Call for papers: International Conference Pathways to Empire? Belgian Global Expansion 1830-1930

Call for papers: International Conference Pathways to Empire? Belgian Global Expansion 1830-1930

On September 11-13, 2024, KU Leuven will host an international conference on the interrelated themes of imperialism and Belgian expansionism. We welcome paper proposals that explore the theoretical and methodological challenges involved in writing new global histories of imperialism between 1830, when Belgium was founded, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Focusing on different actors, institutions, organizations, learned societies, and transnational associations involved in Belgian overseas expansion is an invitation to reflect on definitions of imperialism, colonization and empire, to apply this to the case of Belgian global expansion, and to transcend the conventional focus on the ‘Great Powers.’


In 1905 the ‘Congrès International d’Expansion Économique Mondiale’ took place in the Belgian city of Mons. It was part of a series of celebrations for a triple jubilee: the 75th anniversary of Belgian independence, King Leopold II’s 70th birthday, and the 20th anniversary
of the Congo Free State. The congress marked the conflation of territorial colonization in Congo, economic expansion in the world and complacent projections of power on a global scale. Although Belgian expansion had kickstarted well before the brutal subjugation of Congo and its peoples, the latter gradually warmed various Belgian elites to expansionist ideas. The aim of this conference is to explore the kind of entanglements that crystalized at the congress in Mons between globalization, capitalism, modern state-building, and imperialism.

The historiography of imperialism tends to focus on the Great Powers, illustrated by the abundant literature on Britain’s ‘gentlemanly imperialism’ or ‘informal empire’. These notions, however, cannot simply be transferred to other European expansion(ist) histories. A burgeoning scholarship on comparative, entangled, and small-state perspectives has demonstrated the importance of examining alternative cases and vantagepoints. In line with exciting new research into ‘colonial Switzerland’ (i.e. colonialism without colonies) and small powers’ involvement in formal colonization, we propose to focus on Belgian expansionism to rethink common notions of modern imperialism.

Nineteenth-century Belgium is an ideal case to start such an inquiry: Belgian actors, organizations, and infrastructures were vital for the development of the new imperial wave in which several European powers participated. And even earlier, Brussels and Antwerp had been prime international hubs for the circulation of goods, capital, people, and ideas. Wallonia was one of the world’s most advanced industrial centers and exported weapons, steel, and chemical compounds world-wide. Contrary to some of its neighboring countries, Belgium had limited military power, but could instrumentalize its favorable location and (nominal) neutrality to craft loopholes to advance its foreign policy agendas. The Leopoldian construction of a so-called double crown – one Belgian, one Congolese – separated the Belgian state from the Congo Free State in theory. In practice, however, the division between the Palace and the country’s institutions was porous at best and often complicated the relation between expansion, imperial discourse, and political power.

These peculiar features of ‘Belgian imperialism’ complicate conventional understandings of Western imperialism. How, for instance, can we connect global (imperialist) processes to Belgian involvement in the construction of railways in Argentine, the migration of Asian indentured laborers to Congo, scientific expeditions to the Pole regions, the composition of the Egyptian Mixed Courts, the exploitation of mines in Tsarist Russia, or the involvement in the Amazonian rubber trade? And how did diplomats, military men, engineers, missionaries, translators, educators, shippers, or dock workers negotiate, shape, or contest imperial projects and ideologies? To answer these questions, we follow how people, commodities, knowledge, and technologies embedded Belgium in the world and vice versa.

We are especially interested in paper proposals that depart from local, non-Western, or comparative perspectives to investigate aspects of Belgian globalization between 1830 and 1930. Critical and conceptual reflection on the meanings of imperialism, globalization, Belgian-specificity, or expansionism is encouraged. Themes to explore include:
• State-private relations;
• Science, techniques, and infrastructures of empire;
• Labor and empire;
• Sensory histories of empire;
• Environmental history and empire;
• Violence in imperial processes;
• Commodity frontiers;
• Transimperial mobility;
• Anti-imperial resistance;
• New (digital) methods for studying imperialism;
• Imagining of Empire;
• Cultural and business diplomacy in imperial processes;
• Migration, ethnicity, nationalism, and diasporic communities;
• Press, propaganda, and collective memory;
• Use of terminology – imperial, colonial, expansion – by historical actors;
• Role of (local) intermediaries and (in)formal actors.

Keynote speakers

• Manu Karuka (Barnard College, New York)
• Daniel Laqua (Northumbria University, Newcastle)


• Submissions should include name, main affiliation,paper title, abstract, and a short bio (max. 100words).
• Applicants are invited to submit a 350-wordabstract in which their research questions,objectives, relevant historiographies, and primarysources are clearly outlined.
• Final papers should be submitted in English and willbe pre-circulated.
• We intend to publish selected papers.
• You can send your papers to:
• Travel and accommodation expenses of those who do not dispose of institutional funding will(partially) be refunded.

Deadline & dates

Deadline submission abstracts: December 30, 2023
Notifications of acceptance: January 30, 2024
Deadline submission papers: July 15, 2024
Conference: September 11 >13, 2024

Organizing committee

• Dr. Houssine Alloul (University of Amsterdam)
• Dr. Michael Auwers (State Archives of Belgium)
• Eline Ceulemans (University of Antwerp)
• Prof. Idesbald Goddeeris (KU Leuven)
• Dr. Gert Huskens (Ghent University)
• Janne Schreurs (KU Leuven)