Right at the start of the lockdowns imposed by our various countries due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, we had a conference in Leiden cancelled. We have been particularly looking forward to this, because we had planned with meet with members of another research team on the sidelines, to discuss potential collaboration.
That research team consists of the members of the NWO-funded Colonialism Inside Out project, led by Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University) and Dries Lyna (Radboud University).
In keeping with the emerging research culture of this pandemic-afflicted world, we managed to meet instead on Zoom, on 20 March. This was a most productive and enjoyable session, which, as readers can see, brought smiles to our faces. We had already collected abstracts of potential papers that members of both teams could write; Dries Lyna had used these to generate a word cloud to identify the common materials, ideas and concepts that we were dealing with.
It became obvious during the meeting that we were dealing with colonialism in South Asia and the Indian Ocean in a way that was both familiar and unfamiliar. We are interested in bureaucracies, in the everyday, in indigenous subjects and agents, but we wanted to tell the story of writing and recording, of law, using materials that are often swept under the all-encompassing myth of uniform European colonialisms. It helps that we are dealing with many empires – Mughal, French, British, Dutch, among others – and many languages – Dutch, French, English, Arabic, Persian, Sinhala, Tamil, Bengali. We share an interest in the hidden archive, and a commitment to the material history of records.
Fahad Bishara, with his penchant for neatly turned phrases, suggested that what we are working on are ‘Paper Empires’, and that is the working title with which we are now working to produce a collection of essays in the coming months.