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Information, Anxiety and Panic: Debates in Colonial History


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


Colonial knowledge production was an essential aspect of the expanding early-modern and modern European empires in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Taking and maintaining control over land and people involved the activities of colonial administrators, intelligence services, missionaries, anthropologists, and commissions of inquiry who all collected and interpreted enormous amounts of information. The urge for collecting often came from anxiety or even panic, about issues such as mixed populations groups, the fear of conspiracies by local elites and resistance by nationalist movements. This all had consequences for the nature of colonial rule, and for the ways in which the local population performed their agency vis-à-vis the colonial presence. In this literature seminar we will focus on the theme of information and empire in the context of the British, Spanish, Dutch and French empires from the eighteenth until the twentieth century. We will talk and write about a variety of issues such as the role of intermediaries and local rulers in colonial Mexico, and the construction of racial knowledge by colonial scientists in Indonesia. We will discuss how knowledge about witchcraft was disputed in law cases in colonial Kenya, and how different information regimes were strategically used in a scandal in French India. We read monographs that have been influential to the historiographical debates on empire and information as well as new scholarship that offers the most recent interventions in the field.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 2) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 3) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 4) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 5) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  • 6) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    -in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: how global (political, socio-economic, and cultural) connections interact with regional processes of identity and state formation; hence insight in cross-cultural processes (including the infrastructure of shipping and other modes of communication) that affect regions across the world such as imperialism, colonisation, islamisation, modernisation and globalisation (in particular during the period 1200-1940).

  • 7) (ResMA only): Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical foundation of the discipline and of its position vis-à-vis other disciplines.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Literature Seminar

The student:

  • 8) Is able to read, analyse and discuss a number of essential readings in the field of colonial history, and is able to position the monographs within the broader historiography on information and empire.

  • 9) Is able to write clear and analytical book reports on academic literature, discussing its argument, methodology and historiographical contribution to the field.


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Seminars: 7 x 2h = 14h

  • Preparation: Reading, preparation of one presentation, writing THOMAS book reports, writing final essay = 266h

Assessment method


  • Essay, 3000 words.
    Measured learning objectives: 1-3, 6, 8-10 (ResMA also 5 & 7)

  • THOMAS book reports.
    Measured learning objectives: 1-4, 6, 8 (ResMA also 5 & 7)

  • Oral presentation.
    Measured learning objectives: 1-3, 6, 8 (ResMA also 5)

  • Active participation in class discussions.
    Measured learning objectives: 1-4 (ResMA also 5)


  • Written paper: 50 %

  • Book reports: 30 %

  • Oral presentation and participation in class discussion: 20 %

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Submission of assignments by students

  • Feedback on the assignments by lecturer

Reading list

  • [2 chapters from] Christopher Bayly, Information and Empire: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996) AND [2 chapters from] Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

  • Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. (University of California Press, 2010)

  • Yanna Yannakakis, The Art of Being In-between. Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca. (Duke University Press, 2008)

  • Katherine Luongo, Witchcraft and Colonial Rule in Kenya, 1900–1955 (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

  • Fenneke Sysling, Racial Science and Human Diversity in Colonial Indonesia. (Singapore: NUS Press, 2016)

  • Danna Agmon, A Colonial AffairA Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018)


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in [English]) and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. Sanne Ravensbergen