Colonial Debts

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Black Geographies Specialty Group, Legal Geography Specialty Group, Economic Geography Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM (Eastern Standard Time)
Room: Senate Room, Omni, West
Organizers: Joaquin Villanueva, Declan Cullen
Chairs: Joaquin Villanueva


Over the past decade, debt has become a defining feature in the daily lives of households, institutions, cities, and states across the globe. The burden of debt - the apparent inability of debtors to repay what is owed to creditors - has likewise empowered international organizations, oversight boards, policy-makers, and banks to recommend and impose austerity measures and asset stripping policies on the most vulnerable sectors of society (Dymski, 2011). We see debt as a governmental technology through which the spatialities and temporalities of life are captured, redefined, and determined by creditors and their supportive institutions. Housing foreclosure following the 2008 crisis, for example, reconstituted the racial and class boundaries of countless neighbourhoods across the U.S. (Wyly et al, 2009; Chakraborty et al, 2013). Similarly, entire generations of citizens in Greece, Puerto Rico, Ireland and beyond are now forced to forego hard-earned labour and civil rights to enable their corresponding governments to repay creditors for several decades to come. Debt presents itself as an ideal technology for the dispossession of the spaces and times of ordinary citizens - subjects whose present and futures are being foreclosed. As David Graeber suggested in his overarching history of debt, there is no better way “to justify relations founded on violence” than to reframe them “in the language of debt” (2011:5).

In recent years, urban and economic geographers have rightly turned their analytical gaze to study debt and the associated uneven geographies that it generates. Important investigations include the relationship between housing financialization and personal debt (García-Lamarca and Kaika, 2016); municipal crises (Peck and Whiteside, 2016); debt and urban development (Weber, 2010); credit rating agencies and new geographies of finance (Fields, 2018); and fiscal control boards (Villanueva et al., 2018). Few, however, have seriously explored the extent colonial structures inform, enable, reproduce, and perpetuate debt relations on colonial and/or postcolonial subjects and states (see, however, Cullen, 2018). Historian Peter James Hudson recently demonstrated how U.S. imperial bankers financed public debt in early twentieth century Caribbean, tying the region to the colonial logics of U.S. imperialism for decades to come. These logics include reductionist racial representations of Caribbeans as ungovernable subjects in need of intervention and repression to maintain (or impose) the conditions of capital accumulation (Hudson, 2017).

This call for papers is an invitation to theorize “colonial debts” - a morally ambiguous term which opens the door for contributors to answer the question “who owes whom and what?” (Werner, 2016). The session envisions contributions that historically and conceptually position current debt burdens in their colonial context. In particular, we are interested in papers that address the subtle and not-so-subtle colonial logics that inform much of contemporary debt relations. We welcome both historical-geographical and contemporary analyses that explicitly theorize, or empirically establish, the threads that bind contemporary debt relations to colonial formations across varying geographical and temporal contexts.

In addition, we invite papers that explore decolonial struggles, resistances, and subversions to the imposed foreclosures espoused by creditors and its institutions. We welcome papers that interpret “colonial debts” as an opportunity to contest and challenge the colonial logics of debt formations across various scales and places. From calls for reparations for the damages caused by slavery and colonization, to citizens-led calls for debt cancellation, this session seeks to similarly identify the fissures that are beginning to open new discourses and spaces that contest financial, racial, and imperial capitalisms.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Drew Forbes*, University of Toronto, Theorising Vulture Capitalism: financialization, the secondary bond market, sovereign debt investors, and uneven development 20 1:10 PM
Presenter Sonia Grant*, , Mineral Debts: Allotment and Extraction in Northwestern New Mexico 20 1:30 PM
Presenter Patrick DeDauw*, Graduate Center, CUNY, Reserve Price: Shadow Pricing, Legal Struggles, and the Political Economy of Vancouver’s Urban Indigenous Land Leases 20 1:50 PM
Presenter Ilona Moore*, Bucknell University, Necroeconomics of food security -- austerity, deferral, biopolitics 20 2:10 PM
Presenter Karrieann Soto Vega*, Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies, “Gender, Colonialism and Austerity in Puerto Rico’s Public Education System” 20 2:30 PM

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