The project

“Colonial Anxieties, Corruption Scandals and Xenophobia in Nineteenth-Century Infrastructure Development in Romania / Anxietăți coloniale, scandaluri de corupție și xenofobie în dezvoltarea infrastructurii în România (secolul al XIX-lea)” (CanCor) examines the surprising historical relevance of rail and fluvial-maritime transportation infrastructure for the self-imaginings of nation-building and the narratives of modernization in the Romanian Principalities/Romania, from the 1840s to 1914. Given the dual nature of such transportation infrastructures, imagined as both “progressive” and “disruptive”, their construction brought immense pressure upon local decision-makers.

The project has three main goals: First, it will examine anxieties over the possibility that the Principalities/Romania would be subject to economic and even demographic colonization, fears generated by the asymmetrical political and economic interactions with Europe’s Great Powers and neighbouring empires. Second, it will examine the corruption scandals surrounding infrastructure construction that generated and constantly reshaped colonial anxieties in the process of nation-state-building, when faced with Great Powers and their imperial and colonial-like aspirations of political and economic influence. Third, the project will historicize the semantic usages of “colonialism” and “corruption” and their inherently political uses in nation-building in Romania and in the process of infrastructure construction, arguing that, on both accounts, reflexively situating their meanings is necessary as a way of disentangling them from the ex-post analytical vocabulary normatively employed by (contemporary) scholars.

There has thus far been no attempt to systematically look at how transportation infrastructure construction in the nineteenth century had an impact on shaping the political vocabulary of Romanian nation-state-building via the historical actors’ notions and historical controversies over “colonialism” and “corruption”.

The project breaks (a) new ground in Romanian historiography. Rather than strictly considering the ex-post normative inclusion of Romania into a global colonial semi-periphery or “decolonial” microreadings of the regional inter-imperial context, the project examines how the colonial became both anxiogenic and normative, and how the semantics of “colonialism” and “corruption” allowed actors to reflect upon their place in a global age of empire in the process of building transportation infrastructure.

(b) CanCor also contributes to current debates in the study of colonialism by examining how the language of ”colonialism” shaped the political imaginary of nation-state-building itself.

(c) And the project brings an important contribution to the recent discursive turn in the study of political corruption, which has opened up for investigation the concept’s diachronic transformations and contextual semantics. While recent literature has investigated the connection between colonialism and corruption as a colonial legacy, and corruption as a specific subject of enquiry in the Spanish, British, Dutch and French overseas imperial rule, there are no studies on the connections between “corruption” and land-based empires in continental Europe, let alone between “informal empire”, nation-building and “corruption” in South-East Europe.

We expect the project to advance scientific knowledge beyond the state of the art and have a significant impact on the reflexive historicization of the vocabulary of “colonialism” and “corruption”, both in Romanian historiography and more generally. Aside from its novelty in a national context, the project also allows for comparing regional and European nationbuilding and contributes to global/colonial history by analysing their different semantic meanings in the European semi-periphery. It will also lay the groundwork for a transnational (East) European infrastructure history in the nineteenth century, and a transnational history of rail and fluvial networks, technology transfer, and international finance as “soft colonialism” tools in South-East Europe, a concept more often associated with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The project’s exploratory nature also opens a new research direction on national-colonial-corruption discursive entanglements in Romania and the region for the post-1918 period.

This project is funded by a grant from UEFISCDI, as part of the funding agency’s ‘Basic and frontier research’ scheme. It is kindly hosted by the New Europe College – Institute for Advanced Study in Bucharest and it will run from June 2022 to December 2024.

Photo credit: Peisaj cu tren de Aurel Bau(c)h – Muzeul Național al Țăranului Român, București, Romania – CC BY-SA.