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Reshaping Empire

Airline Travelers and Colonial Encounters in the 1930s

Chandra D. Bhimull

In the 1920s, Imperial Airways, the first national airline and antecedent of British Airways, launched in Britain. Within a few years, it flew passengers to Britain's overseas territories for the first time. This essay analyzes travel writings from these first flyers. It combines anthropological and historical approaches to expose the advent of airline travel transforming colonial encounters. It argues that the integration of high speed and the verticality of flight dramatically altered how metropolitan travelers related to the landscapes and lives literally beneath them. An anthrohistorical inquiry into the impact of airborne mobility, it also wonders how this new way of moving affected people on the ground, especially those in colonies. Scarcely examined in tandem, regard for both groups illuminates how the airliner's three-dimensional movements remapped racial hierarchies. Consideration of this new geometry of power helps us reimagine where empire and oppression, as lived experiences, are located, fueled, and executed.

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