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ULIP hosts the 'Connected Histories of Empire: France and Britain in the South Pacific' symposium


On 13 January, ULIP hosted a bilingual, international symposium on the theme of ‘Connected Histories of Empire’. The event brought together specialists in history and related disciplines to share new research on the connected histories of French and British colonialism in the South Pacific. Supported by a small research grant from the British Academy, Dr Charlotte Legg invited researchers from a range of disciplines and institutions to present papers and to participate in a roundtable discussion about initiatives to encourage the growth of the emerging field of inter-imperial history.

1840 French map of the word by Kaeppelin

In recent decades, scholars of empire have demonstrated the need to look beyond the nation as an analytical framework for understanding the dynamics of colonial power. Attention to transnational trajectories and exchanges has enriched historical understanding of both the French and British colonial empires. Out of this has emerged a developing field of scholarship on Franco-British inter-imperial relations.

The symposium at the University of London Institute in Paris contributed to further developing this field by cultivating exchanges between scholars working on connected histories of colonial empire in the South Pacific from the late eighteenth through to the early twentieth centuries. Participants from the University of Sydney, the Australian National University, the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), the Ecole normale supérieure, the Royal Historical Society, Louisiana State University and ULIP met to examine how connections across empires framed the operation of colonial power.


Throughout the long period of imperialist rivalry in the region, French and British navigators, traders, scientists, artists and agents of their respective states became engaged in exchanges which framed shared imaginaries and formed the basis of practices of political accommodation and even active collaboration. The actions and interactions of indigenous peoples and settler populations crucially shaped fluctuating power dynamics within and across empires, at times exacerbating tensions between the imperial rivals, and at other times bringing empires closer together. The research presented at the event examined the inter-imperial dimension of colonial power, situating empires as players in an imperial field that was constituted by articulated discourses of race, gender and civilisation produced by a range of historical actors.


The papers presented explored a variety of topics including the historical development of indigenous reservations in Australia and New Caledonia (Professor Isabelle Merle, CNRS), the mining of phosphates by British companies in areas of French Polynesia (Dr Nicholas Hoare, ANU), colonial policing in the Pacific Ocean (Tobias Wagemann, doctoral student, ENS), the Australian contribution to the celebration of French settlement in New Caledonia (Dr Briony Neilson, University of Sydney), the politics of indigeneity and representations of Oceania (Professor Rosemary Peters-Hill, LSU), the role of Italian explorers and scholars in connecting empires (Dr Alessandro Di Meo, Royal Historical Society and University of Tuscia), and the inter-imperial construction of whiteness (Dr Charlotte Ann Legg, ULIP).


Dr Legg now aims to bring the research of these scholars and other specialists together in a collective publication, and to plan further events that make use of the unique Franco-British connections of the University of London Institute in Paris and the University of London to promote a dialogue that has often been constrained by the national frame through which scholars have analysed the colonial past. A multilingual dialogue was identified by participants at the symposium as being particularly essential to a more complete understanding of the Pacific, a region in which the imbalance of scholarship in English, on one hand, and in French or other languages, on the other, has obscured the complexity of inter-imperial connections and circulations. Encouraging new perspectives on the Pacific will lead to a fuller appreciation of the importance of the region, its peoples and its pasts, to our understanding of national, international and transnational histories.