Global History Forum: Discussing “Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956” with Steven Serels

For most audiences today, the word “Sudan” evokes images at once terrorizing and timeless. Older readers may recall the images of emaciated bodies that television crews relayed from western and eastern Sudan during the great famines of the mid-1980s. Anyone reading today, however, will remember the outrage – but also lack of meaningful reaction – that the Sudanese government’s terror in the western region of Darfur evoked during the early 2000s. (Those wars, which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called genocide, still continue.) According to these images, Sudan remains at once black, Arab, Muslim, poor, hungry; but also – crucially – in the present. Appalled by the horrors of famine and genocide, it is easy to forget to probe the past – a colonial past – to inquire after the structural roots of hunger and famine not as an accident but as an accomplishment of modern state-making. Moral outrage and a human rights-inflected imagination may be important, but it’s solid empirical history that furnishes an understanding of the roots of crises like those that plague – or define – Sudanese stateness.

That’s why the Global History Forum was delighted to sit down recently with Steven Serels, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. Steven, whose first book, Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956, was just published by Palgrave MacMillan in December 2013, graciously met with GHF to discuss his work, his future agenda, and – at the center of it all – Sudan and the broader region and even world order that the country fits into.

Framing the question this way is crucial, because even answering the question of where Sudan is – not literally, of course, but in which region we imagine it – is fraught. Sudan, Serels notes, represents a classic case of a country marginalized by area studies paradigms dating back to the Cold War and even earlier. Concepts of a “Near East” that corresponded, roughly, to the Fertile Crescent plus the Arab (or Ottoman) Mediterranean excluded Sudan from consideration. Expanded definitions of an Orient typically stretched east and north to include non-Arab Turkey and Iran, but rarely south to cover Sudan. The same placenessness afflicted Sudan in discussions of African history. Was it Northern Africa or Sub-Saharan Africa? Part of the Arab World or of “Black Africa”? Part of the Sahel or “the Horn of Africa”? The fact that one could “lose” or “misplace” the biggest country in Africa (at least until recently) bespoke area studies’ paradigms ability to hide as much as they revealed.

Sudan and Eastern Africa prior to 2011 independence of South Sudan.
Sudan and Eastern Africa prior to 2011 independence of South Sudan.

Viewed from the waters of the Red Sea, moreover, Sudan’s considerable littoral real estate and Port Sudan somehow paled when placed aside Aden, Jeddah, and Djibouti. (The fact that the Red Sea itself is often marginalized in discussions of the Indian Ocean World didn’t help.) Characteristic of the geographic and archival-administrative regime that frames Sudan, visit the British National Archives in Kew, and you will find that the files on Sudan are assigned to the Foreign Office, rather than the Colonial Office. Even if Sudan, true, formed one of the classic sites of social anthropological research (think E.E. Evans-Pritchard at Oxford), the combination of the demanding linguistic requirements for serious research, the professional incentives that area studies optics generated, and the intellectual echoes of modernization theory – think reams of books with titles like The Birth of Independent Sudan, Serels jokes – erected conceptual impediments to research.

Still, when Serels sat down to work with the sources – British colonial archives scattered between Kew and Khartoum, he found Sudan’s erstwhile rulers obsessed less with the development of a “high modernist” administrative state than with one core question: how to get food? The British began exercising power towards the Sudanese state on its Red Sea littoral and the Egyptian-Sudanese frontier by the 1880s, but after the Mahdist Revolt – an attempt by a charismatic religious leader to overthrow Turko-Egyptian rule – the British intervened only to find themselves administering Sudanese territories they had initially never aspired to run. Indeed, a region plagued by famines, anti-colonial and anti-Egyptian resentments, and only reconquered from a rebel whose bones had barely sunk to the bottom of the Nile seemed more a liability than an asset. How could food insecurity be transmogrified into political, or even strategic, security?

Serels’ work goes beyond conventional examinations of Sudanese society that focus on the North and ‘Arab’ versus South and ‘African’ division in answering this question. Instead, he explains, Starvation and the State focuses on the relationship between local communities and the state. Serels explains one of the book’s core arguments: “Under Anglo-Egyptian rule, this relationship came to be mediated by the grain economy. During the Anglo-Egyptian state’s formative years, Sudan was plagued by a series of famines that officials feared would imperil their hold over the country.”

Book cover of Starvation and the State

But the way in which this happened was less hierarchy than heterarchy. “ To shore up their political control,” says Serels, “Anglo-Egyptian officials worked with a number of non-state actors, including, at times, Indian grain merchants, Sudanese slave traders, local elites, indigenous land owners and British capitalists, to develop a unified Sudanese grain market that included Northern Nilotic Sudan, the Jazira plain, the Ethiopian and Eritrean frontiers, Northern Kurdufan and the Red Sea littoral. The unified market replaced other grain producing and trading patterns, including ones that linked Eastern Sudan to India via the Indian Ocean maritime trade. Populations living in the regions incorporated into the unified grain market, as a result of the human need to secure sufficient sustenance, had no choice but to develop often fraught working relationships with the state that mediated this market. Populations residing outside of this market were only partially integrated them into the state.”

