This interview originally appeared in Einsichten, a journal about research being conducted at the LMU. We are grateful for their permission to repost it.
Germans often have a romanticised picture of the country’s colonial past. Many are unaware how brutal German colonial rule was, and many do not know that there were close ties between the colonial powers when it came to violence. Knowing this side of colonial history is important for how we shape the present, says historian Tom Menger.
There are tour operators that advertise trips to Namibia – former German South West Africa – with slogans such as ‘Like vacationing at home, only more beautiful’ or ‘Nostalgic cities with a strong German flavour’. Was there something romantic about German colonialism?Menger: Not at all, I would say. Although this image does exist, it has little to do with reality. It was after the First World War in particular that the romanticisation of German colonialism took off. Maybe Germany losing its colonies in the First World War was part of the reason why Germans began to cultivate a romantic, nostalgic image of it. But the fact is that colonialism was always very strongly characterised by violence, sometimes by massive violence.
What kind of violence?Menger: There were very many forms of violence. There was everyday violence, so to speak, such as the whippings to which workers on plantations were subjected. There was forced labour and so-called ‘punitive expeditions’. There were military campaigns, such as the German suppression of African resistance during the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa, modern-day Tanzania. In this regard, I would highlight a form of violence that most people tend not to think of when it comes to colonialism: hunger wars and devastation – the massive and systematic destruction of villages and fields, of harvests and food supplies. These were attempts to strip resisting populations of their means of subsistence as a way of eliminating their ability to resist.
Were the methods employed in such colonial wars different than those practiced in conflicts in Europe?Menger: Definitely. In addition to the hunger wars and devastation, there were massacres that were typical of many colonial wars. People were kidnapped, including women and children – it was common for whole villages to be taken away and interned. Sexual violence was often an everyday feature of war. And there was extreme violence as a sort of spectacle: mutilation, beheadings, displaying the bodies of the killed. This was designed to send a message to others.
Seeking to learn from other empires: the German colonial officer Glauning translated into German this British manual for military expeditions in Africa.
How to burn down a village
What was this message that the violence was meant to communicate?Menger: It was about demonstrating one’s superiority to the enemy, and it was conceptualised in baldly racist terms. In English it was called the ‘moral effect’, and it was one of the points discussed in the handbooks of colonial warfare.
Concepts such as the ‘laws of war’ have been around for a long time. Did the colonial powers knowingly violate this law?Menger: We’re talking about a time when Europeans did in fact attempt to lay down rules of war. Work on the Geneva Convention began in 1864, while the Hague Conventions go back to 1899. The guiding principle behind these regulations was that the civilian population should be protected, and armies should attack only the opposing army. So there was already a relatively clear sense of what was legitimate and honourable in war and what was not. This does not mean that European wars in this period weren’t destructive. But some things that were frowned upon in Europe were common practice in colonial wars. There was the notion that you fight a different kind of war against people seen as ‘savages’, for whom the rules of war need not apply.
Were there really manuals on how to conduct war in the colonies?Menger: Yes, such handbooks were usually penned by the practitioners of colonial war; that is to say, veterans with long experience of this kind of war. They wrote about all sorts of things connected with war: from logistics to actual combat, about tactics and strategy. The manuals also contained practical guides to things like the best way to burn down a village.
Really?Menger: Yes. Some manuals described which parts of a village tended to burn better than others. They recommended setting fire to the roof first when burning a hut. And that you should check which way the wind is blowing. And how to make sure you don’t end up standing in the middle of a burning village with no way out. All these things were candidly described in these manuals.
These manuals have been around for over 100 years. Haven’t they been exhaustively studied already?Menger: Interestingly, no. Scholars have analysed some of them, but in their full breadth they have long remained unexplored. They are actually a very rich source for research into colonial violence.
Wissmann‘s famous colonial handbook, published 1895. Already on its first page, it recommended its readers to study the British colonial wars.
The era of colonialism was also an era of nationalism, where the countries of Europe sought to differentiate themselves from each other and highlight their distinctiveness. Were Germany, Britain, or France any different from other colonial nations in their conduct of war?Menger: Precisely this question is at the heart of my investigation. The answer is that there are great similarities in terms of warfare. The main differences come at the level of rhetoric, as the colonial powers strove to create a flattering self-image.
Did the colonial powers share the same ideologies?Menger: They certainly shared the same racist attitudes. And springing from this, they had the same conception of how to treat their colonial subjects. Moreover, the exchange of information between colonial nations on subjects like warfare was important. In the early days of German colonial rule in the 1880s, for example, there were people like Hermann von Wissmann, who founded and moulded the colonial army in German East Africa, the largest of the German colonies. Wissmann had previously acquired experience in the service of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo. Incidentally, the Belgian Congo, as the colony later came to be called, is something of a misnomer, as British, French, and Dutch and other actors also played roles there. Colonial rule was always a very transnational enterprise. The historians Jonas Kreienbaum from the University of Rostock and Christoph Kamissek use the term ‘imperial cloud’ in this context. It describes the phenomenon very nicely, I think.
‘Cloud’ as in the internet cloud? But 130 years ago?Menger: It’s about the metaphorical idea that there is a knowledge base that can be accessed in a certain way from various empires. It is not limited to national borders. Although it’s often unclear where, by whom, and when this knowledge is accessed, it’s there and it spreads, like in the online cloud.
