Tag Archives: Colonial History

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.
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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

S.Jackson.1@bham.ac.uk

www.simon-jackson.eu

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Guest Post: The Imperial Sociology of the ‘tribe’ in Afghanistan

 This week’s guest blog-post comes from our Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar speaker this week,

Dr. Nivi Manchanda (Leiden)

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‘Pashtun Tribal Map’ Source: University of West Florida.

 

“When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member”. Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.”[1]

 

For 200 years, from the time of the first engagement of the British imperialists with the country, to debates and strategies connected with the post 9/11 occupation, the “tribe” has been a notion intimately related to the West’s study of and involvement in Afghanistan. A particular lens through which the early East India Company administrators made sense of the alien people they were encountering, “the tribes” soon became the irrefutable marker of Afghan society, polity, and culture.

 

Indeed, the “tribe”, as a generic signifier for most relations and identities in Afghanistan appears to have displaced the need for a deep theoretical engagement with the changing political and social configurations in the country. This concept, widely used in the British Empire and initially deployed to capture a specific network of relations at a given historical juncture, has become increasingly de-historicised, losing any conceptual purchase and clarity it may once have had. Exemplified in the above statement by US General Jim Gant in 2009, it remains a dominant trope in the Western analysis and understanding of Afghanistan.

 

Even those such as Barnett Rubin and Thomas Barfield, that have recognised that the discourse of tribalism is problematic have not fully acknowledged its historical pedigree as a practice borne out of imperial violence. A key aim of my research then, is to unearth and make explicit the ways in which colonialism inheres within the very concept of tribe.

 

Tribes in Afghanistan are read as having a “potted history”. Popular images of Afghans, or more precisely Pashtuns, on whom the bulk of historiography has focused, have changed in line with the rise and fall of outside interest in the country[2]. Indeed there still exists considerable confusion about who exactly the Afghans, the Pashtuns, and the Pathans are and what their relation to each other is. For Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, for instance, Afghans, Pashtuns, and Pathans are distinct and separable groups because each group comes to “textual light and social life” in different historical contexts, and each group has its own dynamic historical relationship to Pashto and other languages, including Persian and Indian and Turkic languages. In the nineteenth century, meanwhile, “Pathan” frontier tribesmen were depicted as independent warriors in the British Empire and were prominent in the British (and possibly wider) consciousness as actors in the Great Game that was assumed to define Central Asia at the time.[3]

 

More recently, there has been a return to the original nineteenth-century narrative – or what Richard Tapper has called the “Kipling version” – of the Afghans first and foremost as tribesmen, driven by tribal logics and “ethnic” concerns.[4] In this vein, prominent Afghanistan scholar Olivier Roy has argued that the rise of the Taliban should be seen as “la revanche des Pachtounes”, or the revenge of the Pashtuns, especially the Durrani, currently considered the biggest and most prominent “tribal group”, in spite of the Taliban’s own insistence that they are an anti-feudal and “anti-tribal” movement.[5] This notion has become so widely accepted that it could be blithely remarked in 2010 that “[t]o be a Taliban today means little more than to be a Pashtun tribesman who believes that his fundamental beliefs and customary way of life, including the right to bear arms or defend the tribal homeland and protect its women, are threatened by foreign invaders”.[6]

 

In my research and in my talk at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History, then, I map the way in which the term “tribe” has been deployed in the Afghan context, further problematising the concept and showing how a monolithic and unreflective body of work has become the norm in reference to Afghan social organisation.

[1] Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan” (Los Angeles, CA: Nine Sisters Imports, 2009), 11.
[2] See Hanifi, “Quandaries of the Afghan Nation”. Here I use the words interchangeably to remain consistent with the spirit in which they were employed by the British at the time.
[3] Contrary to popular belief, The Great Game was far from the only or even the most important narrative at the time. For more on this see: Benjamin Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, 34; and Martin Bayly, “The ‘Re-turn’ to Empire in IR: Colonial Knowledge Communities and the Construction of the Idea of the Afghan polity, 1809–38”, Review of International Studies 7, forthcoming.
[4] Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 228.
[5] Roy, cited in Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 227.
[6] Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to be Human (London: Penguin, 2011), 262.

