Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Tensions of Empire

Book Cover

Book Title

Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World. United States of America: University of California Press, 1997


Cooper, Frederick and Stoler, Ann Laura (eds.)


This collection of essays examines European colonialism in Africa and Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, arguing that it was different from previous forms of colonialism because they now involved appeals to universal concepts such as citizenship, sovereignty and political participation for legitimacy. The colonial question of who was entitled to inclusion in such rights haunted Europeans, who to begin with were faced with the task of defining exactly who their colonial subjects were. It details the intricate relationships between colonies and metropolis, operating on the basic assumption that the social transformations that occurred in both places were products of both local and global patterns. Cooper and Stoler examine the attempts of the metropolis to dominate and redefine their colonies, as well as the profound intellectual, social and moral impacts of exposure to indigenous people on the colonizers.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Cooper and Stoler focus on the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, considering colonialism in within the context of modernity and capitalism. Most authors focus on European empires in Africa, with Frederick shifting his gaze onto Southeast Asia, Chakrabarty to India and Wildenthal to the larger German empire. In each case study, the author emphasizes the universal concepts Cooper and Stoler claim were the lines along which colonialism in this period was shaped: race, gender, citizenship, and religion. They examine the two-way transaction between colony and metropolis: how the colonized were profoundly influenced, for better or for worse, by European presences, and how Europeans in turn were forced to re-evaluate themselves after contact with foreign peoples.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Cooper and Stoler firstly point out that colonies were not testing grounds for European capitalist social engineering, nor did they represent “unfettered economic opportunities” or virgin markets free of competition. The indigenous people were a force in their own right and could circumvent the conditions required for European-style capitalist development. Representations of colonies as blank slates on which Europeans could draw whatever they wanted are thus heavily inaccurate.

Secondly, and more importantly, Cooper and Stoler argue that the Manichaean (black-and-white) dichotomy between colonizer and colonized is false, and that the relationship was in fact more complicated than that. Ultimately, the colonial powers ushered in a series of policies which sought both to include the colonized peoples in their vast empires, and to exclude them by distinguishing them as fundamentally different from (and often inferior to) their white masters. The tension between inclusion and differentiation is a major running theme in the nature of colonial projects.

The cultural boundaries the colonial powers insisted on maintaining with their peoples, under the illusion of the simple Manichaean dichotomy, had to be defined and actively maintained; they were, of course, a product of both perception and sometimes expedience. Using concepts such as race and gender, the Europeans tried to systematically categorize the indigenous peoples on their own terms in order to understand and then control them. This reproduction of colonial societies was always deeply flawed: Cooper and Stoler write that the colonizers were trying to “[define] an order of things according to untenable principles that undermined their ability to to rule”. Moving forward into the 20th century, the consequences of these decisions are still visible in many former colonies.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip