Monday, June 13, 2016

David M. Pomfret's "Youth and Empire"

David M. Pomfret is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Young People and the European City.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Youth and Empire: Trans-Colonial Childhoods in British and French Asia, and reported the following:
“While the internal hierarchy of the image is obvious, it suggests not intimacy between mother and children but detachment.” The first line of page 99 of Youth and Empire describes a stunning image captured by the photographer Jules Gervais-Courtellemont. Wandering around the Vietnamese countryside not far from Hanoi around 1900 Gervais managed to convince a soldier to allow his wife and four children to be photographed. Why did he pick this subject? The fact that four of the sentryman’s children had been born in ‘Tonkin’ (northern Vietnam) suited the photographer’s agenda. The image would appear in print supporting the controversial idea that this land might become a ‘New France,’ populated by French families. Gervais paired the image with a description of the children as “four dear little colonials, wearing topees, sitting on the grass at the feet of their mother.” They were, he claimed, “Alive and well, the living refutation of detractors of the Tonkinese climate.”

Looking at the image, what do we see? Four children seated on the ground appear as a part of ‘tropical’ nature, embedded in it, even as their white attire and hygienic topees mark them out as distinct. The mother is a marginal figure, but the girls gaze out into the surrounding countryside. Occupying a space lacking enclosure or private interiority underlines their potential as self-determining individuals. The image on page 99 thus confronts us with a strikingly active ideal of the child; one that horrified and delighted onlookers. It is just one of many images of children that highlight the importance of children and childhood to empire.

Youth and Empire argues that children, as both a cultural category and a social group, constituted a principal point around which empire was made in modern times. It shows how children’s lives and ideas about childhood changed as they travelled in connected places in East and Southeast Asia. The book moves the field of imperial history beyond its predominantly nationalist moorings, in the direction of comparative colonial studies. It breaks the bounds of Indo-centric empire history that – despite lots of calls for new transnational imperial narratives – still predominate for the modern period. It illuminates the subtle manner in which metropolitan and colonial discourses and practices relating to childhood intersected and interacted, and how their articulations changed over time. The book demonstrates the benefits of viewing the past from a variety of methodological vantage points, integrating the insights of ostensibly rival approaches of political, cultural/intellectual and social history. It doing so it speaks to a growing interdisciplinary audience of scholars and students working on empires, to specialists working in British or French imperialism, in regional (Asian) colonial studies, and in the interdisciplinary field of the history of childhood.
Learn more about Youth and Empire at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue