From Dakar to Aix: the struggle with researching imperial histories

Blog post written by Dr Sarah Frank


V-P-HIST-03440-05, Guerre 1939-1945. Châlons-sur-Marne. Dulag Ob West. Camp de prisonniers de guerre. Homme de confiance des détenus coloniaux français.

Reconstructing the stories of colonized peoples presents a certain number of challenges. One struggle for historians of imperialism is how to draw out the voices of marginalized peoples when the archival trace places a euro-centric filter on their experiences. The research for my book, Hostages of Empire: Colonial Prisoners of War and Vichy France, took me on what sometimes felt like a wild goose chase hoping for memoirs and first-person accounts of captivity and finding mostly administrative documents. My first research trip as a young, hopeful PhD student took me to Paris for the French National Archives and the French Military Archives. These are the first ports of call for anyone studying the Second World War in France. I quickly realized that finding prisonnier de guerre in an inventory most likely referred to white, metropolitan prisoners of war, and not the approximately 85,000 men from across the French empire who were also captured in the Battle for France.

Evidence was there, it just needed to be found. Digging through correspondence between the French and German armistice commissions revealed intense negotiations between Georges Scapini, the half-blind veteran of the First World War placed in charge of all POW affairs, and his German counterpart over where the colonial prisoners should be interned. Once prisoners were settled into camps, international inspectors from the Swiss International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), or the American Young Man’s Christian Association (YMCA) started visiting colonial and white prisoners and reporting on their mental and physical conditions. While white prisoners sometimes left memoirs most colonial prisoners did not leave written records of their captivity. Luckily there are a few notable exceptions such as Léopold Sédar Senghor (first president of Senegal, poet, a brilliant intellectual), Ahmed Rafa (who became one of the first Algerian generals in the French army) and Michel Gnimagnon (a teacher from Dahomey). Still, much of the information about the colonial prisoners’ captivity was filtered through a white European lens – even when colonial prisoners were asked about their own experiences.

V-P-HIST-03440-35, Guerre 1939-1945. Melun. Camp de prisonniers de guerre français et sénégalais. Groupe de détenus sénégalais.

For a variety of reasons, the French authorities interviewed most of the colonial prisoners who escaped from captivity. Summaries of these interviews were submitted to the French military authorities interested in German propaganda, morale in the camps, and relations with French civilians. These testimonies constitute the largest records of colonial prisoners’ captivity experience, containing first-person narratives from surrender, capture, through to camp life and escape. So this is a fantastic source where we can finally hear from the prisoners themselves. But it of course remains problematic. One of the challenges is then, how to draw out the voices of those people whose every interactions with the French, who represented the colonial authority, was impacted by hierarchies of race and citizenship. Questions of sex and gender are inherently important for POWs, but do not exist in the source material. No colonial soldier would ever think of reporting sexual relations with a white French woman to a French military officer.


V-P-HIST-03440-36, Guerre 1939-1945. Melun. Camp de prisonniers de guerre français et sénégalais. Groupe de détenus sénégalais.

One method I found useful when working with problematic written sources was to expand my research to include as many different perspectives as possible. To do so, I travelled to the German Military archives in Frieburg, French Overseas Archives in Aix, Kew in London, the Senegalese National Archives and seventeen departmental archives in France hoping to find traces of colonial prisoners who had worked locally. Being an underfunded PhD student, these archival trips were somewhat dire – 5am trains to Vesoul, low-budget hotel rooms, and archival staff confused as to ‘what I wanted’. I quickly learnt that material on the colonial prisoners was rarely in a box labeled ‘colonial prisoners of war’, and that one should never travel without tea bags.  Surprisingly, the presence of a large POW camp, like that in Epinal which held up to 10,000 prisoners, did not guarantee that information about its colonial prisoners would be found in the departmental archives. In many departments school children were encouraged to collect clothes and scrapes of fabric to send to the ‘suffering populations in North Africa’ while ignoring the North African prisoners located in their towns. Other archives had a wealth of material, like in Mayenne, a rural department, where many small towns were forced to hire colonial prisoners to work on public works. As costs increased, so did the number of complaints which were kept in the archive, revealing the multitude of attitudes of French civilians towards the colonial prisoners.

Eventually, the diverse material from different actors allowed me to reconstruct the colonial prisoners’ experiences of life in captivity, relationships they formed, and how they survived until their return home. Reading widely allowed me to identify and challenge the assumptions of the documents’ writers, my own assumptions, and those of previous historians. Most importantly, thinking outside the box (and visiting as many archives as possible!) helped reveal the voices and agency of the people I was researching.

