Towards a Better Life? Migration, Social Mobility, and Indo-European Exchanges in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries – Report from the Historikertag 2016

by Sebastian Schwecke


The German Historians‘ Convention 2016 in Hamburg selected for the very first time a non-western country as its partner country: India. This choice was mirrored by a wide range of panels that sought to de-center the largely European perspective of German historiography commonly found at these biannual meetings, and focused instead on subjects and approaches that stressed this shift in scholarly orientation. The panel “Towards a better life? Migration, Social Mobility, and Indo-European Exchanges in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”, co-organized by Margret Frenz (Oxford/Nantes) and Moritz von Brescius (Konstanz) formed in this respect one of the most interesting and productive events of the convention. Engaging with social histories of migration of the last two centuries by drawing attention to the subtle facets of an increasingly interconnected world, the panel explored a number of perspectives that are still underrepresented in the study of social mobility.

Histories of migration, despite their strong tendency to interpret history as interconnected, entangled, and transnational, are still predominantly concerned with linear movements that, in turn, then limit the perspective on historical developments. This way of working however, conceals part of the complexity it tries to reveal. Thus, rather than encompassing the entire process of mobility, many fail to trace their subject far from their point of arrival, which is of course to a large extent also connected to the availability of sources. In a colonial context and, more specifically in the field of South Asian history, this is accompanied by an emphasis on out-migration that echoes the hierarchical difference between metropolis and periphery, and reinforces the linear portrayal of mobility: While “reverse” flows of migration concerning Europeans tend to be the subject of political or economic history rather than history of migration, migratory flows within the periphery – within or even between empires – remain significantly under-researched. Similarly, while there has been a noticeable increase in studies focusing on other stages in the migration process in the last few years, the prelude and preparation of mobility, its initial stages within the country of origin, the in-between stage of the journey as well as the aftermath of arrival, secondary migration, and the memory of the migration process have received much less attention. Lastly, migration tends to be depicted as a consciously planned process with an ultimate arrival point fixed in advance – an interpretation that certainly has its merits when discussing relatively organized forms of migration, for instance the movement of large bodies of labor forces or forced migration as part of penal processes. This narrative however, tends to obscure a significant number of migratory processes with either circular or itinerant characteristics.

The panel addressed this problem already in its composition by emphasizing “reverse flows” of migration, secondary migration, and issues relating to the memory of migration. Most prominently, the members of the panel focused on the figure of the “imperial outsider” (von Brescius). This allegory was explored in a range of facets by several presentations. The term was introduced by von Brescius, who used it to describe German academics of the mid-nineteenth century that were employed in India during British colonial rule, though it could equally well been used to describe most types of colonial collaborators. In a similar way, Christof Dejung (Konstanz) highlighted the role of European employees of a Swiss company, who did business in British India and their collaboration with Indian mercantile capital. Aparajith Ramnath (Kozhikode) – whose paper had to be read out by Frenz in his absence – partially reversed this perspective by looking at Indian and German technical experts lives during the late colonial period, who lived in the respective other country. In her own paper, Margret Frenz studied a different set of “imperial outsiders”. She explored the history of medical services under both British and French colonial rule and the contributions of migrant Indian physicians in other parts of the Empire. Elizabeth Buettner (Amsterdam) shifted the perspective to the aftermath of migration and the role of memory in the construction of post-migration identities, studying Indian and Surinamese migrant communities in Britain and the Netherlands, respectively. The panel was concluded with a commentary by John Darwin (Oxford), who summarized the discussion.