Many people know precious little about the violence Germany exercised as a colonial power. Is that a problem? Why should people engage with the subject?Menger: It’s a phenomenon that helped shape the present. Our world of nation states and our global dependency dynamics. Understanding this legacy is a positive thing. If we accept that a culture of remembrance is valuable because we want to live in a democratic civil society, then it’s important to engage with our own history – including injustices that were committed in the past. This is something Germany has done quite successfully with the history of the Third Reich. And I think it’s worthwhile to come to terms with colonial injustices as well. Furthermore, there are growing numbers of people living in Germany for whom the violence of the colonial past is not something they can just ignore. For many immigrants – from Africa, for example – it is part of their own history, or at least the history of their ancestors. In this context, too, it’s important to have a shared culture of remembrance.
There are some people who think that German historians and politicians have focused quite enough on violence during the Nazi dictatorship. Won’t people switch off if we start focusing on violence in the German colonial period as well?Menger: I’ve no doubt that there will be resistance. But it's not a valid argument, I think, to say that we’ve faced up to the Nazi period, so now we’re done. After all, when a society has successfully come to grips with one era of history, why should it not do the same for other periods?
Infrastructures rarely come to mind when making or listening to music. This holds equally true for discovering or playing with unfamiliar sounds from different world regions. As an ephemeral and affective experience, music of whatever origin is difficult to capture, locate and pin down. And yet, without the emergence, development, transformation and deterioration of infrastructures, many musical experiences would have taken quite a different path – particularly at the transnational and global levels. Studying such infrastructures, broadly framed as material conditions as well as the explicit and implicit prerequisites of making music across borders since the 19th century, was at the heart of our workshop.
Actors involved in musical life, both historical and present, have taken infrastructures such as places and institutions of musical performance for granted, be these public, private or anything in between. They only receive greater attention when they do not meet artistic, economic, political or public expectations. Hence, the presence, lack and transformations of infrastructures are inextricably intertwined with the production of musical culture. They present driving forces, counterforces and lateral forces of musical practices broadly speaking. It was the forms and means, the reach and functions and, ultimately, the dis:connectivities of infrastructures that prompted intense and controversial discussions among the workshop participants from Europe and North America.
Image: Martin Rempe
The papers covered an impressive geographical range with contributions on North and Latin America and the Caribbean, on a global Europe and a global Soviet Union, on Central Africa as well as on South and East Asia. Chronologically, we focused on the 19th and 20th centuries as a key period for both global history and the history of infrastructures. Likewise, the papers featured a great variety of musical genres, ranging from opera and classical music to jazz, Congolese rumba and Afrobeat as well as to Soviet pop music and so-called ‘traditional music’ of indigenous peoples. Finally, the spectrum of infrastructures was pushed to the extremes: transnational networks of theatre agents (Charlotte Bentley and Matteo Paoletti) served as infrastructures of musical dis:connectivity as well as international organisations like UNESCO (Anaïs Fléchet) and European and African collecting societies (Véronique Pouillard), music education institutions (Alexandre Bischofberger) and the music industry (Friedemann Pestel), pitch standardisation negotiations (Fanny Gribenski) and genre discourse (Thomas Irvine and Christopher Smith) and, last but not least, cultural ministries (Michel Abeßer) and national embassies (Zbigniew Wojnowski).
This broad conceptualisation of infrastructures of musical dis:connectivity turned out to be very fruitful for the discussions since it provoked even more inventive ideas from the invited commentators about what else, in the context of music, could be framed as infrastructure: music itself as an infrastructure for human memory and everyday human life (Dirk van Laak); musical instruments as infrastructures of sound making (Jürgen Osterhammel); and the crucial question of how infrastructures in a narrow sense, such as electricity and the production of shellac played in the making of music (Oliver Janz) were among the most fascinating ones. Also, considerable thought was devoted to the conceptual boundaries of infrastructures and how they differ from structure(s) and networks. Roland Wenzlhuemer, in his keynote, drew our attention to the spatial dimension of infrastructures by highlighting the significance of – otherwise largely disconnected – peripheries for connectivity in communication.
Additionally, from an anthropological viewpoint, the important difference between infrastructures as an emic category and an etic category was stressed (Christina Brauner). There was, however, no consensus about how much teleology comes into play when doing research on infrastructures: while some argued that path dependency is key to understanding infrastructures’ effectiveness (Heidi Tworek), others warned of normative assumptions about the latter. These and many more aspects of the relationship between infrastructures and making music across borders underline how useful the dialogue between music history and infrastructure research can be. Also highly inspiring were the discussions about the distinction between the established perspective of musical ‘institutions’ and the perspective of ‘infrastructures’ that might direct our attention to less articulated, less formalised settings of musical production.
Several workshop participants emphasised the necessity of pluralising and de-Europeanising the idea of a musical globalisation. As the papers made evident, many musical globalisations have recurred since the mid-19th century with their own underlying infrastructures, mechanisms, geographies and limitations. Even within a single genre, such as European opera, the logics of circulation, appropriation and refusal differed considerably between the mid-19th century American South, which was driven by commercial motivations, and the countries of southern Latin America under the grip of fascist Italian diplomacy during the 1920s.
Nonetheless, a retreat from European musical metropoles and a reorientation to emerging American centres, such as New York and Buenos Aires, was common to both Americas in the decades around 1900, as was also the case in the emergence of Cuban music conservatories, which took as much inspiration from there as from Europe. Wojnowski extended de-centring one step further by emphasising the strong Western bias in Eurocentric accounts. There is call to study Eastern European attempts to globalise ‘their’ musics as well, even though they largely failed, as his case study on Soviet musical diplomacy in the emerging Third World demonstrated.
Whereas the commonplace of ‘musical connections’ is often taken for granted in music scholarship, the significantly greater challenge is to write about music that does not travel or, more precisely, music that is prevented from travelling. Though the lens of infrastructures cannot solve this problem, it can, at least, hint and highlight moments of musical dis:connectivity. A recent example mentioned at the workshop is the streaming platform ‘Forgotify’, which assembles millions of tracks and songs that are available on Spotify but have never been played. In a historical perspective, infrastructures like ‘Forgotify’ can direct our attention to other ‘hidden’ agents of musical dis:connectivity that have so far been understudied, such as collecting societies and international organisations. Likewise, the workshop revealed how little we know about the actual trajectories, interests, strategies and frictions related to seemingly global musical icons, be it the career of a conductor like Herbert von Karajan or an ostensibly unequivocal musical reference such as the pitch.
The dialogue among the papers, commentators and the workshops’ discussants also helped to reveal what was lacking or underrepresented among the variety of phenomena, spaces and actors the workshop covered. For example, wars as particular moments of both musical dis:connectivity, infrastructural mobilisation and destruction did not loom large in the discussions. Likewise, explicit counterforces to musical globalisation remained in the background. Musical unions, which often acted as gatekeepers against foreign musicians and their musics, are an apt example. While the workshop has mapped the field and revealed many productive approaches to it, much more research on infrastructures of musical dis:connectivity is needed to better understand the many histories of musical globalisations.
In this blog, I investigate the work that went into the making of breakwaters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, around 1900 as a way of meditating on the relations between the environment, urban change, labour and politics in a global-South city.
Arms stretching to sea
After the opening of the Suez Canal, Colombo became the second-most-used port in British Asia. By 1910, it was slightly behind Hong Kong and the seventh-busiest of the world’s ports by tonnage, easily ahead, for instance, of Calcutta/Kolkata or Bombay/Mumbai. At the heart of this transformation were infrastructural arms stretching out to sea, taming the winds and waves, and allowing steamer ships to dock in calm water for re-coaling. These arms were the breakwaters of Colombo. A south-west breakwater was constructed by 1885, followed by a further bout of infrastructural consolidation in the late 1890s and early 1900s and the building of a north-east and north-west breakwater.
More recently, when I returned to Colombo in 2021, after being stuck in Britain over the course of the early pandemic, it was a shock to see another new arm stretching out to sea from Galle Face Green. This is Colombo’s $15 billion dollar Port City Development Project, an attempt to make it compete with megacities such as Singapore and Hong Kong and financed by China. Meanwhile, Galle Face Green, on the seafront, was first formally laid out by the British as a parading and sporting ground in the mid-nineteenth century. One tradition is that the Dutch, who preceded the British, needed this level lawn to aim their cannon at the Portuguese. The new port city development project that faces this lawn has proceeded regardless of protests from environmental groups, fishing communities and from those concerned with the huge debt-burden to China which it will create. It is also at Galle Face Green that the wide-scale protests against the Sri Lankan government, in the midst of a pandemic-inflected economic crisis, arose. ‘Gotagohome village’, calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, became a permanent site of protest on Galle Face Green in 2022.
Staging connections and the reality of disconnection
The breakwaters of the past and the Chinese-financed project of the present are attempts to make Colombo a connected node of global capitalist trade and politics. If so, thinking with the underside of this infrastructure, meaning the work that goes into its making and the way it changes the environment, takes us in turn to the interrupted dynamics of projects like this. It also takes us to why the sea face of Colombo continues to be a place where politics is appropriately staged and performed even in our present. The projected connections of capitalism lead into both the realities of disconnection and the generative possibilities that follow for political movements and resistance. In arguing like this I develop my claims in a book, Islanded, which came out about a decade ago, where I argued that disconnection and connection lie at the heart of the contradictory origins of the Sri Lankan state as an island set apart but linked with a mainland. I ended that book with this line:
a connection is a disconnection when viewed from another direction.
In what follows, I juxtapose a series of vignettes, firstly related to the interventionist power of the breakwaters, over nature, people and disease; secondly, I attend to resistance and consequences of various kinds, environmental and social included, which came from these infrastructural interventions. And then, at the end, I return to the contemporary moment.
A breakwater in the sea
In the late-nineteenth century, the work of making a breakwater was hard, and it also required work beneath the sea. The nature of the work changed according to whether the monsoon was in force or not. During the monsoon, stones and blocks and quantities of sand could be washed away unexpectedly. Additionally, the nature of the waves changed dramatically. The importance of keeping an eye on the sea in making plans for breakwater-making was especially evident in how records were kept on this seafront on wave heights, wave periods and winds. It was supposed at first that nine feet was the greatest height of waves at Colombo, but subsequent measurements determined that where the breakwater was being built waves rose to twelve feet and fifteen feet.
Image: KHK global dis:connect collection
Line of control
The breakwater is a line, a line of attempted control between sea and land. But it also served this purpose for the control of disease. In the 1890s a large number of vessels were put under quarantine as fears of plague spread. By 1905 disinfection was undertaken ‘at the root of the breakwater’ with ‘an Equifex disinfector [a boiler and three disinfecting chambers]’ which was erected at that point alongside an immigration depot. The Bombay steamer was a particular target: all Bombay water was emptied off the ship rather carefully. Each individual on the Bombay steamer was allegedly inspected; their temperature taken, and ‘the state of the glands of his (sic.) neck, groins and armpits’ were examined; while ‘[f]emales are examined by a female examiner.’
The growing harbour of Colombo would not have expanded the way it did without the new breakwaters. For this was not a site with a significant natural harbour; the breakwaters made it possible for Colombo to become a site of trans-shipment at the centre of the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, their construction and the resulting expansion of the city saw urban reorganisation. For instance, the harbour was emptied of ‘native vessels’, used by fishermen and a separate fishery harbour arose to the north of the main port in 1902. But once again, like in the assault of the waves on those who were building the breakwaters, this programme of managing the sea-face did not work.
Fishing communities were incensed by their relocation. In one petition of 1906 with 11 signatures, for instance, they wrote against how their boats were forbidden to fish in the harbour area where they had traditionally done so. ‘True it is the Government have provided for us outside the Colombo Harbour, a place called ‘Fisher’s Harbour’... during the SW Monsoon the entrance of the harbour is not safe and the room for the accommodation of our fishing boats … is quite insufficient’. Various catamarans, fishing boats, that sought to continue operating in the harbour were seized by the harbour police. Meanwhile, the beach that was allocated to fishing communities was divided up so that different groups, demarcated by place of worship, had access to different stretches of the shore.
In late 1894, when the railway line was being laid along this stretch of shore, there were ‘disturbances’ at St. John’s Beach, and the accusation that some men had incited ‘a riot’ and turned on government officials. This resistance was not only human; it was natural too. A fishermen’s petition from 1901– from a group who had beached their boats close to Mutwal and the mouth of the Kelani River since ‘immemorial’ times – complained of all the functions occurring on their beach. The result was that:
[The] flow of water in the river is greatly obstructed by the large number of timber lying in the bed of the river and fever is spreading amongst the poor families of the fishermen who use the river for bathing purposes, the water being stagnant, the mud at the bottom has become putrid and the smell very offensive. 
By 1912, the problems of space had affected fishing communities to the extent that one Sinhalese group, taken to be the majority ethnic community in the island today, asked that ‘Tamil’ fishermen be ousted from Colombo, on the basis that Tamils ‘are not residents of Ceylon’ and also since these fishermen were using types of nets prohibited by the state. Modes of attempted management, to allow the port to connect, allowed inter-community relations in turn to deteriorate to ethnic tussles.
The stage of dis:connection
To move from the early twentieth century to the present and the sustained protests on this stretch of beach, there are various geopolitical reasons for their emergence. Grand schemes by the Chinese and Indians and others, including the Japanese, dictate the present and future of Colombo as well as the whole island. The pandemic and the loss of tourist and migrant labour incomes, for instance in the Middle East, have played a role too. In addition to this, it is also about the hold of an older generation of corrupt male politicians, who adopted supposedly populist tax cuts and new fertiliser policy for agriculture. If these reasons can be taken to indicate de-globalisation, strikingly, the protests of our moment have been led by the young and by those who did not grow up in the midst of the island’s civil war, between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. The protests have crossed ethnic boundaries and seen the rise of new forms of solidarity. Muslims, one of the most discriminated communities, have broken fast in the midst of the protests.
I want to end simply by stressing that these protests have also occurred on a stage facing the ocean. This is a lawn that repeated governments have struggled to keep green and struggled to convert into an iconic landscape of nationalism. It is fitting also that the protesters who stormed the president’s residence were seen swimming in a pool of water. It was this recording, together with others of the protests movement on the stretch of shoreline, that went viral when the news first broke. Going into the water was a way of bringing a political movement to its sweet result:
Colombo is a specific ecology, which has faced connection and disconnection, over centuries and not only at the hands of the British, but also the Portuguese and the Dutch and now various other superpowers. It is in the gap between connection and disconnection that Colombo has given rise to new political forms. The breakwater or indeed the lawn or harbour, have been effective places from which to rethink the political in a global South city. Meanwhile the performative possibilities of sites facing water carry on apace.
 This blog returns to an earlier article while bringing in lots of new dimensions: Sujit Sivasundaram, ‘Towards a Critical History of Connection: The Port of Colombo, the Geographical “Circuit,” and the Visual Politics of New Imperialism, ca. 1880–1914’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 2 (2017): 346–84.
 For an excellent introduction to the story see: Kanchana Ruwanpura, Benjamin Brown, and Loritta Chan, ‘(Dis) Connecting Colombo: Situating the Megapolis in Postwar Sri Lanka’, The Professional Geographer 72, no. 1 (2020): 165–79.
 For some recent commentary on the protests and their causes, see for instance: J. Uyangoda, ‘The #GotaGoHome Protest Movement: Significance, Potential, and Challenges’, Social Scientists’ Association, 2022, http://ssalanka.org/gotagohome-protest-movement-significance-potential-challenges-jayadeva-uyangoda/; and: Shamara Wettimuny, ‘Protests in Sri Lanka: A Historical Perspective’, Medium, 10 April 2022, https://shamara-wettimuny.medium.com/protests-in-sri-lanka-a-historical-perspective-289e58908c5a.
 See: Sujit Sivasundaram, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); See also: Zoltán Biedermann, ‘(Dis)Connected History and the Multiple Narratives of Global Early Modernity’, Modern Philology 119, no. 1 (2021): 13–32, https://doi.org/10.1086/714972.
 For references to the primary material in this paragraph and that following, please see: Sivasundaram, ‘Towards a Critical History of Connection: The Port of Colombo, the Geographical “Circuit,” and the Visual Politics of New Imperialism, ca. 1880–1914’.
 Sivasundaram, 'Towards a Critical History'.
 Sivasundaram, 'Towards a Critical History'.
 Sivasundaram, 'Towards a Critical History'.
 ‘Petition to the Hon’ble Government Agent of the Western Province’, 25 October 1906, Lot 33/3964, Sri Lanka National Archives.
 ‘Documents’, n.d., Lot 33/3961, Sri Lanka National Archives Colombo.
 ‘Petition’, 3 December 1901, Lot 33/3481, Sri Lanka National Archives.
 ‘Petition to the Master Attendant from Signatories Who Sign in Sinhala’, 27 March 1912, Lot 33/3976, Sri Lanka National Archives.
 ‘Sri Lanka Crisis: Protesters Swim in President’s Pool’, BBC, 9 July 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-62105698.
Biedermann, Zoltán. ‘(Dis)Connected History and the Multiple Narratives of Global Early Modernity’. Modern Philology 119, no. 1 (2021): 13–32. https://doi.org/10.1086/714972.
‘Documents’, n.d. Lot 33/3961. Sri Lanka National Archives Colombo.
‘Petition’, 3 December 1901. Lot 33/3481. Sri Lanka National Archives.
‘Petition to the Hon’ble Government Agent of the Western Province’, 25 October 1906. Lot 33/3964. Sri Lanka National Archives.
‘Petition to the Master Attendant from Signatories Who Sign in Sinhala’, 27 March 1912. Lot 33/3976. Sri Lanka National Archives.
Ruwanpura, Kanchana, Benjamin Brown, and Loritta Chan. ‘(Dis) Connecting Colombo: Situating the Megapolis in Postwar Sri Lanka’. The Professional Geographer 72, no. 1 (2020): 165–79.
Sivasundaram, Sujit. Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
———. ‘Towards a Critical History of Connection: The Port of Colombo, the Geographical “Circuit,” and the Visual Politics of New Imperialism, ca. 1880–1914’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 2 (2017): 346–84.
BBC. ‘Sri Lanka Crisis: Protesters Swim in President’s Pool’, 9 July 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-62105698.
Uyangoda, J. ‘The #GotaGoHome Protest Movement: Significance, Potential, and Challenges’. Social Scientists’ Association, 2022. http://ssalanka.org/gotagohome-protest-movement-significance-potential-challenges-jayadeva-uyangoda/.
Wettimuny, Shamara. ‘Protests in Sri Lanka: A Historical Perspective’. Medium, 10 April 2022. https://shamara-wettimuny.medium.com/protests-in-sri-lanka-a-historical-perspective-289e58908c5a.
Stele commemorating Tran Van Ba in Liège (Image courtesy of the author)
On a springtime walk in one of the green parks in the Belgian city of Liège, I was astounded to discover a stele commemorating Vietnamese anti-communist Tran Van Ba. This memorial turned out to be the perfect embodiment of the aesthetics of Cold War omission. It piqued my curiosity. Liège, situated in the Meuse valley, is known as the former industrial backbone of Wallonia. What was a stele in memory Tran Van Ba doing here? Though I had originally planned to discover explore the industrial heritage of Liège and to visit the House of Metallurgy and Industry that day, I decided to go back to my hotel to learn more about Tran Van Ba instead.
On the way back to my hotel, I remembered the name Tran Van Ba as a whisper echoing from the chaos of French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence. My small hotel room had a funky atmosphere, like a 1970s youth hostel. I turned my computer on. I felt like I was going to solve a mystery like Sherlock Holmes. Who was Tran Van Ba? Who had built this stele? Here Google would serve as Dr Watson, my loyal assistant.
Tran Van Ba was a major figure of the Cold War, to whom Reagan awarded the Medal of Liberty. My preliminary investigation revealed that many Vietnamese in exile saw Ban as a martyr of the struggle against communism. On 8 January 1985, roughly a decade after the end of the American war in Vietnam, Tran Van Ba (1945-1985) was executed for high treason in Thu Duc, a municipality close to Ho Chi Minh City. It was an ignominious end to a life deeply marked by the violent upheaval Vietnam witnessed throughout the twentieth century.
Here − in life and death − there is a strange symmetry. In 1966, Tran’s father, himself a prominent political figure with presidential ambitions, was assassinated in South Vietnam by the Viet Cong. Two decades earlier, in 1945, his uncle, the founder of the Vietnamese constitutional party, was shot by the Viet Minh. These symmetries condemned any possibility of moderation in a Vietnam torn between nationalism, communism and capitalism.
For North Vietnam, the fall of Saigon in April 1975 represented triumph in a decade-long war for national liberation against American imperialism. For Tran Van Ba, it was just the beginning of a new struggle that ended in Thu Duc, a struggle that persisted across three generations and permeated the lived experience of Tran Van Ba. It combined a series of disconnections − war, memory and diasporic battles over symbols of nationhood – and raged from Saigon to Paris, Bandung to the United Nations and from Little Saigon in California to Alt-Mariendorf in south Berlin. These disconnections resulted in the erection of the statue of Tran Van Ba in Liège.
In my small room, I decided to turn off my computer. I had to understand where the origins of these disconnections lay. I dived into the abyss. I thought about my scientific research on French colonial Indochina. Finally, I understood. These disconnections were dawning as French imperial sovereignty waned, when a sprawling empire, which dominated much of the Southeast Asian landmass and West Africa, disappeared in the aftermath of World War II. Decolonisation represented a disjuncture in Vietnamese history, symbolised by the death of Tran Van Ba’s uncle, Bui Quang Chieu (1973-1945), whom I had the chance to study during my doctoral research.
Bui Quang Chieu was a politician and a journalist in French Indochina. In 1917, he founded the journal La Tribune Indigène in Saigon. French Governor General Albert Sarraut supported him. Indeed, Bui Quang Chieu advocated the modernisation of Vietnam under French colonialisation, but the Vietnamese communist party did not accept his position. The Viet Minh considered him a collaborator. When Japan surrendered, the Viet Minh executed Bui Quang Chieu, his four sons and his daughter. Decolonisation entailed fratricidal struggle between the various Vietnamese nationalist movements.
France’s Afro-Asian empire did not evaporate into thin air. In the 1950s and 1960s, Vietnamese statesmen, commissions, committees and a bevy of soldiers and scoundrels descended on the waning French empire. They dissected, sorted and reorganised its parts into what we might call ‘ground zero’ for Cold War in Afro-Asia. It was unquestionably a foundational moment for a new post-imperial and international order.
On the turbulent frontiers of post-imperial Asia, the end of the First Indochina War between the Viet Minh and France was a messy process of redrawing collapsing boundaries. Populations displaced in wartime migrated. The new post-colonial states and societies were militarised in the Cold War. Diplomats from France, the Viet Minh, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Soviet Union, China, the USA and the UK sought agreement in Geneva from April to July 1954. The agreement they achieved temporarily separated Vietnam into two zones, a northern zone to be governed by the Viet Minh and a southern zone to be governed by the State of Vietnam, then headed by former emperor Bao Dai.
The disconnections at the end of the French colonial empire mentioned here had global impacts. They shaped not only the transformation of international relations in the Cold War; they also laid the ground for a transnational exiled network at the end of the American War in 1975.
It is at Bandung, Indonesia that the divisions between North and South Vietnam became glaring. The 1955 Bandung Conference is considered the birth of the Third World. As the Western empires slipped into crisis, anticolonial elites were fomenting a frenetic vision of how to reshape world affairs. For the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Bandung signified ‘to Europe that the time of the European empire was over’. The French sociologist Raymond Aron was more critical: Bandung, although Afro-Asian, was very similar to a typical meeting of Western intellectuals and diplomats. He noted the same disproportion ‘between the pretensions of the men and the insignificance of the unanimous motions’ and ‘the same invocation of principles (fundamental human rights) by those who despise or violate them’.
Neither Césaire nor Aaron saw Bandung as the birth of a divided nation − Vietnam. After nine years of war, North and South Vietnam were irreconcilable. Their delegations present at Bandung refused to meet. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam delegate Pham Van Dong addressed the conference by reiterating the commitment made in the 1954 Geneva Conference. The delegate of the State of Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thoai, cited the influx of North Vietnamese refugees in South Vietnam as the result of a ‘dictatorial regime’. The two delegations had contradictory views on politics and nationhood.
After Bandung, North and South Vietnam became two pawns on the global chessboard, taking on Korea’s role of the hot front of the Cold War. North Vietnam was supported by China and the Soviet Union, the South by the United States. With the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975, the term ‘Vietnam’ came to signify the transformation of modern war. It became central to the global countercultural movement, and it suffused debates on war, torture, colonialism, technology and media.
In the midst of that war, new global networks were created, networks that would come to be meaningful after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, became home of the monthly journal of the Asian Pacific League for Freedom and Democracy, The Free Front. This journal had a global audience in Australia, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany and the United States. From Paris, the former imperial metropole of French Indochina, Tran Van Ba led a student movement denouncing communism. In Western European cities, Vietnamese students demonstrated against communism and the American intervention in South Vietnam.
The United Nations became the diplomatic arena for North and South Vietnam. The two states both sought international recognition. In Europe and the United States, Vietnamese students appealed to the United Nations in their fight against communism. The Vietnamese Undersecretary Bui Diem attempted to secure UN support against North Vietnam. In October 1966, he visited the UN headquarters and met with UN Secretary General U Thant. However, his attempts and the students’ demonstrations were fruitless. Bui Diem, as South Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, desperately attempted to secure $722 million USD in military aid to defend South Vietnam against the North in 1975.
Yet, with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, the state of South Vietnam was wiped from the map. Two years later, communist Vietnam was made an official member of the UN. Bui Diem became a refugee and university professor in the Unites States. For Tran Van Ba, the fall of Saigon was unacceptable. He decided to leave Paris, where he had studied political science, to engage in another, third war. His aim was to install an anti-communist government in Vietnam. In the process of deimperialisation, the disconnections in the Vietnamese nation became striking.
The disconnections in the history of Vietnam during the Cold War became visible in societies at the end of the Cold War. The fall of Saigon catalysed the mass exodus of Vietnamese ‘boat people’. Transnational exile networks grew throughout the worldwide diaspora. They built upon the pre-existing Vietnamese students’ and anti-communist networks that had emerged in Western Europe, the United States and Australia.
These disconnections transformed the political, social and visual landscapes of the cities where the boat people lived in exile. For them, the flag of South Vietnam became the symbol of freedom from North Vietnam. It consists of a yellow background, symbolising the Empire of Vietnam, with three red horizontal stripes through the middle, emblematic of the common blood running through North, Central, and South Vietnam. In Alt-Mariendorf in south Berlin, Hannover, Hamburg and Stuttgart, this flag is displayed during the Vietnamese communities’ gatherings to call for democracy in a unified Vietnam.
On 21 October 1990, in the United States, former soldiers and refugees from the former South Vietnamese regime founded the Provisional National Government of Vietnam, headquartered in Orange County and Little Saigon. Dao Minh Quan was elected as the president of the newly created ‘Third Republic of Vietnam’. US government staff gave speeches and expressed hope that the newly elected president would work closely with the USA. Yet, for many exiled Vietnamese, Dao Minh Quan did not have any political legitimacy. He was only interested in embezzling from the provisional government.
In Europe, Vietnamese diasporas are still fighting against the communist Vietnamese regime. They consider the current regime ‘authoritarian and corrupt’. They denounce human rights abuses in Vietnam. In parallel with this political struggle, the exiled Vietnamese communities are committed to building sites of memory. In Hamburg, Liège and Geneva, members of the Vietnamese diaspora have contacted municipal authorities to install steles commemorating the boat people.
The mayor of Paris first agreed to the installation of a plaque in memory of Tran Van Ba in the 13th arrondissement in 2008. The Vietnamese embassy protested to French authorities, who eventually renounced the plaque. In Liège, a statue honouring Tran Van Ba was erected on 30 June 2006. Local and Belgian national newspapers, such as Le Soir, La Libre Belgique and La Meuse published articles on Tran Van Ba as well as on the boat people at that time. Every year, on 8 January, the Vietnamese exiled community in Liège pays respect to Tran Van Ba, a ‘martyr of communism’.
