16 Mar 2012 - 17 Mar 2012 All day CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge



Felicitas Becker (History, University of Cambridge)
Joel Cabrita (SOAS)


Conference summary

Citizenship is most easily thought of as something conferred by bounded nation-states, bestowing formalised rights and obligations on recipients with homogeneous legal status. In this sense, it was limited to a privileged few in many parts of the world until the dissolution of empires in the mid-twentieth century. But despite the rarity of legal citizenship in colonial empires, African colonial territories were alive with groups that sought to establish allegiances and entitlements in the places where the dramatic social changes that preceded and accompanied colonisation had deposited them. They often drew on religious languages, Christian, Muslim as well as indigenous, but also on secular, political thought, and combined them with stories of migration that asserted that foreign origins were an asset, not a shortcoming. These eclectic ‘languages of citizenship’ crossed regions and boundaries before, during and after colonialism, due to the circulation of voluntary and involuntary migrants, activists, pilgrims and scholars within Africa and in the Indian Ocean region. This conference, then, builds upon efforts to connect analyses of the African continent to the wider Indian Ocean sphere.


Exploring such languages offers a way of examining the history of Indian Ocean Africa and Asia that avoids too strict periodisation into pre/post/colonial and the boxing up of history into the territorial units created by colonialism. A focus on text and rhetoric helps balance continuity and transformation over time. Nevertheless we also hope to explore the limits of language and its relationship to ‘non-language’; not only to non-verbal but kindred phenomena such as performance, but also to pressures and experiences that remain unacknowledged and unexpressed. The questions that may be asked include, but are not limited to:

  • How did oral, vernacular understandings of entitlement and belonging shape African citizens’ engagement with state-based political discourses?
  • How did recently-emancipated slaves in early colonial Africa redeploy both Christian and Muslim terms to help them claim citizenship?
  • How did other servile and marginal groups pursue similar aims at this and other times?
  • How did place-specific and trans-regional allegiances oppose the ambitions of big men, colonial intermediaries and nation-builders? How did the two co-exist and transform each other?
  • How did Africans use print and other media to formulate mobile languages of citizenship?
  • How did women, who often faced particular difficulties establishing entitlements, use arguments about gender and sexuality bound up with languages of citizenship?




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), University of Cambridge. the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and the Arts & Humanities Research Council.


Accommodation for non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation.


Administrative assistance: Helga Brandt (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH)


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk