Decolonising Intervention: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things‘ own founding contributor, Meera Sabaratnam, has published her first book: Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique, with Rowman and Littlefield International. We are delighted to host a symposium on the book, starting with Meera’s opening post, and to be followed over the next week or so by reviews from Marta Iñiguez de Heredia, Lee Jones, Amy Niang and Megan Mackenzie, and a final response from the author. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! The book is available as an Open Access free PDF download here. -LJ

Update: posts by Marta, Lee, Amy, Megan and Meera are now available. The whole symposium is available here.


Cover of the book Decolonising Intervention, which features the former Governor's house on Ilha de Moçambique, now a museum, plus a rusting colonial lamp-post

Things look different depending on where you stand.

This is a simple proposition, but one which, if pursued a little further, deeply challenges dominant approaches to social science, many of which are premised on ignoring or denying the partial character of the social-scientific gaze.

I don’t disagree with the ambition per se of attempting to open up our own understanding of a phenomenon through deep and wide-ranging research; indeed this is what I love about being a scholar. Furthermore, just because things look different depending on where you stand, does not mean you cannot learn more about something, or learn to understand it better. I do not reject the possibility of a better and wider understanding just because points of departure are always partial.

Yet, the first step for studying complex social phenomena must be a recognition of and a grappling with this proposition.

Beyond this, various feminist, anti-colonial and Marxist thinkers have advanced a further proposition: that power relations can be better understood when you look at them ‘from below’, i.e. from the perspective of the disempowered parties.

This stems from the idea that relations of power put different cognitive demands on people by virtue of that relationship.

Grizelda cartoon

Patricia Hill Collins for example points out that domestic labourers must acquire an intimacy both with the ways of thinking of their employers/masters, and with their own sense of how to navigate and survive in this system.

And W.E.B. Du Bois famously drew attention to what many continue to call ‘double consciousness’ – that is, the idea that African-Americans had to apprehend and negotiate the racist negations of mainstream American society, whilst simultaneously cultivating a distinctive intellectual tradition rooted in historical and contemporary attempts at flourishing.

If they are right, then scholars engaging with relations of power from any field of study – and particularly in the field of ‘political science’ – should be especially interested in the perspectives and experiences of the relatively disempowered as a point of departure for analysis. Continue reading

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Mozambique and the Invisible Bodies: A Contrapuntal Reading of the Great War (1914-1918)

This is the third in a series of posts on the Global Colonial 1914-18.


The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

Whatever one’s views on the causes, significance and consequences of the ‘Great War’, few deny that it was ‘world-historical’ as an ‘event’ or series of events. 1914 is offered by Hobsbawm as the end of the ‘long nineteenth century’; a periodization which is widely accepted as giving birth, finally, to ‘the modern world’. The horrors of the Great War, then, are quintessentially the horrors of modernity. The bodies of the Great War are the product of a particular configuration of nationalism, militarism, technology, class relations, capitalist expansion and an effective state administration, which enables death at this level of efficiency and magnitude. The fog of war does not arise from irrationality, but from the awe-inspiring complex edifice of modern political organisation playing out its tragic fate amongst white European nations. If we are looking for the ‘big picture’, this, it seems, is it.

Yet the ‘big picture’ metaphor is only expressive in a two-dimensional and static framing of history, rather like a painting. Said suggested on the other hand that thinking musically might be a more appropriate way of conceiving the pluralities of historical time. Musical counterpoint, in which independently moving melodies weave in and out of each other, creating resonances, harmonies, dissonances and an altogether more complex sound, was his method for thinking about the historical relationship between colonies and metropoles. Neither is subsumed under the other, and they may have different rhythms and patterns, but they move simultaneously through time. The hope is that reading history contrapuntally enables us to hear multiple melodies, neither cacophonously (although this may be itself productive) nor monotonously, but in a way which discloses both the relatedness and distinctiveness of human experiences.

With this in mind, in what follows I reconstruct some fragments of historical melodies in what is now called Mozambique from the period of the Great War, thinking about what this might disclose for our present histories and remembrances – what David Scott might call our own ‘problem-space’. The East African Campaign – if it is remembered at all in the metropole – is remembered mostly as the site of a brilliant and gutsy guerrilla campaign by the German commander Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and a small hardy detachment of Schutztruppe, who surrendered two weeks after the declaration of the Armistice having cunningly evaded the British throughout the war. Yet, this romanticised history of innovative military tactics in exotic tropical climes heavily obscures almost everything about the historicity of the war in East Africa – indeed it obscures much of the history of the campaign itself. Clearly, part of our contrapuntal reading must be a reading of these missing notes and melodies within the campaign.

Beyond this, however, the reading must open up the historical presence and experience of the peoples in what was at the time called Portuguese East Africa. If the ‘Great War’ began in Africa, it did not necessarily mean the same across the continent as it did elsewhere. Whilst both deadly and destructive, the matrix of war-related destruction was also configured by specific colonial historical relations of violence, prestige and dispossession, as well as by political struggles within the colonised space. These experiences resonate in unexpected, but important, ways with the ‘world-historical’ moment of the war.

Continue reading