Von Brescius introduced the term “imperial outsiders” in reference to the Schlagintweit brothers, German geographers who subscribed to the Humboldtian ideal. The three brothers were hired in 1854 by the British East India Company, which at the time ruled India, to conduct surveys of the Himalayas and parts of Central Asia, both within and beyond the frontiers of British India. Despite growing resentment among the British scientific community, which was founded on xenophobia and resentment over British money funding German scientific explorations instead of supporting the British academe, the Schlagintweits continued to receive generous funding and support from the British Indian government. When British support for their projects was finally withdrawn in the 1860s, the funding of the Schlagintweit explorations was continued by the German government, where the brothers’ endeavor was met with excitement fuelled by emerging German colonial ambitions, especially after one of the brothers had been executed as a spy in Central Asia after withdrawal of British diplomatic support. Von Brescius’ analysis of the Schlagintweit case crafted a compelling narrative of connectedness in mid-nineteenth century Europe and Asia, ranging from the establishment of German academic networks in Britain that enabled German scholars to make use of British colonial rule, to the depictions of relations between European and “indigenous” scholars, helpers, and informers, and a critical evaluation of scholarly tendencies still present in contemporary approaches to downplay “indigenous” actors and influences as mere representations of “local knowledge”. Embedding the narrative in a depiction of scholarly enterprise that appropriated colonial institutions such as jails and hospitals to acquire and preserve body parts or produce plaster castes of “indigenous” faces, the analysis engaged with the manifold layers of the inextricable links between colonial rule and colonial science. At the same time, the major point of his argument remained about the figure of the “imperial outsider”, meaning a category of people in service to colonial rule that occupied specific functions for the imperial order, but nevertheless remained vulnerable themselves. In this context, von Brescius argued that the supposed detachment of German scholars – as representatives of a European scientific community, not yet part of a competing colonial project – formed one of the most important prerequisites for their long-standing political patronage. It may even have helped them in their pursuit of supposedly “local” knowledge, necessary for the conduct of geographical surveys in the frontier regions of the British Empire. Yet, simultaneously, the colonial state’s generosity with scholars who – after all – remained outsiders became increasingly contested over time, and was final withdrawn.

Christof Dejung, in turn, observed a different facet of colonial history related to the figure of the “imperial outsider”. He talked about the – at times surprisingly low – level of penetration of the colonial economy by British capital. Volkhart for example, the Swiss firm he studied, remained one of the two leading exporters of Indian cotton in the late nineteenth century, specializing in the shipment of this colonial good to East Asia and Continental Europe – i.e. to areas beyond British imperial rule. The Swiss did so by relying on intricate links with Indian mercantile groups that continued to control access to local markets. The focus of Dejung’s analysis rested on the depiction of the firm as a “contact zone” between European and Asian actors, following Mary Lousie Pratt’s argument, in that this business relationship constituted an arena of interaction rather than one of segregation, though obviously with strongly asymmetrical characteristics. The dependence of the Volkhart business on local intermediation, especially on the supply side of its business networks, and its relative detachment from racial stereotyping that underlay the colonial narrative of separation combined, gave the Swiss firm an incentive to favor collaborating with Asian merchants and peasant communities. Dejung’s presentation made it clear that Swiss and other European employees of Volkhart moved between two distinct worlds: their everyday working life that associated them with the locals and their social lives that situated them – at least partially – with the strata of British colonial rulers. This discrepancy was reflected in highly appreciative positions for their “indigenous” business partners, who one Volkhart employee described as “a class of men who would be an ornament to any commercial community in and out of India … [that was] honest, straightforward and reliable in their dealings with others and cautious, nay conservative, as regards their own affairs” – a depiction that was reinforced by official company policy, and deviated strongly from the dominant colonial narrative about even the largely collaborative, mercantile segments of Indian society. Moving beyond the illustration of connectedness, Dejung used the firm’s position towards its local business partners vis-à-vis colonial segregation narratives to point out that both kind of relationships had commonalities, which still existed in the second half of the nineteenth century between European and Indian mercantile practices and ethical codes. These common features enabled close interaction, an aspect of colonial business that continues to remain sorely under-researched in a field of literature that emphasizes difference over commonalities.

INDIAN ARMS WORKERS TRAIN IN BRITAIN: WAR INDUSTRY AT LETCHWORTH, HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND, UK, 1941 (D 5932) A portrait of an Indian technican at work at the Government Training Centre, Letchworth. He appears to be filing a piece of metal at a workbench. Behind him can be seen a diagram of some kind of gear system, which features a list of component parts in the bottom right hand corner. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

After the rise of Nazism in Germany, Indians trained in Britain during World War II. Depicted here is the portrait of an Indian technican at work at the UK Government Training Centre in Letchworth, England in 1941. | Image D 5932 © by IWM | Non-Commercial Copyright Licence

While the papers by von Brescius and Dejung were looking at the interaction of “imperial outsiders” in Asian contexts, the contribution by Aparajith Ramnath went one step further. In his study, he looked at dimensions of connectedness between India and Europe by contrasting the histories of technical experts from Germany and India living in the respective other country. Following examples set by Kris Manjapra and Christina Lubinski, the paper identified alternative idioms of identity that emerged and evolved parallel to colonial narratives. In particular, it engaged with questions on how the colonial Indian state viewed German technical experts and German-trained Indian experts, and how this perception was changed by the rise of Nazism. Conversely, Ramnath extended the inquiry into identity and mobility by tracing the ways in which emerging nationalist sentiments in India affected the decision to study in Germany.