 

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Workshop Announcement: “(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East: Defining the Field.”

Automobility Workshop Poster JPEGThe Centre for Modern & Contemporary History is hosting a research workshop on Friday 6 November, on the theme “(Auto)-Mobility in the Global Middle East: Defining the Field.”

Programme

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This one day workshop, held in the “motor city” of Birmingham, UK, a centre of car production and of expertise about (auto)-mobility, brings into conversation historians and social scientists who investigate the histories, politics, and social, visual and aesthetic meanings of (auto)-mobility, primarily across the Middle East but also in global and comparative perspective in the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

A transformative phenomenon of the twentieth century, (auto)-mobility in its various incarnations globalized unevenly after World War One, altering a variety of social practices and inflecting the wider dynamics of production and consumption. From new roads, production lines and showrooms, to traffic jams, garages, advertisements, car accidents, joy riders and (counter-) insurgency techniques, to name just a few salient aspects, motorized vehicles and the conditions they provoked altered conceptions of time, senses of place or authenticity, and the production of space.

Our title makes use of parenthesis advisedly, since regardless of whether people took the wheel, loitered at the curb, hitched a lift or crossed the road, (auto)-mobility transformed practices of gender, class, and domesticity, most notably, though not exclusively, in urban and suburban contexts. (Auto)-mobility also refigured international and regional dynamics in contexts such as pilgrimage, even as national road networks worked to produce national space, and urban roads re-segregated newly ‘historic’ inner cities and downtowns from suburbs that became both gated communities and laboratories for religious and political organization.

Via a case study or a historiographical intervention, participants will present their evaluations of the state of this burgeoning field as part of wider (auto)-mobility studies, and will engage in debate on its potential and future direction, whether as scholars of the Middle East or of other sites and networks of (auto)-mobility around the world.

The workshop will operate as a prologue and agenda-setting session for a larger conference, gathering original research, to be held at the University of Birmingham in June 2016. Please contact Simon Jackson with any questions: S.Jackson.1@bham.ac.uk

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9h: Coffee and Registration

09:30-10h: Welcome and Introductory Comments

Simon Jackson and Lucie Ryzova (University of Birmingham, History)

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10-12:30h: Panel 1: Regional Cases & Comparisons

Chair: Lucie Ryzova (University of Birmingham, History)

  • Pascal Ménoret (Brandeis, Anthropology): “Learning from Riyadh: Joyriding, Infrastructure, and Politics”
  • Frédéric Abécassis (ENS, Lyon, History): “The Creation of the Moroccan Road Network: A History”
  • David Sims (Cairo, Urban Planning/Economics): “The Private Car in Greater Cairo”

Discussants: Shane Hamilton (University of Georgia, History) & Simon Jackson (Birmingham, History)

12:30-13:30h: Lunch

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13:30-15:30h: Panel 2: Urban (Auto)-mobility between History and Social Science.

Chair: Samuel Dolbee (NYU, History/Middle East Studies)

  • Kristin Monroe (University of Kentucky, USA, Anthropology): “Driving Then and Now: The History and Anthropology of Automobility in Beirut”
  • Andrew Arsan (Cambridge, History): “On Driving – and Not Driving – in Contemporary Lebanon: Mobility, Stasis, and the Decay of the Commons”

Discussant: Sara Fregonese (Birmingham, Geography)

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15:30-16h: Coffee

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16-17:30h: Panel 3: Comparative and Global Approaches

Chair: Nathan Cardon (Birmingham, History)

  • Simon Gunn (Leicester, History): “‘The Car and the City: New Approaches to Automobility in Britain and the West”
  • Gijs Mom (Eindhoven, Industrial Engineering/History): “How to Approach Middle Eastern Mobility? Prolegomena for a Recipe”

Discussant: Frank Uekotter (Birmingham, History)

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17:30-18h: Concluding Discussion and Planning for 2016 Conference.

