Policing in Colonial Empires

Cases, Connections, Boundaries (ca. 1850–1970)

by Emmanuel Blanchard (Volume editor) Marieke Bloembergen (Volume editor) Amandine Lauro (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 253 Pages
Series: Outre-Mers, Volume 6


Colonial security strategies and the postcolonial vestiges they left both in the global South and in former metropoles have recently attracted renewed academic attention. Policing in Colonial Empires is a collection of essays reflecting current, ongoing research and exploring the multifaceted dynamics of policing in colonial societies over the past two centuries. Spanning several continents and colonial contexts (some of them liminal or little-explored), the book examines the limits and legitimacies of the functioning of colonial policing. Addressing issues such as collaboration, coercion, violence, race, and intelligence, the collected works ask what exactly was colonial about colonial policing. Together, the contributors point out the complex nature of colonial law and order maintenance, and provide insights on histories that might reflect the legacies of its many variants.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Tensions of Policing in Colonial Situations (Emmanuel Blanchard, Marieke Bloembergen, Amandine Lauro)
  • Part I: Policing Workforce and Colonial Disorders
  • Ordering the Wetlands. Policing and Legitimate Violence in the Leverville Concession (Belgian Congo, 1911-1920) (Benoît Henriet)
  • The Perils of Impartiality: Policing Communal Violence in Victorian India, 1858-1900 (Mark Doyle)
  • Coolies, Communists, and Capital: Policing the Rubber Crash in Malaya and Indochina (Martin Thomas)
  • Part II: Police at Work and Intelligence Gathering
  • Race, Violence, and White Crime: French Assimilationism and its limits in the Saigon Colonial Police (Melissa L. Anderson)
  • Policing and the Problem of Crime within Local Communities in Colonial Algeria, ca. 1850-1890 (Valentin Chémery)
  • Shaping an Empire of Predictions: The Mozambique Information Centralization and Coordination Services (1961-1974) (Sandra Araújo)
  • Part III: Borders of Imperial Policing
  • From Cooperation to Neocolonialism: Colonial Police and International Policing, 1920-1960 (Robert Whitaker)
  • Policing and Governance in Greenland. Rationalities of Police and Colonial Rule 1860-1953 (Søren Rud)
  • Missionaries of Royalist Nationalism: Transformations of the Thai Border Patrol Police during the Cold War (Sinae Hyun)
  • References
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series Index

← 10 | 11 →

Tensions of Policing in Colonial Situations


‘I am a Javanese too’, thus was the answer of a policeman of the modern field police in colonial Java to the curious Dutch journalist who interviewed him in September 1934.1 The journalist had travelled from Surabaya, a major harbor city on the northeastern coast of the island, to Madiun, a rural region in the East-Javanese province of the Dutch East Indies, to report on the armed burglary raids (rampok) that had been fueling constant terror in the area since July of that year. Both men, the journalist and the policeman, were watching the results of the modern colonial State’s failure to provide into the social need of security. Included in this failure was the local village police, which shared responsibility for preventing and solving the problem. This police consisted of local village heads and male villagers, some of whom were actually involved in the rampok. While a sizable field police force, trained according to the modern methods of policing, had ultimately been dispatched to tackle the challenge, it had come too late – and initially to no avail. The journalist had asked the policeman how he thought about the locally wide spread belief in the supernatural powers of the two suspected masterminds of the burglaries, the Javanese gurus Samin and Koeslan. Indeed, the field police had actually employed Samin’s very own spiritual divination methods against him to decide about the right date for his capture. The policeman’s answer to the skeptic journalist – ‘I am a Javanese too’ – was quite revealing of the functioning of the police in the Dutch East Indies. In short, policing in the Dutch East Indies was a versatile, multifaceted, and fragmented affair – not just a matter of European police watching over (or suppressing) the colonized. Meanwhile, the population – a mix of European, Javanese, and Chinese communities, each with their own ← 11 | 12 → media outlets – was watching this police (and thus the colonial State) fail miserably.2

