Rethinking the Colonial State: Volume 33

Cover of Rethinking the Colonial State

Table of contents

(12 chapters)


Pages i-xv
Content available

The main theme of this special volume is the colonial state and its governmental practices. This chapter introduces and contextualizes the contributions by providing a brief induction to recent developments within the study of the colonial state. It then presents the contributions under three perspectives which represent separate yet interrelated themes relevant for the understanding of the colonial state: practices, violence, and agency. Hereby, we also accentuate the value of a non-state-centric approach to the analysis of the colonial state.


This chapter will address the deployments of colonial governmentality during the first decade of US dominion in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Governmentality is understood as dispositive, that is, an ensemble of the apparatuses of governmental rationality, sovereignty, and discipline. This chapter will examine the shifting configurations of some of the specific apparatuses of necro- and biopolitics, coercive security forces, disciplinary institutions, and other tutelary practices within the overall dispositive of governmentality, including the political structures of governance. This chapter will address the issue of the place and scale of these deployments: institutions, public spaces, bureaucratic structures, and military hierarchies. Throughout, a comparative perspective will shed light upon how colonial governmentality was deployed historically in ways that were adapted to different strategies, local conditions, and patterns of collaboration and resistance, especially among school teachers.


Against the grain of the paradigmatic postcolonial analytics of the colonial state, this chapter presents a non-dichotomous comparison of two regimes within the late 18th century Danish empire, which are commonly presumed to be of essentially different kinds – namely the colonial state in Tranquebar in South East India and the metropolitan government of rural Danish society. By focusing, firstly, on practices of policing and, secondly, on the general technology of power that targeted these significantly different socio-political spheres, it is argued that these regimes were governing according to similar strategies: seeking, on one hand, to deploy societal mechanisms of self-regulation and, on the other, to provide a balance and order to the otherwise chaotic forces of the population. On the basis of a Foucauldian vocabulary of government, it is thereby argued that colonialism, at this time and place, had not yet clearly constituted itself as a particular form of rule.


Drawing upon recent interests in Michel Foucault’s anti-essentialist conception of the state, I provide an analysis of state power in colonial slave societies that is attentive to the ongoing processes of “statification” and governmentalization of the state. This approach represents an alternative to classic state theory, which seems inadequate to describe the diverse political context of Caribbean colonial slave societies.

I apply the Foucauldian conception of the state to the empirical case of the Danish West Indies in the second half of the 18th century. Here, I focus on the problem of public order and its formation in relation to growing concerns over general economic, social, demographic, and political risks that the institution of slavery posed to colonial society. I argue that the slave laws of the 18th century can be seen as a governmental strategy to manage the risks of slavery by constituting a public order that would be subject to policing by the state. I also argue, however, that the specific circumstances of colonial slavery shaped the regulative practices toward the necessities of a flexible, adjustable, responsive government. I suggest that this should be interpreted as a governmental strategy calibrated to the realities of the specificities of colonial rule, rather than simply a reflection of incoherence and incompetence on the part of colonial authorities. The larger argument is that actual state practices have to be seen as results of problems of government in a given context, and as a function of the dynamic and reciprocal processes of government.


This chapter provides an assessment of how the late Portuguese colonial state (especially in Angola and Mozambique) responded to widespread conflict and anticolonial pressures. Focusing on its structures, idioms, and strategies of social transformation and control-especially as they relate to the domains of development and security-my assessment of state response emphasizes the coming together of: coercive repertoires of rule; planned developmental strategies of political, economic and social change; and processes of engineering sociocultural difference. The late colonial state’s developmental and repressive facets are critically assessed through mobilizing theoretical perspectives and empirical analysis.


This chapter puts practices of everyday violence at the center of its analysis of colonial order. It examines the micro-mechanisms and manifold forms of threatening and hurting people. While a quotidian part of colonial life, such practices – accepted and normal within the colonial moral economy – are not normally seen as state actions. However, they reveal the workings of a powerful state: one that was built in an improvised fashion by low-level state representatives.

Based on an analysis of everyday police work in German Southwest Africa, this chapter offers a theoretical reframing of the colonial state that aims to provincialize the modern European state. It shifts the perspective away from the legal and institutional aspirations and structures of the state, instead turning attention to less rationalized processes: the idiosyncratic, makeshift, affective procedures of low-ranking officials. On this plane, everyday violence played a key role in generating a new social order. Ultimately, it had constructive effects which were a fundamental and inherent part of the colonial state’s power.


Why and how was the territorialized state form disseminated through colonial expansion? To begin to answer this question, this study proposes a relational account of the production of territorialized state space, drawing on empirical evidence from two understudied cases of colonial expansion in the early 20th century: Spain in Morocco and Italy in Libya. Drawing on colonial and local archival sources, I demonstrate how colonial territoriality resulted from a violent clash between an aspiring colonial power and a reactive, rural counter-state building movement, led by the Amir Abd al-Krim in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco and the Sanusi leader, Omar al-Mokhtar, in Cyrenaica in eastern Libya. Territorialization was not imposed from the outside by a European colonial power. Rather, it was produced relationally through violent interactions between the colonial state and a local autonomous political entity. This analysis contributes to the still-nascent study of colonial state space and to contemporary policy debates about political order in North Africa and the Middle East by emphasizing the importance of local political mobilization, the complexity of interactions catalyzed across local and translocal scales by colonial expansion, and the high levels of physical violence endemic to the production of territorialized state space.


In the periods, following the First and Second World Wars, colonial states across the British empire underwent waves of reforms that were geared toward improving human well-being, from enhancing social conditions, such as health and education, to expanding opportunities for economic and political engagement. The literature on the colonial state typically traces these state-building efforts to the agency of European colonial officials. However, evidence from a historical analysis of Trinidad and Tobago reveals a different agent driving state reform: the colonized. A local labor movement during colonialism forced the colonial state to construct a number of state agencies to ameliorate the economic, political, and social conditions in the colony, thereby resulting in an increase in state capacity. This study, therefore, provides critical intervention into the colonial state literature by showing that the agency of the colonized, as opposed to just the colonizers, is key to state-building, and specifying the mechanisms by which the subaltern constrained colonial officials and forced them to enact policies that improved colonial state capacity.


This chapter explores the making of the colonial state in Samoa in the 1890s. The Samoan case offers new insights into the workings of the colonial state precisely because nowhere else were Euro-American colonial projects as intertwined with and dependent on local support. In an unprecedented experiment in colonial rule, German, British, and American officials shared control over the Samoan islands from 1889 to 1899. This so-called tridominium, I argue, served as a colonial strategy of deferral for Euro-American officials anxious to diffuse escalating conflict over the distant islands. Contrary to plan, ongoing tensions among German, British, and American interests allowed Samoans to maintain considerable political and economic autonomy. The main reason for the ultimate failure of the tridominium for Euro-American policy-makers lay in the uneven and incomplete exercise of colonial power over Samoans. Limitations in geography, people, and finance made the tridominium a weak colonial state. In addition, the lack of resources the respective metropolitan governments devoted to the distant archipelago in the South Pacific increased the relative influence of Samoan leaders and of the growing number of Samoans who joined the administration. Samoa in the 1890s serves as an important reminder that colonial rule was rarely clear-cut and never complete.


Pages 227-239
Content available
Cover of Rethinking the Colonial State
Publication date
Book series
Political Power and Social Theory
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN