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Merchants, Agents, Technology, and Force: Empire and Natural Resources in East and Southeast Asia, 1800-1945

Sun, June 26, 1:00 to 2:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 118

Session Submission Type: Organized Panel Proposal Application


The standard story of the age of high imperialism in the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries in Asia is that imperial powers, drawn by the vibrant economic activity of East and Southeast Asia, first sought access to and then dominance of Asian natural resource markets--often gaining superiority through use of more advanced weaponry, technology, or scientific practices. Empire always requires collaboration from the colonized, a relationship that is generally presumed to move in one direction—labor and resources are extracted from colonies to suit the needs and interests of colonizers. Our panel complicates this picture by adding layers of lived experience in ways that do not fit the mold: cases of imperial accommodation, of imperial economic loss, and of intermediaries working both between empires and between the imperial state and the subaltern population. Through our case studies of Australians working for Chinese in Malayan tin mines, small Chinese merchants gaining more benefit than British merchants from British gunboat diplomacy, Germans successfully using old technology to get ahead in intra-Asian trade, and Japanese learning to accommodate subaltern populations, we show how the story of empire in Asia was also shaped through transnational collaboration, successful subaltern economic competition, and the use of mixed technology. These case studies, and the power struggles they illuminate, revolve around access to natural resources as a key component of imperial policy. By examining the gaps between policy and experience, we can better understand empire and how it worked on the ground in Asia.

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