervention and development programmes, and to chart how decisions have been made in response to local, imperial and international, as well as legal and moral, understandings of rights and intervention. Stacey Hynd is investigating how the evolution of human rights and humanitarian responses to children in war has shaped the emergence of the ‘child soldier crisis’ in Africa from 1970-2010s, and how tensions between global child rights discourses and local norms of childhood has constrained effective protection. PhD students Bethany Rebisz and Rhian Keyse have focused on the gendering of humanitarianism, looking at the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and campaigns against forced marriage respectively, whilst Ben Holmes analyses British support for German civilians after the First World War. Rebecca Williams analyses how population control interventions in India have formed a key facet of gendered developmental interventions, and she also explores the recent emergence of ‘voluntourism’ as a form of privatized developmental activity that shows significant (neo-)colonial inheritances. More broadly, James Mark has written extensively on alternative globalizations, highlighting developmental relationships between the ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ worlds. From a human rights perspective, our scholars also work on histories of transnational justice, with James Mark involved in a project on the criminalisation of dictatorial pasts in Europe and Latin America since 1945 that highlights the ways that ideas and practices of dealing with the past have travelled across and between regions, and on a global scale, and Stacey Hynd working on rights-claims and national reconciliation in Ghana. Moreover, Centre staff lead the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy with the University of Mainz and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva. In pursuing these research topics, we are working with global and local NGO partners to provide a critical historical perspective on the evolution of aid, intervention and development and support the development of more effective policy and interventions.

From the ancient world until recent times, most people have lived under forms of imperial rule, and the flows of imperial conquest, migration, connection and exchange have been foundational in making the modern world. Globalisation's roots extend back in time, and historians have much to contribute to today's debates, ensuring that the interconnectedness and interdependence of political economies and their consequences are discussed with chronological as well as geographic breadth. At Exeter, our researchers have particularly focused on Anglophone and Francophone imperial politics, as exemplified in Richard Toye and Martin Thomas’ recent work on Franco-British imperial relations and rhetorics. Richard Toye is also a leading researcher on Churchill’s imperial politics and the United Nations and global political economy. More broadly, we have a strong research expertise in global trade, with David Thackeray analysing trade networks across the British Empire and Commonwealth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, looking at the role of culture, ethnicity and market in shaping ideas of a ‘British World’. Our historians also investigate anti-imperial political economies, with Marc Palen exploring the intersections of global capitalism, anti-imperialism, and peace activism from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, with a focus on the free trade movement’s global struggle for world peace.

Our researchers have a strong interest in linking history with current policy-making, with Thackeray and Palen establishing the History & Policy Global Economics and History Forum, and the British Academy/ Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Trade Policy History initiative.