LGBT History Month Poster: The Indian Penal Code (Section 377)

An LGBT activist dances during the celebration after the Supreme Court verdict which decriminalizes consensual gay sex on September 06, 2018 in Calcutta, India. Photo attrib. Saikat Paul, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

On 6th September 2018, the Supreme Court in New Delhi pronounced a landmark verdict decriminalising consensual gay sex in India. The ruling concerned Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, legislation first drafted in the colonial era which still criminalises ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature.’  Five Supreme Court judges declared that the law as it applied to consenting adults was unconstitutional, marking the end of a tortuous legal campaign by LGBT activists dating back to the 1990s. 

Supporters of anti-gay legislation in India argue that it protects traditional culture from ‘Western’ influences. However, many historians refute this, drawing attention to the ‘queerness’ of pre-colonial India and viewing Section 377 as an attempt by the British Raj to impose Victorian values on its colonial subjects.  Although Section 377 no longer applies to homosexuality in a legal sense, it may be argued that the attitudes that informed it persist and this question, amongst others, continues to fuel debate amongst historians about the impact of colonial rule. 

Sources: 

Section 377 – Supreme Court of India – WP(C) NO. 76 OF 2016 Judgement 06-Sep-2018, https://www.sci.gov.in, accessed 24thJanuary 2018.

Vanita, Ruth (ed.), Queering India. Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society (Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge, 2002).

Further reading:

Arondekar, Anjali, For the record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Durham: Duke University Press).

Ballhatchet, Kenneth, Race, Sex and Class Under the Raj (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980).

Chatterjee, Partha, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Menon, Nivedita, Sexualities (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2007).

Sinha, Mrinalini, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘Manly Englishman’ and the ‘Effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University, 1995).

Vanita, Ruth and Saleem Kidwai, Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2000).

LGBT History Month Poster: The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall, Wikimedia Commons

A novel, The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyff (John) Hall, was first published by Jonathan Cape in an initially short print run in 1928.  Its protagonist is a female lesbian character, Stephen Gordon, and the plot follows her intimate encounters and relationships, which present the lesbian characters’ “inversion” – a contemporary term that Hall appropriated in her writing – as biologically-driven, and depict a complex picture of what life for lesbian women in interwar Britain could be like, setting experiences of personal, intimate happiness alongside wider social ostracism and rejection.

The context in which the novel appeared is important to consider. Published during a period in which the British parliament debated introducing legislation to outlaw sexual relationships between women, the novel was seized upon by the then editor of the Sunday Express, James Douglas, as “an intolerable outrage”.  The controversy manufactured by Douglas led to an obscenity trial in November 1928, in which magistrate Sir Chartres Biron upheld the Hinkley test to rule that the book had the potential to ‘deprave and corrupt’ and ordered the book destroyed. The Well of Loneliness was of course not the only book depicting homosexual love and relationships to be put on trial around this time; what was novel in this case was that the book was judged obscene and suppressed not for any particular explicit content but for “the subject itself” and for the fact, according to magistrate Biron, that it was well written and thus constituted a ”palatable poison”. The Well of Loneliness was not published in Britain again until 1949; in 1974 it was serialised as a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime.

Source: Joseph Bristow, “Homosexual writing on trial: from Fanny Hill to Gay News’ in Hugh Stevens ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing (Cambridge: CUP, 2010) 17-33.

Further reading:

Deborah Cohler, Citizen, Invert, Queer: lesbianism and war in early twentieth-century Britain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism. The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001)

Laura Doan, Disturbing Practices:  history, sexuality and women’s experiences of modern war (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women since 1600 (Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007).

Lesley Hall, ‘”Sentimental follies” or ‘Instruments of Tremendous Uplift’? Reconsidering women’s same-sex relationships in interwar Britain’ in Women’s History Review vol. 25.1, 2016.

Alison Oram, Her Husband Was A Woman! Women gender-crossing in modern British popular culture (London: Routledge, 2007)

Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: women who loved women (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004)

LGBT History Month Poster: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Wikimedia Commons

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, born in Saxony in 1825, was a writer who used his words and actions to publicly defend homosexuality (a term that came into usage in the German lands in the late 1860s, although Ulrichs himself preferred the term he coined, ‘Urning’) and to denounce the criminalisation of individuals accused of having engaged in same-sex sexual activity. Between 1864 and 1879 Ulrichs published twelve volumes of essays discussing Researches on the Riddle of Love between Men [Forschungen über das Rätsel der mann-männlichen Liebe], which elaborated his theory of homosexuality as anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa [a feminine soul confined by a masculine body]. This theory appears problematic to contemporary ears, and was shaped by Ulrichs’ interest in the then developing scientific branch of embryology as well as by contemporary societal-cultural assumptions that “love directed towards a man must be a woman’s love”.

