Harvard Report: Con-IH 2017

CON-IH 17: Global and International History: Migration, Immigration and Diaspora (9-10 March 2017)

This year, the Harvard Graduate Student Conference on International History (Con-IH) organized its seventeenth edition, opting for the hotly debated topic of ‘Migration, Immigration and Diaspora’.

The goal of the conference was, in the words of the organizers:

‘to discuss cutting-edge studies that take up the subject of migration in international, regional, and global historical context, for any era from Antiquity to the present, and proceeding outward from any world region. Human migration, immigration and diasporas have played a fundamental role in world development and continue to do so. The forced and free movements of people throughout history intersect with some of the most important subjects of urbanization, imperialism, slavery, capitalism and globalization’.

On its promise of geographical and topical variety the conference certainly delivered. The presentations focused, amongst others, on migration from Haiti to Chicago; in and around the Western Sahara; from Japan to wider South-East Asia; between China and Nigeria; and on diasporas in Bagdad and Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, the expectation of temporal breadth could not be met. It is of course more than possible that only a few non-modernists submitted a (relevant) proposal, but it was nevertheless disappointing to see a final line-up that included seven speakers working on the 20th century, with two more on 19th, and only two early modernists and one medievalist. Moreover, the keynote speaker – Professor Paul Kramer – and all of the three panel discussants were also modernists.

The result was a conference that remained firmly centered on the history of migration in the last two centuries, with only a little attention going to the highly creative work in the fields of early modern and medieval migration history.

That being said, the presentations of the three non-modernists provided perfect samples of that creative work.* Pierre-Emmanuel Bachelet (ENS-Lyon) focussed on the role of the Japanese diaspora in early modern globalization. Debunking the idea that the first waves of Japanese migrants to South-East Asia were made up of mercenaries and smugglers while subsequent waves were made up of legal traders, he argued that there actually existed a continuum between these two types. As an added bonus, the focus on this continuum also revealed how problematic the distinction between forced and voluntary migration can be.

Secondly, Alasdair Grant (University of Edinburgh) told the history of Captivity, Ransom, and Letter-Writing in Byzantium and Its Neighbors, c. 1204-1453. Zooming in on the practice of ‘aichmalosia’  or the capturing and ransoming of Christian Byzantines by Muslims (and sometimes by fellow Christians) he painted a detailed picture without overestimating the capacity of the sources available. Grant brought the practice of aichmalosia vividly to the fore, revealing much about the societal structures that allowed for the liberation of the prisoners. As such, his material begs for a comparison with other medieval cases but also with the well-known study of early modern Christian slavery in North-Africa and the attempts to buy their freedom.

Finally, Tim Soriano (University of Illinois) presented a paper on ‘The Royal Navy, Legal Pluralism, and Authority in Early Colonial Sierra Leone, 1670-1815’. His work shows how legal practices in the British Atlantic World were largely built around procedures established by the Royal Navy, and how naval regulations and customs translated into the rule of law and administration on land. Soriano described in an intricate way how efficient law changed in the colonial context of Sierra Leone, describing it as a ‘motley’ composition based on legal pluralism.

All in all, the quality of all of the papers (the modernists also provided highly stimulating presentations) ensured that the relative lack of early modern and medieval history was quickly forgotten. Moreover, the general discussions took on a particularly relevant character due to the on-going changes in contemporary U.S. politics. Taking place not even two months after the inauguration of President Trump and the announcement of his travel ban, the conference brought the societal role and future of migration history several times to the fore. No definitive answers could be provided, but one thing seemed certain: the debates about migration will not cease anytime soon, and the graduate students that presented at Con IH 2017 will certainly have their say in it.

For more information, see http://con-ih.com/.

(*In order to avoid misrepresentations of their material, this report has paraphrased parts of the abstracts of the three highlighted speakers. For the full abstracts, see the Con-IH website).

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