The history of empires and globalization has been indelibly shaped by the connections and entanglements between peoples and groups that grew, sustained and challenged their formation. In recent years historians have turned to the idea of networks to understand these connections and entanglements. Our researchers highlight how transnational and trans-imperial networks of lawyers, diplomats, journalists, engineers, agronomists, doctors, psychiatrists, and humanitarians have connected and facilitated political, economic and cultural exchanges among distant parts of the world at both imperial and global level. Our postgraduate students co-edited a Journal of World History special issue on ‘Networks in Imperial and Global History’, arguing for networked approaches that allow historians to bring metropole and colony into a single frame of analysis, thereby highlighting the complexity of the imperial system, where multiple “cores” and “peripheries,” with overlapping and interactive systems of institutions, organizations and discourses, existed in combination with each other. Our researchers have pursued this point, with Gajendra Singh’s current work being an investigation of networked communities of migrant Indian labourers across the Pacific and their connection to revolutionary movements at home and abroad. Silvia Espelt Bombin’s current research project studies peace-making as a door on to cultural exchanges and negotiations of power between Indians, Africans and several competing European colonial powers in the frontier territories located in the Guianas and Brazilian Amazon. Vivienne Xiangwe Guo focuses on social and intellectual histories of Republican-era China, especially the many political networks, societies and groups that operated outside the aegis of the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party. She is currently researching networks of Chinese elite women in wartime China, and exchanges of ideas and political collaborations between warlords and the intelligentsia for state-making in China, tracing the circulation of ideas and networks beyond regional-national borders. Meanwhile, Hao Gao researches diplomatic history between British and Chinese empires in early processes of global interconnectedness, highlighting the mutual understandings and misunderstandings that characterised negotiations between Britain and China from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall has come to represent the entry of an isolated region, Eastern Europe, onto the global stage. Our researchers however argue that communist states had in fact long been shapers of a globalizing, interconnecting world. Post World War II, as both decolonisation and new forms of globalisation accelerated, new linkages opened up, and existing ties were remade, between what were once called the ‘Second World’ (from the Soviet Union to the GDR) and the ‘Third World’ (from Latin America to Africa to Asia). Contacts multiplied through, for instance, the development of political bonds; economic development and aid; health and cultural and academic projects; as well as military interventions. Yet these important encounters, and their impacts on national, regional and global histories, have hitherto only played a marginal role in accounts of late 20th century globalization, which have mainly focused on links between the West and former colonies, or between the countries of the ‘Global South’. Led by James Mark, our researchers argue that there was a strong relationship between decolonization and the global influence of socialism, and that '1989' instead marked a choice by local elites about the form that globalisation should take. Placing Eastern Europe in global context, their research provides new perspectives on the relationship between political, economic, and cultural globalisation and the growth and subsequent collapse of communism, highlighting region's links to the West, East Asia, Africa, and Latin America. More specifically, Ljubica Spaskovska researches neutrality and non-alignment, highlighting the interconnectedness of and cross-fertilisation between liberal and socialist internationalisms.

The Centre for Imperial and Global History is comprised of 19 research staff in History, working alongside postgraduate students and staff in related disciplines. Histories of the colonial and postcolonial worlds are contentious and unresolved projects, and those points of tension and irresolution are reflected in the Centre for Imperial and Global History. On one hand lies the project of global history – taking Britain or Europe as its point of departure and looking to explore its zones of interaction beyond the locality, region, nation state, or civilization. On the other lie efforts to recover the voices and subjectivities of the Global South; of looking to provincialize the European experience by highlighting the alternative experiences and normativities that existed even at the height of British and European imperial projects. The Centre for Imperial and Global History offers a space in which both these streams are analysed, explored and interrogated.

Some of our researchers analyse the development of global and imperial systems with a focus on political and economic structures, whilst others write histories from below by researching the lives of colonized populations and those who were marginalized within processes of globalization.  In all of our history-writing, however, we take the position that we must challenge the normative focus on ‘white whiteness’ in the writing of history and that the normative audience ought to be that same ‘white whiteness’. We aim to write of the Global South and its peoples for an audience above and beyond Britain. Working across British, French, Iberian, Islamic, American, Chinese and Russian imperial systems we seek to recover indigenous, subaltern and marginalized voices, writing histories of those who experienced colonialism and still experience its ongoing consequences, both as people at the margins of and within the empires, and also studying them in their own right rather than simply in relation to colonial/imperial experiences. Our members do this by tracing archival records across multiple locales in the North and South, conducting oral histories, and engaging with local communities, non-governmental organisations, and other non-academic partners across the globe. 

As one of the largest research centres for studying imperial, (post-)colonial and/or global histories in the United Kingdom, our research expertise is wide-ranging. The Centre includes colleagues who work on African, Latin American, Islamic, East Asian and South Asian histories in both early-modern, modern and contemporary eras as well as those who are focused on British, French, North American and Eastern European experiences. We work collaboratively within the Centre, within historical and interdisciplinary research grants at Exeter and other universities, and we are engaged in co-producing research with practitioners and non-academic partners in multiple fields and with scholars in the Global South. The Centre runs a fortnightly seminar series featuring visiting and internal speakers, as well as ‘work in progress’ sessions and workshops. These serve as an important space of discussion, debate, and researcher development for our staff and postgraduate students, as well as a way of connecting the Centre to colonial, postcolonial or global scholars based outside Exeter.  In our teaching we are committed to efforts to decolonize the history curriculum at Exeter and to decentre it away from its current Eurocentrisms. We encourage applications from high-quality postgraduate students to join our research community and contribute to both academic and public discussion of all these issues.