North African Phosphate, Global Food Regimes and the Legacies of Empire

This week’s post is re-blogged from from the French newspaper Libération and its Africa blog, by kind permission.

Entrée d’une galerie de la mine de Khouribga. Photographie tirée d’une publicité de l’Office Chérifien des Phosphates de 1952. FR ANOM. Aix-en-Provence : BIB AOM //4911 Office chérifien des phosphates. – Les realisations de l’Office en faveur de son personnel journalier, Rabat : Maroc-Matin, 1952.

Why did you decide to study the history of North African phosphates?

North African phosphates are important mainly because they contain phosphorous. Along with nitrogen and potassium, phosphorous is an element vital to plant growth and soil fertility. Without fertilizer made partly from phosphate-derived phosphorous, the expanded food production achieved in the twentieth century and the global food system we have today would be essentially impossible. As Dana Cordell and others have pointed out, where once local manure and imported guano provided alternatives, humans now depend completely on phosphorous extracted from phosphate rock to feed the world’s population. Moreover, supplies of rock phosphate are neither unlimited nor renewable. Like oil, rock phosphate is a finite resource and reserves are likely to last another 50-100 years only. The vast majority of remaining phosphate rock reserves are in North Africa, mainly in Morocco, which alone controls almost 6 billion of the remaining 15 billion tons.

So the history of this powdery rock is intimately related to the food eaten every day around the world – not for nothing does the Moroccan state phosphate company (OCP), prominently feature ticking world population and arable land counters on its website. With few exceptions, historians and social scientists have neglected phosphate mining in North Africa, especially by contrast with the better known cases of Pacific islands like Nauru and Banaba. Increasing attention has been given to hydrocarbons like oil and coal, and to commodities more generally, without studying the extractive processes that underpin the world’s food production system.

I was also interested by the fact that phosphate mining came into being in the last decades of European colonial empire in North Africa, between 1900 and 1960. The creation of the industry in the colonial situation left behind important legacies for the independent states of North Africa. Tunisia, Algeria and especially Morocco all came to independence endowed with substantial, and inter-connected phosphate mining infrastructure: mines, railways, engineers, miners and whole towns focused on phosphate. The phosphate mining companies themselves became important actors in the shaping of North African countries after independence, especially in Morocco, where the OCP provided significant revenue and geo-political clout to the state. So I chose to study the ways in which phosphate mining as a system shaped both the global food regime but also the transition from a world of colonial empire to one of national states.

What are the origins of phosphate mining in North Africa?

The first discoveries took place in the 1890s in the Tunisian mining basin around Gafsa. By 1900 mining in Gafsa was established, as guano production fell away worldwide. From its inception the industry was marked by intense political and legal combat, both between French and settler colonial capitalists, and locally in terms of the use of common land for mining or in terms of local farmers’ opposition to mine work. The Gafsa mines rapidly drew in miners from across the Maghreb, especially from the Moroccan Atlas, but also from Sicily and from Algeria. As Hamza Meddeb has shown, for many years local farmers around Gafsa, as across much of the Maghreb, combined mine work with seasonal agricultural work, to the dismay of the mining companies. The details of geology and geography also proved decisive to the history of each site: at Metlaouï (Al-Mitlawi) in Tunisia the phosphate rock was massive and solid, but just across the border at Tbessa in Algeria it was crumbly, requiring different methods and expertise to mitigate the risk of collapse. Disasters nevertheless occurred and it is telling that in one case, a mine collapse at Metlaouï in October 1900, the French colonial archive dedicates more attention to the suicide of the French chief engineer than to the 32 “Arab and Sicilian” dead. The mining companies also fought for access to railways to control transport costs, and in some cases, such as that of the Compagnie des Phosphates et du Chemin de Fer de Sfax-Gafsa(CPG), they built and owned their own lines, shaping the wider landscape.

