Colonial Geography

My first book project, Colonial Geography: German Colonialism, Race, and Space in East Africa, 1884-1907, is a spatial history of German East Africa. Colonial Geography argues that the most important element in German imperialism was not its violence but its attempts to apply racial thinking to the mastery and control of space.

German colonists and local intermediaries developed new conceptions of East Africa’s geography during the decades of German rule. German colonists conducted their debates over development in terms defined through the new discipline of cultural geography. Though many different factions negotiated the meaning of East African spaces and races—metropolitan and colonial Germans, Africans, Arabs, and Indians in the colony—administrators mediated the meanings that entered practice through cultural geographic theories of a relationship between landscape and racial character. These new geographies conflated race, space, and history and produced claims to territorial sovereignty based on a conception that race was the primary factor in East African history. Tensions existed between state projects of creating borders between political and economic units, often defined in ethnic terms, and private spatial imaginaries based around networks connecting people across space. The colony’s government was unable to ever eliminate the latter, but it developed a version of the former based in racial thinking. Different racial and ethnic groups could mark land with their characteristics, a spatial imaginary that justified importing farmers from overseas and moving ethnic groups the Germans thought more enterprising to areas of East Africa that the government wanted to develop. This project, of creating ethnic territory through the movement and development of perceived racial characteristics, was the first German expression of a state project to racialize territory, a project that would develop further later in the century.

Colonial Geography contributes a spatial perspective to historiographies in German history, African/East African history, the history of the human sciences, and of modern empire more generally. Attention to histories of space, I argue, is essential for understanding histories of knowledge through the colonial encounter for both Europe and Africa. The manuscript demonstrates the valence of precolonial geographies of the Swahili Coast in the formation of European conceptions of space and race in Africa, advancing an argument about the transnationality of knowledge creation through the colonial encounter. My analysis of geography as a nexus for thinking about both race and territory directs our attention to space as German colonialism’s most important legacy in the formation of imperial German identities and approaches to Eastern Europe. The production of German imperial space became an intellectual project that stretched from the 1880s through the 1940s. A focus on sovereignty and historical arguments surrounding it in the colonial encounter, I argue, provides a means to better conceptualize racial thinking in the late 19th century to include ideas about civilizational hierarchies.