Laureate Seminar on Population & Modern World History

See past seminars below, or register to stay up to date with future seminars and events.

2021-2022 Schedule:

Wednesay 6 October 2021 – Tina Johnson (Saint Vincent College, PA)

‘100 Years of China’s Population Strategies: From Sanger to the Three-Child Policy’

11am-12pm Sydney/8pm (5 Oct) New York (EDT)

Wednesday 3 November 2021 – Andrew Moeller (Oxford University)

‘Be fruitful and Multiply? Anglican justifications for fertility-manipulation schemes in interwar England’

6-7pm Sydney (AEST) / 7am London

Wednesday 8 December 2021 – Aprajita Sarcar (Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi)

‘The Family Within a Triangle: The creation, circulation and afterlife of a family planning campaign’

6-7pm Sydney (AEDT) / 12.30pm New Delhi

Wednesday 2 March 2022 – Nicole Bourbonnais (Graduate Institute of International Development Studies, Geneva)

‘The Gospel of Family Planning: Conversion, Missionary Work, and Spirituality in the Mid-20th Century Planned Parenthood Movement’

6-7pm Sydney (AEST) / 8am Geneva

Wednesday 6 April 2022 – Samuël Coghe (Freie Universität Berlin)

Population Politics in the Tropics: Demography, health and transimperialism in Colonial Angola (Cambridge, 2022).

6-7pm Sydney (AEST)/10am Berlin

Wednesday 4 May 2022 – T. J. Tallie (University of San Diego)

Ukuphazama iNatali: Rethinking Histories of Population and Occupation in Colonial South Africa

11am-12pm Sydney (AEST)/6pm San Diego (PDT)

Wed, 14 Sept 2022 – 4-5pm (AEST), Dr Holly Ashford

Development and Women’s Reproductive Health in Ghana, 1920 – 1982

4-5pm (AEST) / 7-8am (London)

Tues, 15 Nov 2022 – 2-3pm (AEST), Dr Chris Holdridge

“Promiscuously Peopling the Colony”: Labour, Population, and Proposals for Penal Colonisation in Southern Africa, c.1840-1865  


‘100 Years of China’s Population Strategies: From Sanger to the Three-Child Policy’

2022 marks the 100th anniversary of Margaret Sanger’s first visit to China.  Her visit prompted public discussions of birth control in the service of improving China’s population that continue to the present day.  These conversations and subsequent policies expanded to include many aspects of reproductive health like screenings for sexually transmitted infections and cervical cancer.  They also corresponded with conflicting policies through the 1960s, as (primarily) women’s calls for more control over reproduction clashed with paternalistic pronatalism.

China’s restrictive population policies in the following decades have today given way to incentivizing birth to balance an aging population, with the “three-child policy” announced in May 2021.  In all cases, the Chinese state’s focus on women’s fertility and their reproductive health is the fundamental method of implementing population policy.

Tina Phillips Johnson is Professor of History and Director of Chinese Studies at St. Vincent College Fine Arts, and a Research Associate at the University of Pittsburgh Asian Studies Center. She has published several works on public health and medicine in China, including the book Childbirth in Republican China: Delivering Modernity (Lexington Books, 2011). She is currently consulting on several global health initiatives and is doing research for a book on women’s health in 20th-century China.

‘Be fruitful and Multiply? Anglican justifications for fertility-manipulation schemes in interwar England’

In 1930, the Church of England became the first major Christian denomination in Europe or North America to formally condone the use of birth control. The Bishop of Winchester, Theodore Woods, led the reform campaign, and he did so for the expressed purpose of encouraging an increase in the birthrate amongst the English middle and upper classes.

Drawing upon Woods as a case study, this paper explores the moral logic offered by Anglican leaders on behalf of their widespread efforts to manipulate both the ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ of the English population during the interwar period. As it will show, such efforts were often justified as a means of tangibly combating ‘erroneous’ conceptions of human purpose, or the matter of to what ends a person ought to direct their life. I conclude by examining how the moral framework utilized by Woods and other Anglican leaders might help explain the pervasiveness and enduring appeal of fertility-manipulation schemes amongst religious and nonreligious actors in England (and beyond) during the first half of the twentieth century.