The Gafsa mines provided a paradigm and a resource for phosphate mining across the colonial Maghreb: I describe this as an ‘archipelago’ of ‘Phosphatevilles’ across North Africa. The major discoveries made in Morocco at the close of World War One were influenced by settlers, miners, engineers and political-economic lessons learned in Tunisia and Algeria before 1914. For example the French Resident-General, Hubert Lyautey, deliberately shaped the OCP after 1918 as a quasi-public institution to avoid the power that private mining interests had acquired in Tunisia and Algeria. Khouribga, in the El Borouj region of Morocco, on the Oulad Abdoun plateau some 120 km south-east of Casablanca, quickly became the most potent phosphate mine in North Africa. Indeed after independence the OCP, building on its late colonial status, came to dominate African phosphate production. By 1962 it had therefore acquired significant investments in Togolese, Beninois, and Algerian phosphate companies, re-formulating the inter-connected phosphate archipelago of the colonial period. In time Morocco also became the country that controlled the largest global reserves, including at Bu-Craa in Western Sahara.

What characterized mining work in the period you study?

Mobility and migration, for instance from the Atlas to Khouribga, or across the Maghreb to Tunisia, or even to the coal mines of the Nord-Pas de Calais, was a key characteristic. Another, of course, was the dangers and difficulties of mining, both from collapses and also from health risks and disease, for example lung illnesses like silicosis. Another danger came from corporate and colonial health strategies such as the use of DDT spraying of miners, even as the increased use of power shovels and open cast mining reduced overall personnel underground.

Second, miners constantly resisted and subverted a labour regime organized around colonial racial hierarchy and the distinction between settler and indigenous, citizen and subject. For example they sold on corporate identity documents to other workers in order to control their own mobility and work seasons.

Third, the mines also became centres for labour organization, which by the 1930s was marked by both anti-colonial nationalism and by debates on indigenous labour rights within unions such as the CGT. In the wake of the Vichy regime and the US occupation of North Africa, some mining engineers and managers were fired, with the support of the unions, for collaboration with the Nazis.

Finally, by the 1950s mining sites such as Khouribga and Louis-Gentil (Youssoufia) became showcases in which the French authorities tried to demonstrate the political benevolence and the developmental investments of French power against a backdrop of anti-colonial insurgency across the region. The provision of schools, housing, hospitals and even holiday camps for miners’ children was vaunted in late colonial propaganda as a justification for French rule – even as the ‘Phosphatevilles’ became hotbeds of anti-colonial activity.

Although this project is in its early stages, I hope to develop it in particular by building an archive of interviews and documentation on the experience of phosphate mine labour across the colonial and postcolonial Maghreb, to complement the more imperial and global dimensions of the story and show how the agro-chemical revolution in the world nutritional regime rested on the specific, and often forgotten social and economic history of late-colonial phosphate extraction.

Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham

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Guest Post: Performing a State in Occupied Iraq 2003-2006

Our guest post this week is reposted by kind permission of the author, Dr. Nida Alahmad, who holds Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant No 658988 PS-IRAQ at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group (MENARG) at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University, Belgium. The original post can be found at the ‘Performing a State’ blog here. A more elaborate discussion of the question will appear in Nida Alahmad, “Illuminating a State: Statebuilding and Electricity in Occupied Iraq,” Humanity Journal 8, no. 1 (2017).



The Iraqi state was the focus of a major American engineering project that failed, leading to a civil war in 2006. The US occupied Iraq in May 2003 aiming to radically reshape the country into a liberal democracy. This was to be done mainly through re-engineering state institutions and re-defining their functions in a process that is often designated as “statebuilding.” Over the span of thirteen months the Coalitional Provisional Authority issued sweeping orders and launched projects to implement its radical vision. In August 2003 an insurgency irrupted and spread across the country. Shortly after the transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to an Iraqi interim government in June 2004, Iraq witnessed the first civil war since its establishment in 1920. Many state-building experts declared post-occupation Iraq a fragile or failed state. With the rise of the Islamic State in northern and western Iraq in 2014, Iraq is facing renewed threats of civil war and possible partition, indicating a definite failure of the state-building project.