Whilst the concept of ‘coming out’ is a 20th century one, Ulrichs effectively did this, consciously, first to his family and then publicly in 1868 when he stopped publishing under the pseudonym ‘Numa Numantius’ and began publishing his works discussing homosexuality and codifying different sexual orientations under his own name. Ulrich was also a political activist, speaking out against both the legal restrictions placed on homosexual activity and against the Prussian-dominated unification of Germany; the two combined in his (justified) fears that the extension of Prussian rule would lead to the extension of its strict anti-homosexuality laws.

Since his death in the Italian city of L’Aquila in 1895, to where he had fled in exile in 1880, Ulrichs has been claimed as a pioneering hero of the gay emancipation movement in Germany and beyond. Several German cities have named streets in his honour, his tomb in L’Aquila has been the site of an annual commemoration on Ulrich’s birthday since 1988, and the city was the major venue, along with Munich, where Ulrichs also lived for a time, for the ceremonies that in 2000 celebrated the 175th anniversary of Ulrich’s birth.

Source: Hubert Kennedy, Ulrichs: The life and works of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, pioneer of the modern gay movement (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1988)

Further reading:

Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin: birthplace of a modern identity (Knopf, 2015)

Hubert Kennedy, ‘Karl Heinrich Ulrichs First Theorist of Homosexuality’, Science and Homosexualities (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 26–45.

LGBT History Month Poster: ‘Taste in High Life’, William Hogarth, 1746

Taste in High Life, Metropolitan Museum, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eighteenth century Britons did not recognize gay or straight sexualities and identities in the way we do today.  Gay sexual relations were still illegal, though only for men, and could be punished severely. Nevertheless, especially among elites, some men adopted fluid gender identities and maintained romantic relationships with other men.  In art, theatre, and fiction, one could often find such characters depicted, and the era especially saw the emergence of the “macaroni”; a very fashionably-dressed effeminate man who was a trend-setting member of London high society.

 William Hogarth was very famous for his popular portrayals of London life.  This print, like many others, is an engraving of one of his paintings, produced for mass consumption among the middling classes of early modern Britain. Here, Hogarth is satirising the lifestyles of the London elite.  The characters he chooses to do this include an enslaved African servant, a wealthy older woman but also, on the far right, a macaroni-like figure. Known for incorporating rich symbolism into his works, Hogarth here communicates the sexual ambiguity of the macaroni with a number of visual cues.  The man is thin and dressed effeminately.  His cane and pigtail are phallic symbols, and he is wooing a rich older woman who is intended to be viewed as physically unattractive. Finally, he is holding a fur muff in front of his crotch to suggest his gender should be female.  Nevertheless his hand is in the muff, also hinting at heterosexual interest. This man is neither gay nor straight, but he is representative of the fluid gender identities that were highly visible in eighteenth century society.

Source

Further reading:

Jody Greene, ‘Public Secrets: Sodomy and the Pillory in the Eighteenth Century and Beyond’ The Eighteenth Century, vol. 44, 2003, 203-32.

Karen Harvey, ‘The Century of Sex? Gender, Bodies and Sexuality in the Long Eighteenth Century‘ Historical Journal, vol. 45.4, 899-917.

Amelia Rauser, ‘Hair, Authenticity and the Self-Made Macaroni’ Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 38, 2004, 101-17.

Tim Hitchcock, ‘Redefining Sex in Eighteenth-Century England’  History Workshop Journal, vol.  41, 1996, 72-90.

Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution, vol. 1: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)

LGBT History Month Poster: Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake

This double silhouette portrait is of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, two women who lived together in the small village of Weybridge, Vermont, USA, in the first half of the nineteenth century.  It is typical as a piece of sentimental, amateur art that, with its heart-twisted hairs, commemorates the devotion of a couple to one another.  The fact that both silhouettes portray women was less unusual than we might think.


Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, Wikimedia Commons

Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia’s biographer, explains how, living in a small village, surrounded by relatives and family-friends, the two women could live as a couple because it was an “open secret” that they were in a relationship.  Villagers were willing to abide by this “open secret” because the women were pillars of the church, economy, and society.  Training young people in tailoring and sewing, running Sunday schools, caring for their dozens of nieces and nephews, the women were celebrated for their devotion to each other.  A nephew, Cullen, who benefited from their tutoring wrote of “how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness”.

Source: Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Further reading: 

John D’Emilio & Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988)

Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women From the Renaissance to the Present (London: Junction Books, 1981)

Thomas Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon, 2006)

Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

“Death in the Pot”: The Long History of Food Adulteration

Blog written by Dr Claudia Kreklau

“Death in the Pot”—an appetizing title! In 1820, German-born chemist Friedrich Accum, known as Frederick Accum to his colleagues in London, published a monograph written to make your stomach turn. In early nineteenth-century Britain, an increasingly urban population relied on food vendors and a growing industrial complex to provide their daily bread. Accum revealed to them that their flour contained alum, their Gloucester cheese lead, and tea (good old British institution tea!) contained cherry leaves, acting as a rather unwanted, very strong laxative.