Margret Frenz in turn, deepened the panel’s focus on non-European mobility. She added another layer of connectedness by discussing the histories of migration of Indian physicians, who migrated to other colonies, taking into account not only the British but also the French colonial context. Depicting the increasing entanglement of colonized regions and colonial spheres, Frenz returned to the emphasis on migrants straddling divides between different worlds, simultaneously occupying positions of different status. The physicians discussed by her constituted an elite among migrants as they had been trained for and fulfilled functional roles in their service for the imperial government(s), yet they remained outsiders, not only in their countries of destination, but also by continuing to be “subalterns” among the colonial elite. Moreover, her paper highlighted a facet often unrecognized in the history of migration by depicting the itinerant character of migrants, who repeatedly moved to different areas of the respective colonial spheres, thereby engaging with distinct regimes of mobility and immigration that differed significantly between the French and British colonial contexts, as well as between the ideas underlying its codification and lived experience. Analyzing both formal and real restrictions on mobility within and between empires, Frenz concluded her paper by describing the French colonial context as characterized by a “fragmented citizenship” based on race and class distinctions as opposed to a British imperial citizenship based on universality, but modified by gradations of privilege according to the individual level of “British-ness”.

The final paper of the panel, delivered by Elizabeth Buettner, shifted the debate towards the study of memory in migration processes. Contrasting political activism of migrant groups in Britain and the Netherlands, Buettner analyzed processes of migrant identity construction by looking at the ways in which the remembrance of migration supports or hampers the construction of inter-ethnic collaborations between migrant groups against racism in their new home countries. Her study engaged with the history of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) in the British West Midlands, which originally reinforced constructions of identity based partially on migrants’ experiences in their country of origin independently from the experience of discrimination in Britain. The IWA propagated an amalgamation of identity based on class but overlapped by the migratory experience facilitating inter-ethnic alliances. As an effect, migrant groups in Britain reverted more strongly to identity constructions based on community since the 1980s. This example was contrasted with Surinamese migrants in the Netherlands. Here, the two stages of migration – first becoming part of the multi-ethnic Surinamese society, before joining the multi-ethnic immigrant population of the Netherland – reinforced fragmentation processes among the immigrants which, in turn, provided an obstacle to inter-ethnic alliances against racism and led to tensions between Surinamese migrant communities of different background.

Session overview:

Chairs: Margret Frenz, Oxford/Nantes, Moritz von Brescius, Konstanz

  • Margret Frenz, Oxford/Nantes, Moritz von Brescius, Konstanz:
  • Moritz von Brescius, Konstanz:
    Empires of Opportunity: German Scholars Between Asia and Europe in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
  • Christof Dejung, Berlin:
    The Firm as Contact Zone. European and Indian Staff in the Merchant House Volkart Bros., 1850s–1950s
  • Aparajith Ramnath, Kozhikode:
    Engineers Beyond Empire: The Circulation of Technical Experts between India and Germany, c. 1900–1960
  • Margret Frenz, Oxford/Nantes:
    Treating the Empire: Indian Doctors in the (Post-) Colonial British and French Sphere, c. 1900–1960
  • Elizabeth Buettner, Amsterdam:
    Looking Back After Migration: Indian- Descended Communities Revisit the Colonial Past in Postcolonial Britain and the Netherlands

Comment: John Darwin, Oxford


Sebastian Schwecke is currently an affiliated fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden, the Netherlands. His research looks into the evolution of everyday commercial and especially financial practices in northern India from the late 19th century onwards.

This revised conference report was redistributed here for non-commercial, educational purposes. Permission was granted by the author. An earlier version of this work has been published before as:
Tagungsbericht: HT 2016: Towards a Better Life? Migration, Social Mobility, and Indo-European Exchanges in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 20.09.2016 – 23.09.2016 Hamburg, in: H-Soz-Kult, 17.12.2016, <>. Copyright (c) 2017 by H-NET, Clio-online and H-Soz-Kult, and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact 

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