In other words, the fact that the Sudanese state – at least the core parts that mattered to the Anglo-Egyptian administrators – overlapped with Sudanese famine zones was less an accident than a design. This was no dastardly scheme by evil colonialists, but rather a fraught political accomplishment brokered between British actors, Sudanese élites, and the pastoralists and Indian Ocean traders who became the losers in the new Sudanese political economy of hunger and stateness. The diverse cast of characters lends richness and complexity to what could otherwise be a binary story of the rise of a state and the destruction of pastoralists. Indeed, occupying just as an important part in Serels’ work are agriculturalists in northern Sudan, many of whom became the precarious tenants of often absentee landlords.

It’s worth underscoring the potentially wide theoretical reach of Serels’ empirical research. Typically, we think of famines temporally as a moment, an event and conceptually as a result of inequalities in legal entitlements, even when food supplies may be sufficient to provide enough calories for all. Indeed, since at least Amartya Sen’s 1981 classic Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, this approach has generated a rich literature in development studies and beyond.

But focusing on famines as episodes and having to do with entitlement may only provide limited insight if we actually do the work and look at the archives. “The entitlement theory,” Serels writes, “cannot adequately address the causes of famines in regions where legal systems are weak, overlapping, or ill-defined. Since the 1880s most Sudanese famines have either occurred in contested border regions, such as those between the Anglo-Egyptian frontier administrations and the Mahdist state, or in parts of Sudan in which local elites and state agents were competing for power. Not only that, but repeated – in both its Anglo-Egyptian incarnation and its post-independence version – the Sudanese state has repeatedly “seized on famines as opportunities to conquer territory, to appropriate locally managed resources, and to abrogate long-standing Sudanese rights.”

Famines, in short, are no episodic disruptions but rather core elements of state power, or (especially when states are “bordered in” around regions prone to climatic fluctuations) a perpetual temptation and opportunity for new extensions of state power. That’s also why Serels sees the temporal framing of the book’s title – 1883 to 1956 – as much as an ironic historiographical challenge as an actual description. By the 1930s, Serels notes, two groups stood to gain from famines – the Sudanese state itself, but also indigenous élites like Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi and Ismail al-Azhari, who formed the most coherent opposition to the state. When independence did come, it happened in a meaningful sense in the famine-stricken north. Southerners were excluded from key posts or had the terms of the new “Sudanese” state dictated to them. Even though a new independent state appeared on the map and was represented in the United Nations, the core structures of hungry, Northern state power remained. For state power in this case meant the ability to manage, to determine the winners and losers of the political economy of famine. 1956 mattered, then, but it did not mark a revolution in the core features of Sudanese state power.

Serels’ path to studying Sudan was roundabout. Serels started his undergraduate education at The Cooper Union, a privately-funded arts and engineering school in New York. Serels started his study there as an engineering major, but he switched to the institution’s School of Fine Art, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts. There, he received a training in fine arts, but one that also included a strong cultural studies component. Coursework interested him in how narratives of the past influence our contemporary view of the world; soon, armed with readings of Marx and Saïd picked up in art theory classes, Serels then embarked upon a Master’s in History at McGill, where he later received his PhD. Classes on British imperial history plus economic history helped him transform his initial interest in the Sudan (a Master’s thesis on the British cultural fashioning of Khartoum) into the doctoral dissertation that forms the basis of Starvation and the State. Between seminars, the intellectual linkages that McGill’s Indian Ocean World Centre facilitated, and an enviable toolkit of languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic), Serels’ education testifies to the importance of the combination of happenstance and professional training in the making of a historian’s intellectual journey.

But maybe this circuitous road to the lands where the Blue and White Niles meet explains what makes Starvation and the State more than a mere regionally-focused work. Throughout, Serels remains mindful of the connections between “the local” and “the global” and the way that the two were interdependent. Take food and drink. Adding sugar to tea is commonplace in Sudan today but it was rare throughout the 19th century. Eventually, however, global commodities markets penetrated interior Sudanese markets, creating in their wake new meanings of what “local” food or drink really was. The flows went in the other direction, too. Sudanese grain, originally prepared for local consumption or at most Nilotic markets, was reconfigured by British administrators to flow towards the Arabian Peninsula in an effort to render British possessions in the Persian Gulf less dependent on Indian grain imports. Decreasing the fragility of the security architecture of the British Empire demanded increasing the food insecurity of Sudanese farmers and pastoralists.

This strategy had long-lasting echoes. In the late 1970s, the Sudanese government, seeking to work in a spirit of pan-Arabism at the same time that it needed international financing to deal with the global decline in commodities prices of the period, cooperated with the World Bank and IMF to massively invest in mechanized agriculture in order to turn Sudan into a “bread basket” for (depending on whom you asked) the Arab World or Eastern Africa writ large. The precariously-situated pastoralists were always there, but the global grain flows they served were changing. “People were always, and remain, local,” says Serels, “but the ways in which they were local have always been shifting.”