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19h: Drinks and Dinner

Please contact Simon Jackson with enquiries – S.Jackson.1@bham.ac.uk

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Whose postcolonialism? The French and their colonial past.

Dr. Emile Chabal will be speaking in a joint event on Wednesday 7 October, co-sponsored by the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History. Here he blogs on some of the themes to be discussed at this week’s seminar, in the first of a series of occasional guest pieces by visiting speakers and contributing historians around the world.

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Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

Memorial to French dead in Algerian War of Independence, Sète, France. Photo by Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.


Emile Chabal, University of Edinburgh

In my recent book, I place postcolonial questions at the heart of contemporary French politics. I argue that apparently insular debates about citizenship and the nation are, in fact, closely tied to France’s colonial past and its postcolonial present. I also argue that it is impossible to analyse the key dividing lines in French politics without understanding the attitudes of political actors to France’s colonial project.

Yet, over the course of my research, I have discovered just how nationally – and linguistically – bounded postcolonialism really is. There is a common misconception that France has not “dealt with” its colonial past and that French academia has been extremely hostile to postcolonial theory. To some extent this is true. Postcolonial studies courses, for instance, are still a rarity in university literature departments in France.

But this is hardly the whole story. In fact, one could easily argue that France has had a much more vigorous debate about its colonial past than almost any other country in Europe, especially the UK. Since the late 1990s, issues like colonial violence, torture and the relationship between Islam and the French colonial project have been at the forefront of public debate. Even if we go further back into the 1970s and 80s, postcolonial questions were clearly visible in the identity politics of France’s substantial pied-noir community.

So what’s the problem? Why do British and American scholars of France maintain that France has failed to come to terms with its colonial past?

The difficulty, it seems to me, is one of definition. Most people would accept that, in North America, the UK and South Asia, discussions of postcolonialism emerged from the disciplines of literary criticism and social theory through the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and others.[1] By contrast, the genealogy of postcolonialism is quite distinct in France, where it has been local politicians, activists and non-governmental organisations who have grappled with colonialism and its legacy.

This means that, while much of the debate surrounding postcolonialism in the English-speaking world has focused on “texts” and “representations”, in France it has focused on street names, memorials, museums, parliamentary laws and issues of historical memory.

One of the consequences of this is that postcolonialism has had a much wider reach in France than elsewhere. Instead of being confined to university departments and research seminars, the question of how colonialism should be remembered, what its impact was and what sort of legacy it has left is one that is fought out in the public sphere.

There are few better examples of this than a 2005 legislative package which included a clause to ensure that French schools teach the “positive” aspects of colonisation. Predictably, this caused huge controversy. Pied-noir organisations, who had been the driving-force behind the legislation came out strongly in favour of it, while historians and left-wing political organisations lined up to criticise it. Eventually, the offending clause was removed from the legislation by presidential decree, but this did little to stop a far-reaching discussion of French colonialism in every major press and media outlet.

The whole affair was a stark reminder that, even though the development of postcolonial ‘theory’ was a distinctly Anglophone phenomenon, the French have been no less engaged with their colonial heritage. It is simply that, as with so many other things in France, the political and partisan aspects of postcolonialism have always been much more prominent than its academic manifestations.

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[1] It is worth noting, however, that there have been many distinguished Francophone theorists of colonialism (including Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon), and that many Anglophone postcolonial theorists were inspired by French thinkers like Jacques Derrida. So, even in this strictly theoretical definition of postcolonialism, the French are present.

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Autumn 2015 Week 2 Seminar: Vincent Hiribarren (KCL) & Emile Chabal (Edinburgh): Hiding the Past, Shaping the Future: the Politics of Archives, Citizenship, and Belonging in the ‘Postcolonial’ Present

HiriChabal copy

The Week 2 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 7 October 2015, at 16:30h in the Danford Room (Arts Building, 2nd Floor) (note change from usual time). We are delighted that it is organized in conjunction with DASA Africa Talks and will be delivered by: Vincent Hiribarren and Emile Chabal, with comments from Berny Sebe. All our welcome and there will be drinks afterwards.

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