My research offers a fresh investigation of European empire through the lens of oceanic history. I argue that the maritime world became a contested arena during the interwar years where the tensions of empire comingled with the liberating and transgressive possibilities of oceanic travel. My book manuscript demonstrates how Dutch anxieties over the weakening of imperial dominion in Southeast Asia focused on a transnational and transoceanic colonial control during a time of increasing political unrest and rapid cultural change within the Netherlands East Indies. Dutch shipping companies used segregated and highly policed onboard spaces as colonial classrooms to instill the proper behavior expected of both colonial subjects and European travelers. Such shipping companies enforced racial, class, gender, and religious hierarchies among a fluidly mobile population of increasingly resistant and outspoken colonial subjects. The colonial government depended on maritime businesses to control the flow of anti-Western and anti-colonial ideas such as pan-Islamism and Communism across its colonial borders by policing the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and the Straits of Malacca.
Dutch consulates in port cities such as Jeddah, Shanghai, and Kobe completed these transnational surveillance networks by collecting information on suspicious persons including Indonesian hajjis studying in Mecca and Cairo and Chinese seamen moving between Europe, China, and the Netherlands East Indies. Ships were also colonial classroomswhere Europeans learned how to rule through their interactions with Indonesians onboard, viewing the "other," and creating a unified European identity. My project reveals the unique and vital role shipping companies played in expanding colonial politics, culture, and society across transoceanic spaces and reconceptualizes our geographic understanding of empire as inhabiting the overlooked oceanic spaces between metropole and colony.
Over the next two academic years, I will begin researching my second book project at archives in The Hague, London, Jakarta, Pretoria, and Paramaribo. Combining approaches from science, technology, and society (STS) studies with cultural and environmental history, my next project explores global migrations during the late-nineteenth century, when Dutch and British shipping companies transported indentured laborers from Indonesia, China, and India to European plantations in South Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. I am interested in environmental impacts of mobile populations on the global spread of disease during a time of agricultural industrialization. I will also look at the social and cultural effects these labor movements had on exchanges of medical knowledge within multi-racial plantation economies under European colonial control.