The Vietnamese government considers these commemorations problematic. It listed the Provisional National Government of Vietnam as a terrorist organisation and condemns the efforts of the Vietnamese diaspora to overthrow the current regime. It is said that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, it continues in the streets and the squares of Liège, Berlin, Paris, Orange County and Little Saigon.
In my small room in Liège, I was reflecting on my own investigations. To no one’s surprise, Google is a wonderful fount of information. I never regretted not visiting the House of Metallurgy and Industry in Liège and or skipping my exploration of its industrial heritage. I thought to myself how a series of disconnections resulted in the creation of a statue in a Belgian city, and how the complexities of global disconnections have transformed our societies.
 Statement at the meeting of 27 January 1956 organised by the Comité d'Action des intellectuels contre la poursuite de la guerre en Afrique du Nord.
 Raymond Aron, ‘Bandoeng: Conférence de l’équivoque’, Le Figaro, 27 April 1955, 1.
 ‘Konferentsiia Stran Azii i Afriki Zakonchila Svoiu Rabotu’, Pravda, 25 April 1955, 4.
 Interviews of members of the Vietnamese diaspora in Berlin in November 2021.
Aron, Raymond. ‘Bandoeng: Conférence de l’équivoque’. Le Figaro. 27 April 1955.
Pravda. ‘Konferentsiia Stran Azii i Afriki Zakonchila Svoiu Rabotu’. 25 April 1955.
This photograph of a shattered hull hides a rare sight. It is not the shipwreck.
The ship in question is the British steamer Highland Fling and the picture was taken at the Falmouth drydocks early in 1907. A terrible disaster has sundered the ship in half, and all that remains is an almost anatomical cross-section of the ship. Labourers are interrupting their work to pose for the photographer. They are in the process of clearing ballast from the ship’s hold before its engines and parts can be salvaged and the rest of the Highland Fling scrapped.
The Highland Fling had been a mighty ship, almost a hundred metres long, first launched 17 years previously from a Newcastle shipyard. The ship boasted a modern steel hull and was fitted with electric lights as well as refrigeration machinery (the purpose of which remains obscure). Originally named the Duke of Portland and later the Morayshire, the steamer became the Highland Fling around 1905, when it joined the fleet of the Nelson Line of Liverpool (which christened all their ships with names beginning in ‘Highland’). The new owners employed the Highland Fling for trade with South America. It was on one such voyage that disaster struck.
According to the London Times, the steamer ran aground near the Cornish coast in thick fog on the night of 7 January 1907. It had left London only days before carrying several thousand barrels of cement to Buenos Aires. An inquest by the Liverpool Board of Trade later ruled that the ship had exceeded safe speed too near the coast. The ship’s master, a Captain Purvis, was held responsible for this navigational error and his captain’s licence was suspended for a year. This was a light punishment, given that the newspapers valued the Highland Fling at £25,000 (nearly £3.2 million today), excluding the value of its cargo. At least, no loss of life was reported, and the vessel was sufficiently insured.
On 10 January, the Times reported a first, unsuccessful attempt to tow the steamer from the rocks after several hundred tons of cargo had been jettisoned. A second attempt, undertaken two days later, also failed and left the bow section of the vessel badly damaged. After repeated attempts to free the Highland Fling had proved futile, the London Salvage Association tried to retrieve at least part of the cargo and the ship’s most valuable parts (its engine and refrigeration machinery, which were located in the rear). Engineers planted dynamite along the hull with the aim to separate bow from stern by force, but heavy waves interrupted this plan. After being stuck on the rocks for two weeks, the sea finally achieved what the engineers had failed to do and smashed the ship in half, after which the rear was towed by tugboats to the nearby port of Falmouth. The bow section of the Highland Fling was left on the rocks, until it was smashed into oblivion by a storm on the night of 23 January.
At Falmouth the Highland Fling was documented in a series of dramatic photographs by the local studio of Gibson & Sons. The Gibsons ran a multigenerational business and hailed from the Scilly Isles — an island group southwest of Cornwall long associated with maritime disasters. Exactly 200 years before the calamity of the Highland Fling, another series of navigational errors had sunk four ships of the Royal Navy and killed 1500 sailors as well as an admiral on the cliffs of the Scillies. The disaster of 1707 famously sparked the eighteenth-century quest for more precise longitudinal measurements, and it was perhaps this piece of local history that had given the business’s founder, John Gibson (a sailor turned photographer in the 1860s), and his sons their taste for maritime tragedy. Pictures of the wrecked Highland Fling were probably taken by John’s son Herbert, who, over the course of his career, photographed countless ships in varying degrees of destruction.
Tragic as it was, the fate of the Highland Fling was by no means unusual. Surviving images of the shattered ship bear witness to the dangers of seafaring even at the dawn of the twentieth century. The dimensions of the remaining half of the hull are impressive, dwarfing the men labouring in its shadow, yet the advances of the industrial age were no match for the violence of wind and sea. Yet the apparent catastrophe of the shattered Highland Fling conceals something as mundane as it is invisible. Strewn across the lowest point of the hull lie sand and rocks, which the labourers are slowly removing by means of their shovels and wheelbarrows. These are not the remains of the cement cargo the ship was transporting to South America, which was packaged into barrels, some of which are still visible. What the labourers are removing is in fact the ship’s ballast.
The word ‘ballast’ is used almost exclusively as a metaphor today. But ballast was an integral part of seafaring. Its purpose was to lower a ship’s centre of gravity and to stabilise it at sea. This was done by loading cheap and heavy materials like sand, small stones and rubble into a ship’s hold, which lowered its waterline and reduced its tendency to pitch and roll. As ships travelled to the farthest corners of the globe, they carried ballast from and to ports all over the world. Ships needed the most ballast when they were running empty, but even fully loaded ships carried it. Especially during the winter months, shipmasters took care to load additional ballast. Looking at ships of similar size and displacement, the Highland Fling (which sailed in January) would have easily carried between 200 and 500 tonnes of sand and stones as ballast.
Ballast was evidently necessary for safe travel at sea, but at the same time it routinely disrupted trade. Purchasing ballast and paying for the labour of loading and unloading it was a recurring expense, but what made ballast particularly vexing were the lengthy delays while ships waited to be ballasted. Shipping was a highly competitive industry in which the priority was to keep ships profitably at sea with cargo rather than wasting precious days in port. Waiting for ballast-men to load ballast after stevedores had unloaded cargo (or vice versa) considerably extended the time in port to the point where captains opted not to unload all their cargo rather than to wait for ballast. While global economic connections intensified, the necessity to carry ballast weakened and sometimes severed such connections.
As a mundane nautical component, ballast was deeply ingrained in the everyday practice of seamanship. As such, it is almost invisible in pictorial records. There are some depictions showing how it was loaded or unloaded, as well as a few anaemic photographs taken by archaeologists of ballast recovered from sunken ships. The images from Falmouth are a rare exception because they show ballast while it was in its proper place —in situ at the deepest point of a ship’s hold. This is important because whether any amount of sand and shingle counted as ballast or not was wholly determined by the nautical context: only their use at sea transformed sand and shingle into ballast. The very same materials could later be used to pave roads or build houses without a second thought given to their erstwhile nautical purpose.
Another interesting aspect of the photographs is that the cross-section shows neither a double bottom nor double hull. Towards of the end of the nineteenth century, many ships had adopted double hulls, which made them more durable. The space in-between was waterproofed and used as a tank that could be filled with seawater. Water is less dense than sand and stone, but it is free and could be loaded and unloaded much more quickly. This solved some of the disconnective issues associated with solid ballast. Today, water ballast is used on almost every ship and has contributed significantly to the spread of invasive micro-organisms around the world.
Not all water ballast was kept in double hulls. On board the Highland Fling, the water was most likely carried in large tanks located at the bow and stern of the ship and is therefore not visible in the cross-section. While it is often argued that solid ballast, like sand and stone, was quickly replaced by water, the images of the Highland Fling demonstrate the persistence of solid ballast. At the turn of the century, most steamers still used a mixture of water and solid ballasts, as well as the weight of their fuel, to stabilise the ship.
The stranding of the Highland Fling might be a cautionary tale of navigational incompetence or the persisting dangers of maritime mobility a century ago. But what makes this image of tragedy exceptional is that it documents an otherwise almost invisible and forgotten aspect of seafaring.
 Gibson & Sons of Scilly, A View of the Stern Section at the Break in the Hull, of the Cargo Steamer Highland Fling (1890) in Drydock at Falmouth, c. 1907, Photograph, G14156, National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection, https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1113561.
Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping. From 1st July, 1906, to the 30th June, 1907. Volume 1 – Steamers (London, 1906).
 ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 9 January 1907, 13; ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 10 January 1907, 13; ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 14 January 1907, 15; ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 15 January 1907, 15; ‘Shipping Disasters’, The Times (London), 21 January 1907, 9; ‘Wrecks, Casualties, &c.’, The Times (London), 24 January 1907, 10; ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 4 March 1907, 14.
 John Fowles, Shipwreck, repr. ed. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979).
 Gibson & Sons of Scilly, A View Directly into the Hull of the Cargo Steamer Highland Fling (1890), c. 1907, Photograph, G14155, National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection, https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1113560.
 S. J. P. Thearle, ‘The Ballasting of Steamers for North Atlantic Voyages’, Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 45 (1903): 118–33.
 Mats Burström, Ballast. Laden with History, trans. Charlotte Merton (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2017), 51–59.
 James T. Carlton, ‘Attack of the Invasive Species!’, in The Ocean Reader. History, Culture, Politics, ed. Eric Paul Roorda (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 473–82.
 B. Martell, ‘On Water Ballast’, Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 18 (1877): 336–48.
Burström, Mats. Ballast. Laden with History. Translated by Charlotte Merton. Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2017.
Carlton, James T. ‘Attack of the Invasive Species!’ In The Ocean Reader. History, Culture, Politics, edited by Eric Paul Roorda, 473–82. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.
Fowles, John. Shipwreck. Repr. ed. London: Jonathan Cape, 1979.
Gibson & Sons of Scilly. A View Directly into the Hull of the Cargo Steamer Highland Fling (1890). c. 1907. Photograph. G14155. National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection. https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1113560.
———. A View of the Stern Section at the Break in the Hull, of the Cargo Steamer Highland Fling (1890) in Drydock at Falmouth. c. 1907. Photograph. G14156. National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection. https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1113561.
Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping. From 1st July, 1906, to the 30th June, 1907. Volume 1 – Steamers. London, 1906.
Martell, B. ‘On Water Ballast’. Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 18 (1877): 336–48.
The Times (London). ‘Shipping Disasters’, 21 January 1907: 9.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 9 January 1907: 13.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 10 January 1907: 13.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 14 January 1907: 15.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 15 January 1907: 15.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 4 March 1907: 14.
Thearle, S. J. P. ‘The Ballasting of Steamers for North Atlantic Voyages’. Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 45 (1903): 118–33.
The Times (London). ‘Wrecks, Casualties, &c.’, 24 January 1907: 10.