H-Diplo Article Review 799 on Oliver Charbonneau. “Visiting the Metropole: Muslim Colonial Subjects in the United States, 1904-1927.”

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Article Review

No. 799

4 October 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Oliver Charbonneau.  “Visiting the Metropole:  Muslim Colonial Subjects in the United States, 1904-1927.”  Diplomatic History 42:2 (April 2018):  204-227.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhx062.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR799


Review by Karine Walther, Georgetown University

In examining the experiences of Filipino Muslims who traveled to the United States in the first three decades of the twentieth century, Oliver Charbonneau’s fascinating article ties together local, national, imperial and global histories to examine American Empire and its manifestations beyond just the colony itself.  His essay demonstrates “how American and Muslim actors negotiated Moro identities from within the United States rather than solely on the edges of overseas territories, generating another link in the larger project of collapsing metropole and colony into a unitary field of analysis” (208). This is precisely the kind of approach called for by scholars of American empire.


Charbonneau begins by analyzing the decision of American colonial officials to ‘display’ the Filipino subjects of American Empire at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair.  By far the largest exhibit at the fair, the Philippines village included over a thousand Filipinos from over ten different Filipino peoples in a ‘living exhibit’ that spread over 47 acres of the fairgrounds. The section of the Philippines Exhibit devoted to Filipino Muslims housed approximately 80 Samal and Maranao Moros, including men, women and children. Fairgoers could watch hourly performances of Moros as they performed dances such as the ‘Moro-Moro,’ and could interact with children directly by throwing coins into the artificial Lake Arrowhead which would be retrieved by Samal boys accustomed to diving for pearls back in the Southern Philippines (212).


Of course, this practice of erecting ‘human zoos’ was by no means an American exceptionalist invention–instead it drew from existing European practices and “the late Victorian penchant for importing, organizing, and displaying non-white peoples as a form of public spectacle” (207). Charbonneau’s article thus builds on Paul Kramer’s contention that “histories of U.S. race making, like histories of the United States in general, belong in a transnational frame from which they have long been isolated.”[1] Beyond just providing a vicarious imperial experience to fairgoers, the Philippines Exhibit’s very physical organization instructed attendees about how to situate Filipino Moros within racial and civilizational hierarchies. In the Philippines exhibit, Moros found themselves in the middle ground between “the supposedly prehistoric Negritos and the comparatively refined Visayans” (212). Although the United States was a relatively new player in expanding its empire outside of the continental United States, this was not the first time it had engaged in displays of its imperial subjects at a world fair.  As Charbonneau notes, in 1901, organizers of the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition had displayed Native Americans as part of its “celebrations of hemispheric dominance” (210). Indeed, in crafting the St. Louis exhibit, Americans drew on both previous European practices and the United States’ own imperial legacy.


Charbonneau also points to the ambivalence many Americans felt about their Muslim ‘wards’ in the Philippines, which alternated between a desire to demonstrate how Filipino colonial subjects benefited from enlightened American governance, while also expressing a racial fetishistic desire to view noble savages in their ‘natural state.’ Americans felt both a sense of pride and disappointment when Filipino subjects donned the alleged accouterments of Western cultural advancement, including shoes and suits. This ambivalence was poignantly expressed by an article in the Washington Post, which argued that Moro feet were not “made for the ordinary shoe of civilization” (217). Such ambivalence tellingly demonstrated American doubts about the American imperial project and about Filipino Muslims’ capacity for racial and civilizational advancement. Such beliefs, which were not limited to Filipino Muslims alone, would have important political consequences for all Filipinos who still held out hope for their eventual independence from the United States.


