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Understanding Insurgencies: Resonances from the Colonial Past

Coordinated by Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless, the network brings together seven University partners: Exeter, Oxford, Warwick, Glasgow, CNRS Paris, Université de Québec, and KITLV Leiden.

In spite of increasing interest in the history of counterinsurgency and empire, we lack comparative studies of colonial responses to armed insurrection, civil disorder, anti-colonial paramilitaries and other irregular forces. This project seeks to redress this imbalance by analysing colonial counterinsurgency and its contemporary legacies from a comparative perspective.

More than simple comparisons of violent insurrections in individual colonies at the end of European Empire, this network project begins from the proposition that insurgencies, revolutionary social movements, their propaganda and methods of action were inherently transnational and inter-connected. Transnational activism, popular mobilisation, and the targeting of civilians by ethnicity or communal attachment are apparent in the actions of numerous contemporary insurgent movements. So, too, intelligence-led counter-insurgency, punitive aerial bombardment, and patronage of loyalist militias have guided – or misguided – government responses to numerous contemporary civil conflicts from Latin America, through Africa North and South of the Sahara, to the Middle East and South East Asia.

Despite the global connections and contemporary resonances of anti-colonial insurgencies, study of violent decolonisation has remained rooted in the experience of individual empires or colonial territories. The lack of comparative studies of colonial counterinsurgency has meant that armed conflicts within late colonial states are treated as locally specific and internecine.

However, insurgent groups built regional and international networks in order to attract the material and moral support required to support their anti-colonial rebellions. While accepting that individual national circumstances contributed to particular colonial policing styles, this project argues such approaches fail to establish either what was uniquely 'colonial' about colonial violence or what made anti-colonial insurgency so globally widespread so quickly. This project seeks to demonstrate that colonial conflicts, far from being a series of sequential Third World wars, were interrelated and interdependent, characterised by the transmission of experiences and methods from one region to another.

The eight Network workshop events will allow specialist scholars from the UK and overseas to refine ideas about the nature of late colonial conflict, the ways in which colonial security forces responded to it, and the ensuing patterns of violence, rights abuses, and legacies of inter-communal distrust that resulted.

The workshops, further details of which will be announced in the near future, will be organised around the following themes:

  • Testing the hypothesis: repression compared
  • The laws of war and targets of violence
  • Punishments and rewards
  • Political economies of colonial violence and counter-insurgency
  • Colonial insurgencies as transnational phenomena
  • Ending insurgency: ruptures and reconciliations