I.  The Problem of Policing in Colonial Societies

Multiple Sites, Collaborations, and Differences

The example of the police in Madiun is not unique, but illustrates how complex relationships between police and society may explain the functioning of the police in colonial states. It may also prove insightful for the broader problem covered by the articles in the present volume: the limits, legitimacy, and legacies of policing in colonial empires, as well as the question – freely inspired by the historian Fred Cooper’s take on “modernity” – of determining what exactly is “colonial” about this policing in colonial societies.3 Policing in Europe’s modern empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether in Asia, Africa, Greenland, or the Southern Americas, may have been, following George Orwell, the dirtiest, most frustrating, and ungracious task of all.4 This task, however, was never restricted to the modern police tools developed by colonial governments during that period – albeit not everywhere at the same time, and not everywhere in the same forms; nor was the development of modern colonial police tools an exclusively European affair – on the contrary. Three examples taken from articles in this volume may illustrate how much this complicated the practice of policing in colonial societies. As Melissa Anderson shows in her chapter on the Saigon colonial police in the early twentieth century, French colonial assimilation policies – which made that Indian migrants could join the colonial police force, ranked in between European officers and Vietnamese subordinates – ultimately triggered multiple forms of racial prejudice that proved counterproductive, both at the general organizational level and during actual police interventions on the streets. Mark Doyle, writing on the policing of communal violence in British India, demonstrates how the official governmental policy of impartiality got obstructed by communal and religious alliances among local Indian members of the force. Søren Rud focuses on policing in a colonial Greenland where official, centralized, modern police tools were deployed a mere three years before Greenland’s decolonization in 1953. Before that time, security control tasks were exercised, amongst others, by ← 12 | 13 → council members within their own community. Rud explores the extent to which this form of policing relied on such notions as sin and law – what Lynn A. Blake has coined as “pastoral power” –, providing material that might be interesting for a comparison with village policing in Asia-based colonial empires.5

These various examples, drawing on different empires and different local problems of security, all point to the many variants and complex nature of policing in colonial societies. They thus, also make clear why, for the scholarly study of policing in European empires, it matters all the more to take into account, and take a closer look at the actual “site” of policing within a given empire, and to be aware that beyond the borders of that particular site, things may work differently. This highlights the need to examine the multiple, diverse, and complex relationships between police and society in various empires. While schematic dichotomies should be avoided – for also here borders are blurred – a lot will depend, for example, on whether the focus is on policing practices before or after empires began to reform, modernize, and centralize police organizations; or whether the scrutinized site is a so-called “settlement colony” at a given time, or a whole empire peopled by colonizers and their descendants over generations, as well as other “foreign” groups of people from Europe, Asia, or Africa. Finally, cultural factors should be included for a better understanding of how police forces functioned in colonial society. For example, it does matter whether researchers would concentrate on policing practices from Africa or from Asia, where European police officers – as well as those in charge of collecting relevant local knowledge – tended to look differently at what they considered as the “civilizational quality” of local societies. Chronological and situational differences among empires mean that each essay in this volume deals with a specific situation, which should be kept in mind for a proper understanding of the multiple complexities and differences of policing in colonial societies.

Being Watched

What all the examples mentioned so far implicitly show is that, in any colonial state, and in the context of police reform, various tools were available for modern colonial policing, some of them developed specifically for modern cities, some for plantations, some for the countryside, all with specific tasks and sometimes different (gendarmerie-style) licenses and arms. Also shown is that those tools always coexisted with older, more or less ← 13 | 14 → formalizing local safety organizations that ultimately became – ideally, from the perspective of colonial states – encapsulated or controlled by colonial states. Importantly, these various tools co-existed in modern, developing colonial states, operating alongside each other, sometimes interacting or even conflicting, and quite often failing to meet, what seemed to be, a common social need for security – especially in colonial states with governments that, at least from the early twentieth century, considered themselves civilized. Failing or not, colonial policing might, in that sense – in its multiple forms, and considering the multiple (post-)colonial situations discussed in this book – be seen as a tool by which empires – even colonial empires – often based on weak or fragmented power, aimed for legitimation and consent.

Modern twentieth-century colonial police forces were created in part for economic reasons that are discussed in the next paragraph, but also to tackle a typical colonial problem, one that became ever more urgent after the turn of the twentieth century: the crumbling legitimacy of colonial empires faced with organized labor protests and anti-colonial nationalist movements of global dimensions. While performing the contradictory tasks of development and control – seeking cooperation with the local population, but provoking resistance – the colonial police thus became a two-headed beast. It was doomed to fail, regardless of whether the policeman himself (for colonial police was almost exclusively a male business) performed all his contradictory tasks properly or not. In that context, the capacity to turn to excessively violent, repressive tools in certain circumstances may be a defining feature of policing in colonial empires, but such displays of force did not necessarily make the police case stronger. This colonial principle becomes clear from the articles in this volume by Benoît Henriet, who analyses police violence in a private concession in Belgian Congo, and by Martin Thomas, on police violence in rubber plantations in British Malaya and French Indochina. Both essays show the limits of colonial policing, and the essential tragedy therein, for while (ethnically heterogeneous) police forces were watching over society, exercising repressive surveillance and actual violence, the very same forces were being watched by the (no less heterogeneous) groups that formed the colonial society. Whether acting good or bad, to the watching subjects the colonial policeman showed the essential weakness of colonial empires. This is why colonial policing was at the same time dirty and tragic.6 ← 14 | 15 →

Fragmented Situations

In this book we bring together a number of articles reflecting current and on-going research on histories of policing in various empires and on histories that might reflect their legacies. Our intention is to give special attention to studies that focus on local practices of policing, and to provide further insight into the relationships between police and society – and thereby, into the limits, legitimacy, and colonial nature of colonial policing. It does not follow, however, that we mean to, or can, exclude the role and sharp edges of state and private colonial enterprises – we heed Kidambi’s warning in this respect.7 Most papers follow the perspective of policing policies and the way they worked out from that state or enterprise-centered framework. However, several papers also give central attention to the impact of police-society relationships; in most of the contributions, we can infer how relationships between police and specific groups of society may explain the (violent) forms taken by police practices, and their successes or (more often) failures.

Following trend-setting works by David Arnold as well as David Anderson and David Killingray in the late 1980s and early 1990s,8 the study of colonial policing has – since the beginning of the current century – developed into a rich and multi-sited field, in which scholars have moved the attention from the British empire to other European empires.9 In this (sometimes groundbreaking) field, the focus for understandable reasons has been predominantly – but not exclusively – institutional, often in combination with case studies exploring policing practices. Next to that, another tradition, developing from a 1960s interest in the social-political history of social unrest, anti-colonial movements, and popular radicalism, has studied political surveillance and the repression of mass demonstrations from the perspective of the repressed.10 Ironically, both approaches underestimate the fact that indigenous people were not only policed, but also part and parcel of policing, and this – in some empires, and only for a privileged minority – with the status opportunity of ← 15 | 16 → climbing the career ladder up to the highest ranks.11 But the example of policing rampok in Madiun also indicates how local dynamics of security operated (as well as disfunctioned), whether the “modern” police was absent or did intervene.

The past two decades have seen a visible trend in the historiography of colonial policing in which scholars emphasize the weakness of colonial states and show how colonial police were restrained by social, financial, and political dynamics. Most of these provide insightful case studies of local, site, and specific colonial situation-centered policing (often written by historians who are not necessarily experts of colonial policing, but historians of empires or areas), and focus on the functioning of police in colonial cities, emphasizing their limits.12 Still, interestingly enough, apart from these important case studies, in the field of police histories surprisingly little has been systematically written from the perspective of local and interactive needs for security and policing between state and society, or from a perspective that takes into account how these new, developing, “modern” colonial police tools (including gendarmerie-style forces such as the armed police and the fieldpolice that operated in the Dutch East Indies) operated in rather weak states with fragmented power. These various police tools interacted with – likewise changing – local security tools (whether colonial constructions or not) and local dynamics of power. We need to include or even centralize that perspective – if we want to understand how and why police functioned, failed, and/or abused its right to use violence.

Out of Fear

Alongside this trend, however, in the context of a specializing field of police history studies, a dominant perspective can be perceived that emphasizes a dichotomy between a repressive colonial state and a repressed indigenous society – even though scholars in this field recognize that colonial police forces were, more often than not, manned mostly by indigenous populations. This alone gives us reason to put into perspective police historian Clive Emsley’s remark, in a recent critical overview on studies of imperial policing that “The Europeans [in European empires] considered that their systems were best and that they were bringing civilization […]; part of this ‘civilization’ included the creation and maintenance of what the colonial State defined as ‘order’ and ‘law’ and ← 16 | 17 → this necessitated the imposition [our emphasis] of some form of police institution”.13 First, what the study of colonial policing makes clear – so we argue, and the articles collected in this volume provide ample material for that – is that policing in colonial empires was not so much the outcome of a sense of superiority or the conviction to be in command, but the product of fear, and the practice of “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”14 State fear as a motive in the set-up and practice of policing may play a role anywhere in the world – as can be experienced sharply today – but this fear may loom larger in the policies and practices of policing in colonial states.

