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