In this sense, Serels’ work seems to fit into a larger conversation about the place of non-sedentary peoples in global history. Here, again, it may be worthwhile to pay heed to the influence that modernization theory had on 20th century social scientists and historians: nomads were the classic group that had to be integrated “out” of backwardness and into the telos of the national state and economy, which then was to interact (however vaguely) with the global capitalist economy, or (to speak the language of Soviet economists) “the world socialist system.” Part of the attraction that studying pastoralists held for anthropologists may have had to do with the fact that they seemed like the quintessential example of a group not yet integrated by the anonymizing forces of the modern state and the national or international economy.

Yet to this author, Serels’ work sits alongside that of scholars of the fate of pastoralists in other parts of the world, like Sarah Cameron, a professor at the University of Maryland who works on the destruction of pastoral nomadism in Soviet Kazakhstan. These scholars’ work demonstrates how – even as pastoralists were sucked into the (often murderous and tragic) grid of the national economy, this transition just as often meant a shift from one interaction with global economies to another. Rather than interacting with Indian grain traders who plied the shores of the Red Sea, Serels’ Sudanese pastoralists became the political losers in dreams of a secure (northern) Sudanese state and a British Indo-Perso-Arabian food security architecture; Cameron’s Kazakhs, meanwhile, went from traversing vast distances across vast Eurasian pastoral economies to being incorporating into Stalin’s plans to turn Kazakhstan and, later, Ukraine, into breadbaskets whose grain sales would fuel Soviet industrial purchases from western capitalist states. Borders and reconfigurations of grain flows from the Red Sea littoral or the Eurasian steppe to larger global assemblages came at the price of food security.

Serels’ structural explanation of the Sudanese state through hunger may help readers make sense of current events in Sudan. Appreciate state power or the idea of a “strong state” not as something universal – the conceit of the concepts of “failed states” or “state capacity” – and more as something that varies enormously due to political ecologies and economies, and you can understand the different ways in which states are strong or weak. In the case of the Sudanese state, Serels emphasizes, both the British and post-1956 Sudanese state’s fate hung upon the ability to devise a “domestic policy of the calorie.” If the state could determine how much people had to eat – or didn’t have to eat – the ability to raise taxes, conduct national conscription, or occupy areas with military force was irrelevant. Calories – and the administrative-territorial framing of “Sudan” as the calorie-poor territories within the borders such as they existed – made the state.

That’s why the fate of the south of the country (now the independent state of South Sudan) has been so different, argues Serels. If we can speak of a “core Sudan,” he notes, then it’s the northern reaches of the state and the territories abutting the Nile. Territories like Darfur were only integrated into Sudan after World War I; southern Sudan was poorly if at all integrated into the Anglo-Egyptian condominium governing the north. More independent, less pastoral, and less precarious in terms of grain than the north, the south was always harder to integrate into a “hungry state.” (The concentration of oil fields in the south, moreover, gave southern élites an obvious way to finance their own coffers.)

But oil – and the weapons it can be used to purchase – may also portend a darker fate for the north. Once foreign oil investment (today mostly Chinese) came in, the state gained new ways to be strong beyond just the hunger nexus. Flush with oil revenues and bristling with Chinese arms imports, the Sudanese state could grow diffident of old dreams of being a “bread basket” and begin dreaming of occupying territory. Somatic violence replaced structural violence. A dark vision of the Sudanese state and its connection to the global economy it might be, true. But understanding the historical roots of the ways in which a Khartoumese state could (and can) deploy violence is crucial to political reflection on Sudan in the world today.

Steven Serels, Author of “Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956”

Even though he has just published his first book, Serels has staked out an ambitious plan of research for the next several years. Recently awarded a major fellowship from the German Volkswagen Foundation, this coming academic year he will be a visiting fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (Center for the Modern Orient) in Berlin, Germany, working on a book project tentatively entitled Herding for Grain: Northeast African pastoralists and the Red Sea Grain Economy, 1818-1977, a project that seeks to examine the relative decline in prosperity that pastoral nomadists along the Red Sea littoral experience throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

But that’s only the beginning. In addition to writing up the already-conducted research for this project, he hopes to begin work on the history of currency in Indian Ocean ports in the modern period. Prices for goods may have been fixed in imperial currencies in much of the archives, notes Serels, but in reality, traders from Bombay to Aden to Zanzibar had – like modern-day currency traders – to make quick calculations about the commodities, goods, and (unlike today) gold and silver stocks underpinning various regional currencies.

The history of currency in Indian Ocean port cities, he notes, belongs to a larger tale of the transformation of the Indian Ocean from a “liquid” space of port cities and their currencies to one of more territorial, national economies whose hinterlands were eventually monetarily integrated with national capitals and, later, with international markets for akçes, reals, francs, lira, pounds, and, later, dollars. Those interested in these intersections between the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and international history should keep their ears perked for an upcoming spring 2015 conference at McGill’s Indian Ocean World Center that Serels is organizing.

Anchored in work in colonial and national archives in a variety of languages, devoted to the history of a specific region of the world, but keenly aware of that region’s linkages to more global dynamics, Steven Serels’ work represents just one of the many exciting new research agendas in global history today. Check out Starvation and the State, and look to the Global History Forum in coming weeks for more featured interviews with global historians.

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