This failure has prompted criticism from various directions. Scholars have treated the US project and its failure as the outcomes of an imperialist project;or an ambitious implementation of the so-called Liberal Peace paradigm; or as a failure that could have been avoided given better policies. These critiques are important. They help up see the practical and normative problems of intervention. At the same time, they tend to starts from the presupposition that these interventions are external to the political field upon which they act. Treating these interventions as external (either as an imposition or as welcome intervention—both distinctions are mostly normative) reifies their self-representation as a body of expertise that is autonomous from the objects of intervention.

My research project is not interested in asking how the American statebuilding project in Iraq could (or could not) have worked. Instead, it takes as a starting point that once an intervention occurs, it becomes part of the landscape that it attempts to change. In other words, whether or not it succeeds in changing the object of intervention into a particular form, once an intervention takes place it can no longer be treated as an external element. This research project is an inquiry into the performative nature of statebuilding: how is the state (as an object of intervention) conceived, identified, quantified and acted upon in the production of knowledge about intervention and during the intervention itself? How does the act of intervention and the knowledge that informs it become part of the reality such intervention seeks to amend?

There are different ways to approach the investigation of a failed statebuilding project. We could ask, how it could have been better? Or, why did it fail? Or, could it ever have worked? Or, which is what this project is interested in: how did it materialize itself and its object on the ground? Which set of questions we choose to ask depend on what is it that we try to understand, or in some cases, predict.

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Public Lecture: ‘The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London’ (Nile Green, UCLA)

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Wednesday 8th June 2016
Barber Institute – Lecture Theatre (R14 on campus map)
In 1815, the first Muslim students ever to study in Europe landed in Great Yarmouth. Over the next four years, they immersed themselves in Jane Austen’s England as part of their mission to understand the industrial revolution taking place beyond the hedgerows of Pemberley. This richly-illustrated lecture is presented by IAS Distinguished Visiting Fellow Professor Nile Green and is based on his book ‘The Love of Strangers’, a New York Times Editors’ Choice.
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Fluctuat nec mergitur

In the context of record water levels and floods in Paris we repost here a piece from a couple of years back.


Sign showing height of floodwaters at rue de Charonne, 1910 Paris flood

I was walking down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine toward Bastille last night, in the rain, on my last night in Paris, when I spotted this little sign, down near knee height on the corner of the rue de Charonne:

Close-up ‘Flood, January 1910’

A flood that reaches knee height doesn’t sound that impressive, but this corner is about a kilometre away from the Seine. The flood of 1910 was a terrific disaster, the worst in 250 years. On the map of the area below, the pale blue indicates the area where roadways were flooded; the yellow, areas where basements were flooded. A quarter of the city’s buildings were affected.

Map of 1910 Paris floodwaters around Bastille The 1910 flood, and modern-day flood risk, around Bastille

The pink area is where the French utility EDF/GDF reckons there’d be fragilisation of the electricity supply if a flood on the same scale hit the city today. The map* is part of…

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Symposium: Arabic & Persian Printing History & Culture