Inflammatory as Accum’s work undoubtedly was, “food adulteration” as Accum called it, was a problem, and in good German fashion, Accum criticized the condition in Britain relentlessly. His British colleagues and industrialists were of course delighted to be told off by the young German chemist-upstart. “If Mr. Accum were as accurate and perspicuous as he is industrious, his services to the science of chemistry would be less equivocal,” one critic wrote. He also found it particularly egregious that Accum “tried to give [his work] such ‘a popular form’ as to place” testing food contents “within the reach even of those who are unacquainted with the principles of chemical science.” Accum’s works gave the public a set of simple tests to make sure their own foods did not contain poisons. After all, lead, arsenic, copper, and chrome were popular colorings – the E-numbers of the nineteenth century, if you like. The use of such substances caused more than one child to end up unconscious after eating “poisonous custard” artificially flavoured with cherry laurel.

Image attrib. Leeds University, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Accum was a pioneer in a discussion we are all familiar with today: food adulteration. Chances are that we have all watched the news at some point and wondered about what we ate the other day. The reasons for our worries are in essence the same one as in 1820 Britain. For one, we all need to eat, but most of us do not run our own farms, do not milk our own cow Daisy in the morning, nor do we pull our own carrots out of the ground. Modern consumption means being vastly dependent on agriculture and industry to keep us fed, and as consumers we have little control over what goes into our ready-made soup or can of beans. Furthermore, there are substances in our food that we would prefer not to be there: additives to give colour, texture, or taste. Substitutes can also prove tricky, as some of us may remember, horse-meat rather than beef may appear in last night’s lasagna  

All of these problems have a surprisingly long history, which is what my research on nineteenth-century food processing and consumption in Germany has explored over the past few years. Around 1870 in Germany, the food industry used, for example, potato syrup instead of real sugar, sick or dead animals to make sausages, and yeast extract to add flavour to food. The reason for this was simple: to decrease production cost and avoid financial loss. The same principles apply today. In the United States, high-fructose corn syrup is the twenty-first century cheaper sugar-alternative; the meat of sick or dying animals still end up in wontons in contemporary China; and it is hard to avoid monosodium glutamate used to mimic the savory taste of meat in the British ready-meal.

The important point is that food adulteration is not a story about contemporary China, early industrial Britain, the United States or even a rapidly modernizing Germany. It is a story about modernization more broadly. The moment a society moves from being a largely agricultural society to an industrial one with many of its people living in cities, the great majority of us outsource food-production, -processing and -preparation to agriculture, industry, grocery stores and eateries. At that stage, when we buy a sandwich, get fish-n-chips in a shop, or purchase a bottle of ketchup at the store around the corner, we have entrusted someone else with what goes into our stomachs..

Where industry rises (e.g. 1780s Britain, 1800s United States, 1860s Germany) food-changes quickly follow, at best quickly met by controlling legislation (Britain 1875, United States 1906, Germany 1878/9). Depending on how quickly lawmakers react, how much pressure they meet from their population, and how adamant consumers are about regulation, consumption habits will also change. In Britain, the United States, and Germany, for example, food industrialization was usually paired or soon followed by vegetarianism or back-to-nature movements. That was no coincidence. For consumers in Germany becoming a vegetarian in 1870 or even a vegan around 1890 was one way to reduce the risk of ingesting potentially harmful substances in a time before GMO (pesticides and fertilizers are another story!).

Accum’s story unfortunately had a sad ending: with a ruined reputation, he left Britain and it took the British government half a century to bring about the Food, Drink, and Drugs Act of 1875. However, Accum’s work simultaneous inspired one of the most comprehensive food laws in his own home country of Germany. The Food Law of 1878, paired legislation with a vast network of testing facilities, and even a food police that cracked down on reducing “bloody milk” and “urine-dyed pasta” on the market.


Frederick Accum, image attrib. Sidney Edelstein Collection, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The good news is that we have made progress on the “food adulteration” front, and for those of us who are still worried, there are a range of ways to curb our anxiety without ruining our appetite. Examples include calling for better legislation, reading labels, and committing to a food-selection matrix (better known as diets) to reduce risk. As agriculture, industry, and our consumption habits continue to evolve globally, we will hopefully not repeat the mistakes of the past by testing rigorously before we allow a substance to end up on our plate. Lawmakers and consumers now have the benefit of hindsight, and especially up-and-coming industries with rapidly evolving markets today have the chance to avoid making the same mistakes Britain, the US or Germany did centuries ago. Keeping a collective eye on industry and food laws will ensure there will never again be any “Death in the Pot.”

Interested in the history of food? For further reading, see:

Deborah Blum, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Penguin, 2018.

Corinna Treitel, Eating Nature in Modern Germany. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Bee Wilson, Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.