Andrew Moeller is a DPhil student in Modern British History at the University of Oxford, and he previously served as a Christian minister for eight years. Andrew’s research interests center on two broad and interrelated topics. The first is the ways in which religious bodies responded to, and interacted with, societal trends and scientific claims that seemed to have been at odds with historic religious beliefs. The second is eugenics and population control measures. Bringing these two areas of research together, he is currently interested in the moral justification used by religious leaders to support attempts to limit or increase the fertility of specific segments of the British population during the twentieth century. 

‘The Family Within a Triangle: The creation, circulation and afterlife of a family planning campaign’

This paper explores the visual artefact that represented the national family planning programme in India: Hum Do Hamare Do (We are Two, will have Two Children). The campaign was created in 1967. It consisted of a couple with two children: a boy and a girl in an inverted triangle. The inverted red triangle, simultaneous to the campaign, became the symbol of the international family planning movement. Tracing its creation and circulation helps unearth the assumptions of developmental modernity that guided its ideation. The slogan and its visual partner travelled across and beyond India to signify the nearest family planning centre. Posters, signposts and travelling theatrical performances showcased the power of the symbol and its impact on the developing world. The paper will trace the history of this campaign and ask what factors enabled its creation. The mythical family within the inverted triangle attained a life beyond governmental advocacy to become a cultural marker of modernity in postcolonial India. In many ways, it became a visual representation of the Indian middle class.

Anxiety of population explosion steered India to become the first nation in the world to have an official policy on population control. The worry of burgeoning numbers was tied to nation-building through an economic rationality- no matter ho much the nation was planning the economy, building dams, technological institutes and hospitals, the per capita income could not rise because of increase in population. This line of reasoning reverberated across politics of power blocs of Cold War. The paper knits this context into the narrative of the campaign and explains how it became a way for the idea of the small family as the modern family to retain legitimacy even through the years of forced sterilizations of the Emergency (1975-77).  Such an investigation is also useful to understand the histories of mass media-led public health campaigns in the global south.

About the speaker: Aprajita Sarcar is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. She works on everyday governance of population in postcolonial India. She holds a PhD from Department of History, Queen’s University, Canada. Her work is interdisciplinary and requires a combination of watching films (if not co-creating them), reading archival dust, talking to people, and triangulating how the three mount a multi-layered social reality.

The Gospel of Family Planning: Conversion, Missionary Work, and Spirituality in the Mid-20th Century Planned Parenthood Movement

In the early twentieth century, rising population growth rates in the decolonizing world became a subject of international concern and intervention for a variety of actors, from feminists to eugenicists to neo-Malthusians. Recent studies have explored the consolidation of a “population establishment” in the post-WWII period: a cohort of demographers and other experts (primarily men) tasked with advising dwindling colonial empires and emerging nationalist governments on how best to reign in their populations in the name of economic development and global security. But the mid-century planned parenthood movement also pulled in a more eclectic group of doctors, nurses, social workers, charity ladies and wives of colonial officials and international bureaucrats who portrayed their work as part of a humanitarian – even spiritual – mission to save the lives of women and children. These actors joined together in local, regional and international voluntary associations and sent out fieldworkers of their own (primarily women) to spread “the gospel of family planning” at home and abroad.

This seminar will use the internal reports and correspondence of several fieldworkers from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Pathfinder Fund from the 1950s and 1960s to explore this element of the family planning movement. It will focus on fieldworkers’ use of emotive language and religious metaphors to describe their “conversion” to the cause and their birth control “missions” abroad, as well as their attempts to portray the movement as apolitical, transcendental, and religiously sanctioned. Exploring their trajectories allows us to situate the history of the movement more firmly at the intersection of colonial missionary traditions and modern humanitarian activism, with all the contradictions this location entails.

