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
Connections, circuits, webs, and networks: these are concepts that are overused in today's world histories. Working from a commitment to reflexive historicization, this paper points to one moment in the consolidation of these terms: the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century visual politics of "new imperialism." Utilizing photographs, engravings, postcards, letters, and colonial documents, the paper argues that connection was mesmerizing and can still mesmerize the historian. Being
... orian. Being connected became possible because of visual and infrastructural projects that allowed the production and consumption of lines that literally cut sea and land. At a time of high empire, and in accordance with the dictates of Imperial Geography, particular locales or "nodes" were thus positioned in the "global." To mount this critique of our language, the paper focuses on the infrastructural development of the port of Colombo, alongside the thinking of Halford Mackinder, the building of breakwaters in Colombo, the arrival of mass tourism, projections of capitalist improvement for the business of transshipment, and the use of the port by Indian laborers on their way to Ceylon's highland plantations. By attending to the place where connection is wrought, its material workings, and its traces in the visual, intellectual, and capitalist archive, it is argued that connectivity's forgettings and displacements come more forcefully into view. If connection had an evacuating character and could be so imperialist, what of its status in our writings?