EAUH Conference 2018


Session M17. Challenges or Opportunities? The Social Fabric of Colonial Port Cities, 1500-1850

Coordinators: Dries Lyna (, Isabel Dos Guimarăes Sá (, Maarten Van Dijck (

The rising interest in global history and the recent digitalization of colonial archives stimulated new research on social relations in colonial cities during the past decade. Especially in colonial port cities the social fabric often differed from the known societal structures in the well-studied European towns. The maritime character of these urban settlements offered ample social opportunities for people from all sorts of social, religious, national and racial backgrounds.
Historians have described in detail how European migrants climbed the social ladder in colonial cities (Jacobs 2005). The expanding global economy offered chances for people from all social layers (Antunes and Ribeiro da Silva 2012). Research on gender relations in early modern port cities has shown that female participation in the economic life was for instance more extended compared to European towns (Catterall and Campell 2012). However, colonial port cities also faced some complexities. The different ethnic composition of these settlements did not result in problematic social relations in the beginning years of these maritime settlements, but racial segregation became a reality afterwards (Goodfriend 1992, Nightingale 2012). A recent study on social inequality in Cape Town showed that social inequality was acceptable during the first years of the settlement, but this situation dramatically changed later on (Fourie and von Fintel 2011). In short, colonial port cities offered social opportunities, but they also had to deal with fundamental social challenges in the long run.
Central questions in this session are:
- How did social inequality develop within colonial port cities? Are there significant differences between European empires in what concerns social inequality within colonial cities?
- What were the top-down and bottom-up reactions on the ethnic diversity of these maritime gateways?
- How did different religious denominations react to the diversity within port cities? What was the role of religious institutions in colonial cities concerning inter-ethnic conviviality?
- In which way did the social fabric in colonial cities differ from its counterparts in Europe?
- How did legal pluralism in colonial settings influence social relations?
- In which way did colonial elites interact with other social layers? How can differences in social relations between cities belonging to the same European empire be explained?
This session welcomes proposals from different geographical backgrounds. Comparative studies are certainly encouraged!
Keywords: colonial cities; port cities; social relations; religious diversity; ethnic diversity; legal pluralism; social inequality