Dr. Nicole Bourbonnais is an Associate Professor of International History and Politics and Co-Director of the Gender Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland. Her work explores the history of reproductive politics, decolonization, feminism, and maternal health. She is author of Birth Control in the Decolonizing Caribbean: Reproductive Politics and Practice on Four Islands (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and is currently working on a history of the twentieth century global family planning movement.

Population Politics in the Tropics. Demography, Health and Transimperialism in Colonial Angola (CUP, 2022)

From the 1890s, a devastating epidemic of sleeping sickness and shifting views on the colony’s ‘native’ population triggered mounting anxieties of depopulation among colonial officials in Angola, Portugal’s long-standing and arguably most important colony in Africa. Population Politics in the Tropics traces this depopulation discourse through the first half of the twentieth century, showing how it was constantly reiterated by alarming reports about other deadly diseases, low fertility, high infant mortality, endemic labour scarcity and rampant emigration. Only after the Second World War did it gradually fade away, yet, just like many other colonies and/or states in Central Africa, Angola did not become part of the discourse of overpopulation that was increasingly gripping the emerging ‘Third World’.

Situated at the crossroads of the history of demography, medicine and colonial rule in Africa, this book weaves together various lines of research. First, it explores the ambiguous role of demographic knowledge in the making and unmaking of the depopulation discourse. It argues that assessments about the size and evolution of the ‘native’ population were partly based on demographic data that were clearly incomplete, flawed and often also contested, but that colonial actors did not hesitate to instrumentalise for their purposes. Second, the book shows that colonial actors conceived a broad array of policies to stem the demographic tide, but that their implementation was often hampered by weak state structures, internal conflicts and multiple forms of African agency. Going beyond the ‘medical focus’ in many colonial population histories, the book not only attends to the emergence and vicissitudes of colonial healthcare programmes aimed at tackling epidemic and endemic diseases and improving maternal and infant healthcare. It also showcases the importance of colonial attempts to curb cross-border emigration. Third, the book also examines the transimperial dimensions of Portuguese population policies. Revealing the manifold and often unexpected exchanges, connections and parallel developments with the policies of other colonial powers, Population Politics makes a broader argument against reductionist views of Portuguese colonial exceptionalism still common in historiography.

Samuël Coghe is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Global History Department of the Free University of Berlin. After studying the abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade, his work has explored the history of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, with a particular focus on the history of medicine, demography and anthropology in Angola. His current research deals with the transformation of cattle economies and veterinary knowledge regimes in colonial Africa.

Ukuphazama iNatali: Rethinking Histories of Population and Occupation in Colonial South Africa

How can critical indigenous and queer theoretical approaches transform the way we think about population histories in colonial South Africa (and beyond)? If settler colonialism itself is presented as a form of orientation, of making a recognizable and inhabitable home space for European populations to thrive and multiply on indigenous land, then native peoples and their continued resistance can serve to ‘queer’ these attempted forms of order. In such circumstances, the customs, practices, and potentially the very bodies of indigenous peoples can become queer despite remaining ostensibly heterosexual in orientation and practice, as their existence constantly undermines the desired order of an emergent settler state. As a consequence, queer and indigenous studies challenge how we think about competing population histories in settler colonial societies and offer fresh perspectives.

T.J. Tallie (he/they) is an Associate Professor of African History at the University of San Diego. He specializes in comparative settler colonial, indigenous, queer, and imperial history, with a focus in the late nineteenth century. They are the author of Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging in Southern Africa. Tallie’s current research examines the creation and maintenance of settler monogamy across the nineteenth-century Anglophone world in relation to indigenous social formations, including polygamy.

Development and Women’s Reproductive Health in Ghana, 1920 – 1982

The perceived need to control population growth in Ghana has been governed by concepts of development since at least the 1920s. Because of this, development has worked as a discourse to legitimise and delegitimise certain practices of women’s reproductive health throughout the twentieth century. Development and Women’s Reproductive Health demonstrates the longevity of the triangular relationship between population, development and targeted healthcare regimes for women in Ghana. It builds James Ferguson’s conceptualisation of development as ‘apolitical’ to show how its connection with questions of population made women’s fertility, childbearing and child-rearing practices a legitimate target for local, state, international and transnational intervention.