In other words, the questions: “who is the police?”, and “where is the power of the police located?” seem all the more apt, for policing in colonial states.15 This also brings us back to the query we brought up at the beginning of this article: “what makes colonial policing colonial?” From the perspective of police-society relationships, and considering policing in itself as a social need – including in colonial societies and in the eyes of local populations –, one line of reasoning might be that what made colonial policing colonial was that the police in its many forms functioned, following Cooper, through collaboration and exclusion/ difference, within multiple and changing hierarchies.16 This difference, and the mechanisms of exclusion, not only consisted of ranking, class and race, and state priorities, but also, crucially, of levels of citizenship of both the police and the policed.17 Another aspect that might define colonial policing as colonial is the question of whether fear – in this case the fear of police forces and individual policemen to fail and to lose face – was greater in colonial societies than elsewhere.

II.  The Coloniality in Colonial Policing

Ever since Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano first theorized the “coloniality of power”18 the concept never ceased to foster new research and reflection about where colonial minds and practices are located in more global system of powers. Answers found in works that may somehow be ← 17 | 18 → considered part of the wide-ranging trend known as postcolonial studies are usually rooted in a twofold criticism of modernity. One is a political, judicial, and bureaucratic modernity that is said to have slowly pervaded colonized territories through a gradual exportation of jurisdictional systems, parliamentarian techniques, and administrative organizational patterns. Most of the research insists on how incomplete, unfinished, and fragmentary these reform plans turned out to be, hampered as they were by multiple forms of misuse and resistance. Postcolonialism theorists, however, argue that most historians, blinded by their Eurocentric perspective, failed to realize that it was in fact “the dark side of modernity” that had been implemented in the colonies, used as administrative and political laboratories.19 What emerged there was actually “the rule of colonial difference”,20 a “right to use and control” people that is part and parcel of the “commandement” – or command – exercised over the colonized,21 based in particular on “penal excess” policies,22 a taste for lethality, and a strong grip on bodies. This control over the bodies of the colonized might ultimately lead to death, as a reminder of the conquest’s “founding violence” and of how asymmetric the (actual or suggested) use of force is meant to be in the colonial context.

In 2001, the historian and postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe argued that “coloniality, as a violence-based power relationship, (…) was a way of disciplining bodies with the aim of making better use of them, docility and productivity going hand in hand.”23 Michel Foucault had offered similar analyses regarding eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European power systems – the theorist of disciplinary systems, however, did not include colonial spaces in his field of study.24 The specificity of the colonial context might have less to do with the state’s forms of command than with the processes by which the identities of colonial subjects as well as executive powers are racialized. Mbembe thus argues that Foucault’s analyses of power should be complemented by Frantz Fanon’s seminal writings on colonial violence, if one is to account for highly specific colonial situations that cannot be equated to other forms of power and ← 18 | 19 → exploitation. Scholars who follow that perspective usually describe race, or racial categorizing and racist mechanisms, as the fundamental operator of power relations and even extermination practices.25

Colonial Violence

In a rare statement on the practices of colonial policing, Fanon – in his classic The Wretched of the Earth, originally published in French in 1961 – wrote the following:

“The colonized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations. In the colonies, the official, the legitimate agent, the spokesperson for the colonizer and the regime of oppression, is the police officer or the soldier. (…) In colonial regions, (…) the proximity and frequent, direct intervention by the police and the military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny, and contained by rifle butts and napalm. (…) the government’s agent uses a language of pure violence.”26

These lines aimed not so much at exposing the concreteness of colonial administration as at outlining a theoretical political framework that would enable Fanon, who actively engaged with the Algerian liberation movement, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), to garner fresh support for the cause of Algerian independence among the western intellectual elite. His words resonated for a long time though, due to both the territorial surveillance patterns enforced in Algeria at the time and the many acts of violence committed by the French authorities – soldiers and police alike.27

A couple of decades ago, historians started criticizing so-called postcolonial approaches for their excessive focus on violence understood exclusively as a technique of government, and for relying more on political theorizing than on actual empirical research.28 Such postcolonial theorizing, they point out, tends to hypostatize the strength of the colonial even though no officer’s biography can really give it flesh – in any case, the recruitment, training, and general career path of officers cannot be reduced to any great dichotomous chasm separating white colonizers from racialized colonized, as we argued above.29 For one thing, such a binary analysis would simply negate the historicity of societies whose changing structures haven’t been ← 19 | 20 → wiped out by colonization.30 Such areas, one might add, did not just discover penal and police control along with colonial govern­mentality.31 In addition, not all colonial situations may be framed in terms of “clean slate” and “settler colonialism” processes which ultimately, after much displacement and confinement, end up shrinking the political and territorial influence of native peoples until only a handful of enclaves and reserves remain.32 As far as the actual presence of policing forces is concerned, the logic that prevailed was rather one of “islands of colonial rule”.33