Moving on from the St. Louis World’s Fair, Charbonneau traces the visits of other notable Filipino Muslims to the United States, including Datu Sansaluna in 1907 and Sultan Jamalul Kiram II in 1910. By telling their stories, Charbonneau reveals how Americans and Filipinos sought to navigate and reformulate the complex imperial terrain to their own advantage. As he demonstrates with the story of Princess Tarhata Kiram’s time as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign between 1919 and 1924, and her subsequent participation in a rebellion against the United States in 1927, Filipino colonial subjects refused to conform to American attempts to mold them into docile and reformed supporters of American Empire. Believing they had ‘liberated’ the young princess from her patriarchal, uncivilized, and fanatical Muslim origins, Americans found themselves in an uncomfortable position when Kiram expressed that it was her American education that had taught her to critique the authoritarian rule of American officials in Sulu. She noted that she had learned an important lesson in her American courses: “that the true essence of free government is that all powers should not be vested in one man” (224). The princess shrewdly weaponized exceptionalist narratives about American democracy and civic nationalism, using them to defend Sulu Muslims’ political interests, while simultaneously exposing the hypocrisy of American imperial benevolence.


In telling the stories of Filipino Muslims, including women such as Princess Tarhata Kiram, Charbonneau gives voice to American colonial subjects who challenged American beliefs about their empire.  Charbonneau places American actions in the United States within the wider context of global and domestic practices of empire, while also offering a powerful argument for the multifaceted ways in which American empire affected American society and culture. In doing so, his article makes a much-needed contribution to an understudied topic in current scholarship. 


With this in mind, reading his article led me to ask several questions that, for reasons of space, Charbonneau could not have addressed in his article but offer possible subjects of future research. Princess Kiram arrived in the United States in 1919 just as American suffragettes had successfully obtained the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in the Senate. As I read Charbonneau’s descriptions of the princess adopting a bob, smoking, and dating American men, and later engaging in political activism back in the Philippines, I was curious about whether she ever engaged with feminist debates about women’s political participation either during her time as an undergraduate or back in the Philippines, or whether the suffragettes’ arguments for their right to political participation in the United States played any role in her own ideas and later advocacy on imperial subjects’ rights to political power. As Allison Sneider notes in Suffragists in an Imperial Age, Carrie Chapman Catt visited the Philippines in 1911 and 1912 on behalf of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, and American women in the following decades would remain active in trying to spread female suffrage to American imperial territories abroad.[2]  Did such efforts reach the Southern Philippines and shape the political activism of Tarhama and other Filipino Muslim women?


Charbonneau’s discussion of the inherent racism of world’s fairs also raises the question of whether Native Americans or African Americans linked the Philippines Exhibit and the racism directed at their own communities.  Activists such as Ida B. Wells had previously spoken out against the American racism ‘on display’ at the 1893 Pan-American Exposition, and after 1898, many African-American newspapers made explicit links between the racism of American expansion in the Philippines and the racism and violence directed at African Americans and Native Americans back in the United States.[3] Did similar critiques emerge during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair?  The answers to such questions would further address the ways in which American Empire shaped American society.


With his article, Charbonneau has answered the calls made by scholars of American Empire and prompted us to ask deeper questions about the complex relationships between metropole and colony and how different forms of American Empire merged and shaped each other. Scholars in this field have much to look forward to in Charbonneau’s future work.


Karine Walther is an Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University in Qatar. She holds a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, a Maîtrise and Licence in Sociology from the University of Paris VIII and a BA in American Studies from the University of Texas, Austin. She is currently working on her second book: Spreading the Faith: American Missionaries, Aramco and the Birth of the US-Saudi Special Relationship, 1890-1955, forthcoming with University of North Carolina Press in 2019. Her first book, Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921, was published by UNC Press in August of 2015.


© 2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Paul Kramer, “Empires, Exceptions and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule between the British and United States Empires, 1880-1910,” Journal of American History 88:4 (March 2002), 1319.

[2] Allison L. Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question 1870-1929 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 117-134.

[3] See for example Nerissa S. Balce, “Filipino Bodies, Lynching, and the Language of Empire,” in Antonio T. Tiongson, et al., eds., Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006): 43-60.