(Ports): Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

The session proposes to open new perspectives on colonial policing in the 18th and early 19th  century cities. It will shed light on the regulations on daily life in colonial cities from diverse empires. It aims to focus especially on the transactions between metropolitan models and indigenous practices to maintain order and frame social relations.


Colonial cities were often described as « Devil’s Empire » (Dawdy) at the 18th and beginning of 19th c. by newcomers from Europe. Most of the colonial cities were seaports, where people from all over the world came and mixed with the local population: sailors and soldiers, or pirates, traders, settlers, slaves from Africa or Asia.The colonial economy produced huge social gaps between rapidly acquired fortunes and misery for many. Thus the conditions were met to frighten European immigrants accustomed to more stable and less mixed societies. In their wake, historians have emphasized the dangers and social unrest of colonial cities.

This picture is, of course, somehow relevant as colonisation was never a peaceful process. However, it would be wrong to imagine these colonial cities without any law and order. New insights on colonial policing and justice have been raised by historian of modern colonisation (Anderson, Killingray, Emsley, Hill, Sinclair, Blanchard, Bloembergen). The colonial order was based on the mixture of European concepts and local practices, adapting to shifting issues. Preventing independance movements became central at the end of the 19th et during all the 20th c., so historians focused on this aspect of colonial policing. For earlier eras, it was mainly violence and slavery that were studied, especially in plantations and in the supervising of labour (Shil), less in urban environment.

The session proposes to open new perspectives on colonial policing in the 18th-early 19th century cities. What kind of regulations were issued by imperial and local governors ? Which people, European or indigenous, were in charge of policing and justice ? Do they followed different laws for different populations ? How were the police forces organized ? Was there a policy of urban segregation? What about the amenities of the city with regards to the markets, the port, the streets ?

The session will host city case studies as well as studies on one aspect of security in several cities. The objective is to gather contributions on the diverse empires (English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese) in order to initiate global comparisons.


  • Spokesperson: Catherine Denys, Université de Lille
  • Co-organizer(s): Julie Marquet, Université Paris Sorbonne
  • Keywords: Policing | Colonial cities | Social order
  • Time period: Premodern period (covering more than one period)
  • Topic(s): Social | Political
  • Study area: More than one continent