But this leaves the question of how to understand the dynamics of power – or the interactions between local and colonial powers – unanswered. The connections and interactions between a new – and in some areas hardly visible – form of colonial administration and local authorities whose legitimacy was not built exclusively on their collaboration with colonial forces becomes clear when we take into account that policing was part of local administration, and when we look at the phenomenon of “chefferies” (local chiefs) – whose position had been reshaped and transformed through a combination of politics and “re-invention of traditions”.34 Another area where we see the dynamics of local and colonial power structures at work is in the colonial State’s strong focus on the organization of tax extraction which, in many colonial empires, formed the beginning and informal base of security control too.35

While armed and policing forces did account for a large portion of the colonial state’s agents, low staffing levels and fragmented power meant that the state remained relatively weak.36 Even in the late colonial period, which saw these levels skyrocketing37 and new enforcement units created,38 ← 20 | 21 → police presence in the colonies never matched that of the home countries. The sprawling Belgian Congo, for instance, had only 4,500 police and gendarmes in the late 1950s. The Netherlands Indies, at the peak of colonial police reforms in 1931, possessed a force of 54,000 men, for a population of more than 60 million (only 200,000 of whom were Europeans).39 This limited level of administrative – and particularly policing – supervision was a characteristic feature of most colonial situations, except for a handful of penal settlements,40 as well as the Japanese empire – Korea in particular.41 These modest staffing levels were so characteristic of colonial states, in fact, that they gave rise to the “theory of collaboration”, of which Ronald Robinson was a notable proponent. He argued that such collaboration accounted for the longevity of the colonial rule in “cheap government” contexts: the most radical political and administrative segregation plans were never a realistic prospect, insofar as building an adequate coercive apparatus simply proved impossible.42 Robinson’s analysis, based on a statistical indicator of “administrative density”, fails however to account for the complexity and specific features of colonial government.

Recently, sociologist George Steinmetz argued that colonial states should be decoded as specific political formations, and not as mere variations of authoritarian states.43 In times of peace at least, he pointed out, they cannot be compared in terms of their level of bureaucracy and control over populations, even when they do share a number of intelligence services and techniques. Illustrative of this, in the present volume, is the article by Sandra Araujo about Mozambique under Estado Novo rule.

We argue, however, that colonial states cannot be considered weak states in the ways they have been categorized within political studies.44 Notably, the largely militarized nature of many a colonial state’s enforcement goes against that idea, often expressed by a police/army hybrid that transpires in the very name of some units, such as German-ruled Togo’s Polizeitruppe, ← 21 | 22 → as studied by Joël Glasman.45 Depending on the size, type and period of the colonial state-in-development, some scholars now tend to emphasize weakness, because of the fear and fragmented nature of State power, and the local dynamics of power.46 But even regular police forces benefited from strong military presence, superior weapons technology, or extra-ordinary state means like mass internment, called in when colonial governments deemed this necessary. The Polizeitruppe for instance and among others, was able to rely on the famous Maxim machine gun, praised by British empire’s champion Hillaire Belloc in the late stages of the “scramble for Africa” era:47 “Whatever happens we have got The Maxim Gun, and they ‘the native Africans’ have not.”48 A couple of decades later, air policing, following the example of Italy during the conquest of Tripolitania, became the epitome of superior technology as a force multiplier used to put down revolts. During the interwar, when both the French and the British empires had reached the apex of territorial expansion, air assets were seen as a palliative to unavailable ground reinforcements, after it had been acknowledged that populations such as the Syrian Druze and the Iraqi Kurds, who were particularly targeted by bombings, would never accept central rule and thus could not be managed or even better known. These aerial bombing and machine-gunning operations were not seen as acts of war, but as enforcement modes.49


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
Colonies postcolonialism societies policing
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2017. 253 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Emmanuel Blanchard (Volume editor) Marieke Bloembergen (Volume editor) Amandine Lauro (Volume editor)

Emmanuel Blanchard is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines and Sciences Po Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He is also a Researcher at the Center for Sociological Research on Law and Criminal Justice Institutions (CESDIP, UMR 8183, CNRS and French Ministry of Justice). His research focuses on the history of immigration and colonial policing in France and colonial North Africa. Marieke Bloembergen is a Senior Researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden (KITLV). Her research interests include the political dynamics of knowledge production, and biographies, histories and memories of (post-)colonial policing in (post-)colonial Indonesia in a widening, inter-Asian and global context. Amandine Lauro is a Research Associate at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (F.R.S.-FNRS) at the Université libre de Bruxelles. Her research focuses on gender, race and urban policing in colonial Equatorial Africa.


Title: Policing in Colonial Empires