“What interests me is the role that firearms played in intercultural contacts” – 5in10 with Felix Brahm
Felix Brahm is currently a research fellow of the German Historical Institute in London. He received his Ph.D. from Humboldt University in Berlin with a book on the history of African studies in the era of decolonization, focusing on the question of how academic formation and paradigm shifts were shaped by transnational and local factors. Before working at the German Historical Institute, he was an Assistant Professor at the University of Bielefeld in a team engaged in global history. For his current project, Felix Brahms is researching the European-African arms trade in the second half of the 19th century and tracing the struggle over the control of this trade.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
As a child, I always wanted to know about nature and natural history. I used to carry a note in my pocket so that I wouldn’t forget the difficult name of what I wanted to be as a grown-up: a palaeontologist. A bit later, I became very concerned about environmental pollution, and the ecological movement triggered a sense of global entanglement.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?
I work on the history of the arms trade, and my current project tackles the extensive second-hand arms trade in 19th century East Africa. I am tracing the channels of this trade from European, US-American, and South-Asian military arsenals over small blacksmith workshops and shipping companies to the East African coast and mainland; and I am looking at the significance and use of these artefacts in different local contexts. What particularly interests me is the specific role that firearms played in intercultural contacts. Ironically, arms transfer was (and still is) a formidable means of building up relationships of trust, while simultaneously triggering the distrust of third parties and potentially catalysing conflict. In precolonial times, firearms became one of the most esteemed gifts both between African rulers and between Europeans and Africans – not least because of the often interculturally shared connotations of masculinity and power.
If the elevator were to move slowly, I would elaborate on the complicated legacies of arms trade moralization and regulation. Today’s negative image of international small arms trafficking – principally very worthy of support – inherits a colonial past that is still in need of historical research and acknowledgement.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
I studied history at the University of Hamburg where the history department was very unusual in having four (today three) professorships for ‘extra-European’ history, covering North America, Latin America, Africa, and West Asia. I took classes in all these fields of study and I enjoyed this very much.
After completing my MA in Hamburg, it was exceptionally formative to work with Andreas Eckert in Hamburg and Berlin, who vigorously advocated a greater recognition of African history within German historiography and also within a broader public. Working with Angelika Epple in Bielefeld was also extremely inspiring through the thorough reflection on processes of globalization, localization, and (dis-)entanglement.
How is it to do research in the UK?
For a historian working in the field of African and Global history, the archival abundance is paradise. And all the work done in British archives and libraries and the helping services they provide makes it much easier to carry out research. But the archival centrality of the UK in this research field reflects a post-imperial reality. Major parts of the historical sources on countries formerly under foreign rule are still located in the former metropole.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
I would wish for a further increase in exchange and cooperation between scholars from different parts of the world.