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Colonial Knowledges Seminar 8

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Colonial Knowledges Seminar Series: Environment and Logistics in the Creation of Knowledge in British Colonies from 1750 to 1950.

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Colonial Knowledges: Environment and Logistics in the Creation of Knowledge in British Colonies from 1750 to 1950.

The effects of colonial power dynamics on knowledge creation in the long nineteenth century and beyond are well known and have become the foundation of a postcolonial reading of British scholarship in the context of empire. What has been less well examined are the practical effects of the colonial context on knowledge making. This seminar series seeks to explore how logistical and practical factors, such as the physical environment including climate and distance from the metropole, influenced the creation of both scientific and humanistic knowledge in British colonies.

Seminar 8

Mikko Toivanen, Munich Centre for Global History: 'Colonising the past and the present: the construction of British Ceylon through the production of historical knowledge'

This paper examines the construction of a body of knowledge on the history of Ceylon/Lanka by the British over the first half of the nineteenth century, tracing the genealogy of a field of study from its infancy to a professionalised discipline in the service of imperial conquest. Notions of who or what was considered an acceptable source of information changed over time in parallel with the expansion of British colonial rule on the island. Initially, newly-acquired access to local informants was prized and soon displaced earlier European – primarily Dutch – authorities as the British established a foothold on the island; however, the importance of local contacts – or, rather, the degree to which they were acknowledged – gradually declined as professional orientalists increasingly turned to surviving historical documentation over live informants in the following decades. The paper also analyses the popularisation of the body of historical knowledge thus constructed, following how it filtered from self-consciously scientific modes of writing into more entertaining genres like travel writing and the popular periodical press as Ceylon’s prominence in the imperial imagination grew. That process brought colonially produced knowledges to a wider audience but also necessarily brought about a change of emphasis and framing in their presentation.

Reynold Kai Won Tsang, Faculty of History, University of Oxford: 'The Inception of Museums in British East and Southeast Asia'

Following the establishment of the Indian Museum in Calcutta in 1814, museums were founded across the British Empire in Asia. By the end of the nineteenth century, almost every major British colony in East and Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Selangor, possessed a museum. In this paper, I will examine the initial development of museums in British East and Southeast Asia during the early and mid-nineteenth century. I will focus on the founding of the Anglo-Chinese College Museum in Malacca, the “British Museum in China” in Macao, and the Singapore Museum. They were the oldest museums established by the British in the region. My preliminary findings suggest that neither London nor the colonial authorities devised any overarching plan for museum development. In fact, the three museums above were unofficial initiatives by large. They served different purposes and affiliated to different organisations. Nevertheless, they were connected to the wider British intellectual circle in the region, which comprised of amateur naturalists, missionaries, and colonial administrators. This unofficial intellectual network shaped the early museum scene in the locality.

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