Before and after the wheel: Precolonial and colonial states and transportation in West Africa and mainland Southeast Asia


  • Michael W. Charney School of Oriental and African Studies, The University of London



Scholarship on Southeast Asia has generally ignored the role of precolonial transportation in religious, political, and even economic life (in contrast to rather more on the colonial period), while  historical  research  on  precolonial  West  Africa  has  directed  great  attention  to  road building,  such  as  that  by  the  Ashanti  Kingdom.  In  both  cases,  however,  the  development  of colonial  transportation  infrastructure  that  came  later  is  depicted  as  an  entirely  European  and foreign  political,  economic,  and  even  cultural  intervention  that  helped  to  ensure  colonial domination  that  was  both  a  break  with  the  past  as  well  as  the  foundation  for  the  kinds  of states  that  emerged  after  independence.  Precolonial  transportation  and  everyday  movement and  administrative  approaches  to  them  are  seen  as  irrelevant  to  the  phenomenon  and  a standard assertion in the historiography of at least some Southeast Asian countries is that they had  no  roads  at  all  before  British  rule.  The  present  article  argues  instead  that  certain governmentalities  regarding  movement  and  transportation  had  an  important  influence  on emerging   colonial   transportation   networks   and   administrative   approaches   to   everyday mobility.  The  article  also  suggests  that  the  partial,  long-term,  and  indirect  impact  of  this influence has been the durability or failure thereof of authoritarian regimes in both areas. The article  looks  primarily  at  the  case  studies  of  Myanmar  (British  Burma)  and  Ghana  (the colonial Gold Coast), although examples from others countries are used as well.


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