The Centre for Printing History & Culture

Arabic & Persian Printing History & Culture | Monday 6 June 2016 | Birmingham

Historians generally credit Napoleon with introducing the printing press to the Arab world when he invaded Egypt in 1798. Although Napoleon did bring printing presses — and Arabic type — to Egypt, the story of Arabic and Persian printing is much older and the contribution of both cultures to the art of printing is still very much under investigation.
This one-day symposium looks at the history of printing across the Arabic and Persian worlds from block printing in the fourteenth century to twenty-first century digital type design, and includes talks on calligraphy, type and typography, printing history, newspapers, books and printed ephemera and the cultural impact of the printed word.
SPEAKERSGeoffrey Roper, University of Cambridge, The slow development of printing in the Arabic scrip: were ‘technical’ problems the cause or consequence?; Emanuela Conidi, University of Reading, Challenges for the Arabic script in the transition from pen to metalBorna Izadpanah, University of Reading, Early Nasta’liq movable-type printing in India and EgyptThomas Milo DecoType, Amsterdam + Onur Yazicigil, Sabanci University, Istambul, The pivotal role of Arabic script grammar in the transition from manual to mechanised text production; Mohsen KeianyBirmingham City University, The early lithographic illustrated book in Iran; Lucie Ryzova, University of Birmingham, Free floating words: the social landscapes of print in colonial Egypt; Ulrich Marzolph, University of Gottingen, The printing press as an agent of tradition in Iran: printed materials in nineteenth-century IranNile Green, University of California, Los Angeles, The University of Birmingham Institute of Advanced Studies Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Between Bombay and Tokyo: Muslim printing in an Imperial Indian Ocean; Arezou Azad, University of Birmingham, Medieval Arab manuscripts; Martin Killeen, University of Birmingham, Arab and Persian printing in the Cadbury Research Library.

This event is sponsored by
 The Bibliographical SocietyBirmingham City University and the University of Birmingham

Tickets are now available for this free event and can be booked

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Summer Seminar: ‘The Politics of the American Army’ (Brian McAllister Linn, Texas A&M)

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Professor Linn was born in the Territory of Hawaii and completed his graduate work at The Ohio State University. He is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and an Olin Fellowship at Yale University.  He has been a visiting professor at the Army War College and the National University of Singapore.  He is the past president of the Society for Military History and has given numerous papers and lectures in the United States and internationally.  His next book,  Elvis’ Army:  The Transformation of the Atomic Solider, is scheduled for publication in fall 2016.  He is currently the Fulbright Distinguished Professor at the University of Birmingham.

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Roundtable: Photography and Writing History

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All are welcome! Please contact for details.

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“Middle East-ness”: (Auto)-Mobility, Synecdoche and the Region


Kurtulus, Istanbul, August 2015. Photo courtesy Sam Dolbee


This week’s guest post emerges from a Modern & Contemporary History Workshop held in November 2015, and also looks ahead to a major conference scheduled for June 2016 at the Institute for Advanced Studies, on the Middle East in the Age of Speed. Our guest is Sam Dolbee.

Sam is a fifth year student in the joint program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and History at NYU. His dissertation explores the environmental history of the end of empire by following locusts, cholera, and tribes as they moved from the Ottoman Empire into the post-Ottoman nation-states of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.


Some three months after the Centre for Modern & Contemporary’s foundational workshop on this topic, and with a view to the upcoming ‘Global Middle East in the Age of Speed’ conference in June, here are some thoughts and questions on the categories in play: first the global Middle East and then (auto)mobility.


Back in November, as discussions of Cairo/Beirut gave way to discussions of the Middle East /Europe, I wondered what might get lost when we scale up conversations in a way such that Cairo, for example, stands for the entire Middle East. Surely there ought to be a way to move beyond Eurocentric narratives and promote comparative work without resorting to reductive typologies. So what does synecdoche – the part representing the whole – expose and what does it obscure? Put differently, what holds together the Middle East as an analytic category when it is characterized by such tremendous diversity? Ought we be thinking of Cairo and Riyadh and Beirut together so much as Cairo and Mumbai, Riyadh and Las Vegas, Beirut and Belfast? And ought we be thinking of the spaces in between these car-clogged metropolises? How does rural space figure into these processes?


On another level, we might even ask how synecdoche acted as a historic process. Because even if the Middle East’s coherence breaks down upon close inspection, the region as an entity has nonetheless loomed large in the minds of world policy makers, corporations, and the region’s residents for a good century now. Indeed, the term is not simply an abstract Eurocentric reflection of early twentieth-century geopolitics but a category shaping everyday possibility. As On Barak has shown, the infrastructure of the Middle East today bears the imprint of having been defined as “the Middle East” in that colonial moment. For Barak, this enmeshing of geopolitical structures and infrastructures informs his claim that “England and India were officially hyphenated by Egypt.” So rather than using the “region” as an analytic, we might use it as an object of analysis in its own right, by asking how corporate, state, or non-governmental organizations might have relied on ideas of the Middle East as a coherent cultural or economic zone to promote cars. And how might these strategies – rather than or in addition to a priori regional coherence – have reified or transfigured Middle East-ness?


Second, just as we ought to be careful in invoking the term Middle East, we might do well to explore automobility in terms of longer historical patterns, too. What did notions of mobility look like before cars and to what extent did they leave traces the period of automobility? After all, as Frédéric Abécassis’s presentation at the first workshop nicely demonstrated, automobiles did not – and have not – cleanly displaced animal-powered forms of transportation. And when it comes to horsepower coinciding with horse power, here, too, Barak provides an instructive example. Observing how economic changes catalyzed by rails necessitated more camels to carry goods to those rails, Barak writes, “Put plainly, Egyptian trains could not run without camels.” In these hybrid worlds where fossil-fuel consumption begot intensive reliance on animal-power, the hegemony of the car might have seemed far from clear.


Questions of scale and analytic focus, of course, loom in any scholarly endeavor. The fact that these sorts of questions emerged from the first gathering of the conference points to exciting possibilities for how, as the second conference approaches, the study of (auto)mobility in the global Middle East might involve rethinking what we mean by the Middle East and mobility in the first place.


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Spring 2016 Week 7 Seminar: Robert Brier (LSE), ‘Contested Icons: Poland, Chile, and the Global Politics of Human Rights in the mid-1980s’

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Please note later than ususal start time: 5:15 pm

Abstract: In the course of the ‘human rights revolution’ of the late twentieth century, some cases of repression and resistance became icons of the struggle for individual rights—dissent in the Soviet bloc, opposition to Latin American military dictatorships, the fight against Apartheid. But why did these instances garner such broad international attention? An answer, this presentation argues, had not only to do with the degree of repression in those cases but also with how they resonated with the ideas and values of international supporters and with the latter’s attempts to shape the emergent global language of human rights. The presentation’s focus is on how two such iconic cases—the Polish Solidarity movement and the human rights movement in Chile—featured in different mid-1980s human rights discourses. Reconstructing debates held at the level of the UN, the Nobel Prize Committee or the international labor movement, the presentation will characterize Poland and Chile as “contested icons”—powerful symbols unto which various Western actors tried to project their competing understandings of human rights. But while the presentation shows how Poland and Chile became the subject of a global politics of human rights it will also demonstrate how Polish and Chilean activists skillfully used the moral authority of their movements to strike symbolic alliances and thus keep international attention focused on their countries.

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M&C Annual Lecture 2016: Prof. Alison Bashford, ‘Malthus & China’

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Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798/1803) is in the process of being thoroughly re-thought. The famous book was a universal history, a world history which sought to demonstrate the principle at work in all places and all times. In this lecture, Malthus’s work on China is analysed: the claims he made, the Jesuit sources he used, and the significance of China’s great population for his principle. China was the counter example to America, I argue. Malthus’s views on China are significant in two current contexts: first, the enduring and difficult relationship between Malthusian ideas and Chinese policy on population; and second, the historiographical conversation on an English-Chinese ‘great divergence’. Assessing China circa 1800, Malthus sat, unwittingly, at the temporal and geographical point of divergence.




Alison Bashford is Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Jesus College. She is author most recently of Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth (Columbia, 2014) and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Re-reading the Principle of Population (Princeton, 2016), co-authored with Joyce E. Chaplin. She is also series editor of Cambridge Oceanic Histories, with David Armitage and Sujit Sivasundaram.

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