From the 1920s, the desire to increase the economic productivity of the Gold Coast drove colonial officials to push for population increase. However, this was always framed as a question of moral uplift and humanitarian impulse. Those Africans taking part in health regimes designed to increase the population were seen as progressive, ‘developed.’ Interestingly, they utilised tropes of global developmentalist humanitarianism to hold the government to account so that the impetus for improved maternal and child health converged between Africans, colonial officials and the burgeoning international world. As the twentieth century progressed the wisdom of pushing for population growth was questioned by population activists. But the desire to increase the population for the good of the nation was strong under the Presidency of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first Independent leader. His belief was that population increase showed the power of the nation, enabled his plans for industrialisation and fit with anti-imperialist, Pan-Africanist ideologies. This found widespread support in Ghana but led to a ban on contraceptives. Now, women working for the development of the nation ought to be more fertile. All of this was turned on its head in the 1970s when a new government launched the National Family Planning Programme. A new discourse insisted that Ghana’s development relied on limiting population growth and that there was a national and global urgency to take steps to do so. The government instrumentalised global population activism to distract from economic crisis, and to attract donor aid. Women were targeted through this programme to limit their fertility, in order to perform ‘developed’ attitudes.

Holly Ashford completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2020. Her first book, ‘Development and Women’s Reproductive Health in Ghana, 1920 – 1982’ will be published in December 2022.

“Promiscuously Peopling the Colony”: Labour, Population, and Proposals for Penal Colonisation in Southern Africa, c.1840-1865

In mid nineteenth-century southern Africa, proposed convict transportation schemes were among several solution forwarded to address the problem of labour control and to increase settler populations. In the context of violently expanding frontiers of settler colonialism in the Cape of Good Hope, British Kaffraria and Natal, some settlers argued that convicts would establish colonial economies more firmly on the map of maritime empire. Although a minority view never implemented, the idea of penal colonisation in southern Africa runs counter to the established historical narrative that support for convict transportation from Britain and Ireland ended with the strong protest against the landing of the Neptune convict ship in Cape Town in 1849–1850. These transported ticket-of-leave convicts, it is often forgotten, were to build harbour works in Table Bay, enhancing the capacity of Cape Town as a bridgehead on a British imperial axis between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. By considering imagined futures of settler colonialism in the region, this paper considers the longevity of penal colonies within the political economy of global colonial imaginaries, and within a southern African context after slave emancipation but before the mineral revolution of diamond and gold mining.

In the Cape Colony and British Kaffraria, a series of wars with Indigenous peoples on the frontier culminated in the millenarian tragedy of famine caused by the Great Xhosa Cattle Killing of 1857. In the aftermath, population, land dispossession, labour control and capital accumulation became ever more entwined within the minds of officials like governor George Grey and settlers on the frontier. I suggest that rather than turn against convicts as a solution for settler colonial economies in southern Africa, penal regimes became central to the coercive power of the settler state as the nineteenth century progressed. It was convict labour schemes comprised of the locally convicted who built public works, and which also served as a safety valve for disciplining and violently dispossessing Indigenous subjects on the colonial frontier. And instead of transported convicts, German settlers arrived in British Kaffraria from 1857, and Indian Indentured labourers in Natal from 1860, reshaping populations and colonial economies.

Dr Chris Holdridge is senior lecturer in history at North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa. He completed his PhD at the University of Sydney in 2015. Dr Holdridge’s research focuses on carceral regimes within the British Empire – whether penal colonies, or prisoner-of-war camps during the South African War, 1899-1902. He is currently working on a book titled The Ends of Britain’s Convict Empire: Popular Politics and Settler Colonialism, 1838–1868.