Being a native of Bucharest, I have studied Political Science at the University of Bucharest and completed a two-year Research Masters with UCL SSEES before beginning my PhD under the guidance of Prof. Wendy Bracewell and Prof. Zoran Milutinovic. Throughout my work I have explored the intellectual and cultural history of nineteenth-century Romania in the European context, with particular focus on the transnational dynamics of conceptual transfer. My current project, Visions of Agency: Imagining Individual and Collective Action in Nineteenth Century Romania finds its theoretical starting-point in the dynamics of perceiving and ascribing a capacity to act. It will illuminate tensions and contradictions in the project of Romanian state-building and national consolidation, engaging broader theoretical discussions of theories of nationalism, nineteenth-century European cultural history and Romanian political and intellectual history.
The Many Meanings of “Colonisation” in Nineteenth-Century Romania
The aim of the present paper is to problematise the conceptual history of “colonisation” in nineteenth-century Central and Eastern Europe, taking Romania as a point of departure. It is my contention that, far from being restricted to the perceived practices of foreign actors encroaching upon the territory and demographic homogeneity of the (emerging or projected) nation-state, the language of “colonisation” was crucial to a number of debates. Firstly, in Romanian lands and elsewhere, the history and the origins of property and social (in)equality came to be explored with reference to a dichotomy between “colonisation” and “conquest”. In this context, “colonisation” was construed as the initial, egalitarian settlement of (in our case Roman) inhabitants in a barren land, affording their descendants a level playing field of free contractual agency. Conversely, “conquest” appeared as the (in our case putatively absent) source of Western-style feudal inequality and serfdom, replaced in the narrative of national history by succesive waves of (re)colonisation that gave rise to the state in embryonic form.
Secondly, “colonisation” as a practice of state-building rendered ambiguous the distinction between the external and the internal in terms of political economy. On the one hand, Western travellers throughout the nineteenth century would remark on the relative emptiness of Romanian lands, which rendered their colonisation imperative. Moreover, plentiful arable land allowed local state-builders to hope that the poverty of a Western-style landless proletariat would be averted for years to come, following an agrarian reform based on just historical knowledge of “conquest” versus “colonisation” as discussed above.
Whether the Western gaze or the spectre of poverty lent more urgency was a question itself dependent upon a common framework of political economy. Thirdly, however, “colonisation” in the here-and-now did not simply mean a choice between resettling ethnically Romanian peasants and allowing for Western intervention. Rather, the possibility of bringing foreign colonists to Romanian lands appealed, at times, even to the staunchest of nationalists, inasmuch as their future assimilation was deemed possible. Rather, the absence of local capital needed for kickstarting economic development was to be thus remedied with sometimes open invitations for “controlled” economic colonisation made to Western policy-makers.
In sum, my paper will draw upon assorted pamphlets, travelogues, parliamentary debates and historical tracts spanning the first half of the nineteenth century, seeking to catalogue the now forgotten recurrence of “colonisation” as a polysemic keyword. By establishing the degree of overlap between its kindred meanings, our paper hopes to catalyse an interest in following Reinhart Koselleck’s dictum that social and conceptual history are necessarily – if not synchronically – interlinked.