Empire in the Air

Empire in the Air

Airline Travel and the African Diaspora

Social Transformations in American Anthropology

by Chandra D. Bhimull

Published by: NYU Press

224 pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 6 black and white illustrations

  • Hardcover
  • ISBN: 9781479843473
  • Published: December 2017



Honorable Mention, 2019 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, given by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology

Honorable Mention, 2019 Sharon Stephens Prize, given by the American Ethnological Society

Examines the role that race played in the inception of the airline industry

Empire in the Air is at once a history of aviation, and an examination of how air travel changed lives along the transatlantic corridor of the African diaspora. Focusing on Britain and its Caribbean colonies, Chandra Bhimull reveals how the black West Indies shaped the development of British Airways.

Bhimull offers a unique analysis of early airline travel, illuminating the links among empire, aviation and diaspora, and in doing so provides insights into how racially oppressed people experienced air travel. The emergence of artificial flight revolutionized the movement of people and power, and Bhimull makes the connection between airplanes and the other vessels that have helped make and maintain the African diaspora: the slave ships of the Middle Passage, the tracks of the Underground Railroad, and Marcus Garvey’s black-owned ocean liner.

As a new technology, airline travel retained the racialist ideas and practices that were embedded in British imperialism, and these ideas shaped every aspect of how commercial aviation developed, from how airline routes were set, to who could travel easily and who could not.

The author concludes with a look at airline travel today, suggesting that racism is still enmeshed in the banalities of contemporary flight.