How to Start an Empire: An Interview with Steven Press

Dr. Steven Press

Open a world map. Chances are it carves the world into a multi-colored jigsaw of national territories.  We’re used to thinking of the contemporary international order as composed of regular nation-states. But what happens if we imagine a different map—one made up of irregular, overlapping, and contested claims, not just to territories, but to languages and peoples as well? A cartography of international disorder would emerge.

For starters, the large landmass conventionally thought of as Australia would be overlaid with the black, yellow, and red flag of the Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG). The APG claims Aborigines never ceded sovereignty over Australia; that they “are and always have been a sovereign people.” The APG has enacted Aboriginal sovereignty by issuing birth certificates and Aboriginal passports (which have been accepted in Libya, Norway, Switzerland, and the Mohawk nation), and sending diplomatic delegations overseas. Just off the coast of Australia, a small set of mostly uninhabited islands and reefs would feature the rainbow coloring of the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands. In 2004, the Kingdom’s soon-to-be Emperor, Dale Parker Anderson, raised the rainbow flag on one of the islands, claiming them “as homeland for the gay and lesbian peoples of the world.” The Kingdom has adopted the rainbow pride flag as its official ensign, the Euro as its official currency, and issued its own stamps. And what about the territory beyond Earth? Zoom out and you would see the proposed Space Kingdom of Asgardia. Its Head of Nation, Russian-Azerbaijani scientist and businessman Igor Ashurbeyli, plans to create a new nation in outer space, with orbiting satellites serving as the space nation’s initial capital.

We might be tempted to dismiss these claims to sovereignty as oddities of the contemporary world. Not so, according to Steven Press’ new book, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe’s Scramble for Africa (Harvard University Press, 2017). In Rogue Empires, Press offers a pre-history to these claims to sovereignty, taking his readers back to a time in the mid-nineteenth century when empires across South Asia and Africa were started and governed by companies and adventurers. Many of these individuals were what Press deems “disreputable types”: men like James Brooke, a British East India Company veteran who, by agreement with the Sultan of Brunei, became rajah of Sarawak on the island of Borneo in 1841. In Press’ telling, the ventures of private actors like Brooke culminated in the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, where Belgium’s King Leopold and the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck extended the imprimatur of European legitimacy to these “rogue empires.” The European powers would later rely on these private entities as precedents for establishing and extending colonies in Niger, South Africa, the Congo, Namibia, Cameroon, and beyond.

We recently spoke with Steven Press from his office in California. Press explained his interest in territorial anomalies and “disreputable” individuals, and foreshadowed his current book project on the afterlives of these rogue empires. Press is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University. Rogue Empires is his first book.

—Aden Knaap

INTERVIEWER

How did you first become interested in history?

STEVEN PRESS

I first got interested in European history in high school because I was learning German as my foreign language. I was primarily interested in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That is an interest I carried into college; I went to Vanderbilt and worked with Helmut Smith, a German historian, and took a lot of classes involving German literature and German history. I was particularly interested in the Third Reich—that’s obviously pretty common for students interested in German history. Gradually, my horizons expanded from national histories to Europe more generally. That led to a year-long undergraduate thesis on early nineteenth-century nationalism and various territorial grievances in the wake of the Vienna Treaty of 1815, for which I did research at the so-called Secret Prussian State Archives. That continued to be an interest of mine as I started graduate school; I looked at a lot of weird territorial anomalies that either disappeared in the nineteenth century or continued for various reasons. So that was kind of lingering in the background. And once I got to graduate school a whole new set of horizons opened up.

INTERVIEWER

Those weird territorial anomalies that you mention have clear connections to your first book. Did you apply to graduate school with what would become Rogue Empires in mind?

PRESS

Not really, no. Looking at weird territorial areas was something I think I mentioned when I applied for graduate school, but I really did not know yet what I intended to do. That evolved a little bit when I started working with my co-advisors, David Blackburn and Charles Maier. Charlie had a longstanding interest in territory, but also a lot of background in German history. And David Blackburn was interested in Germany in the world, or a more global take on German history. So those things fitted together in a way. Then, when I did my graduate readings in a number of different historiographical fields, I did a lot of comparative empires. I started to look at anomalous areas more broadly—regimes of mixed or ambiguous sovereignty. I was really intrigued by it because in college I’d focused a lot on national consolidation, national trajectories, this sort of thing. So it was exciting.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent was this interest in the ambiguities of sovereignty fueled by present-day concerns: by the time and place of your upbringing and when you were writing the book?

PRESS

My abiding interest in research is the buying and leasing and selling of sovereignty, and trying to test whether we have collectively as a world fully put behind us the patrimonial or old-regime approaches to governing. That is something I think about a lot. But also continually hearing the political discourse in the United States—growing up this was very common and it just continued. When I was in high school, so many people were championing the virtues of privatization and the superior performance of the private sector to the public sector. Obviously, historians tend to push back on that on the whole. But seeing specific cases in which there was an actual test of the limits was really interesting, even in areas that are normally assumed to be sacrosanct or beyond the pale as far as privatization is concerned. Looking at stuff like that and really seeing where the boundary lines don’t exist and evaluating performance is something that, I think, is relevant today. Looking at cases in which privatization essentially functioned without any restriction–and these rogue empires fit the bill, to some extent–I think is instructive. I hope my examples can function perhaps not as case studies but at least as pillars with which to construct a set of parameters for thinking about these questions: a sense of what is possible, what has been done, what the results were, so to speak. And maybe there were different variables, but at the very least it should be a cautionary tale for people who think it’s an original idea to consider privatizing this or that. The ongoing concerns is questions of patrimonial statehood—to use a Weberian term—and thinking about categories like resource development and ownership. These are issues I probably am concerned about for current reasons.

The other end of this is thinking about how much our approach to government is connected in certain ways to ideas of business. Even people who are strong advocates of the public sector often conceive of the state or the government as an entity with business-like characteristics, or as a shareholder-state, essentially.

At some point in graduate school I submitted a proposal for research on diamonds in Namibia and a professor from the government department wrote a note to me. In it, he said that a lot of the time I was writing as though it were clearly a bad thing—to use moralistic terms—for a company to have control over workers’ lives and essentially either possess outright sovereignty or the equivalent in a particular place. And he encouraged me, on the basis of his experience, to think about whether this was always true and whether the world, in fact, should be seen as kind of a level playing field in which there were potentially competing providers of various services, but also potentially competing entities with perhaps equally legitimate claims to ultimate control over peoples’ lives. Basically, he was saying he’s been to a lot of places in Zambia where British companies did a better job of providing services than the governments did.

In Africa, that claim has a lot of baggage, obviously. But the period of early modern history in Europe was also an era in which states were not the only alternative for political control. In the 2000s and 2010, that again seemed to be the case. It’s not as though there was a clear break from that at any point in history, but the 2000s and 2010s really seemed to be a time in which the playing field was being levelled in a lot of ways with regard to states and their various claims.

When I arrived at graduate school, it was still a period in which people were saying the nation-state is destined to vanish eventually. When I finished, it was again a period where states were trying to flex their muscles against the loss either of territorial superiority or privilege or some other claim. So the present-minded nature of this work started there.

INTERVIEWER

How did your time at Harvard change you as a scholar and as a writer?

PRESS

I took a class with Jill Lepore—called, I think, “The Art of Writing”—which helped me to learn how I was writing poorly in a lot of cases. The class was mainly structured around primary source work with colonial American sources. This was something in which I had no particular interest, but we were studying really different approaches to writing and thinking about how to write place, how to write people, how to create an atmosphere—that was really helpful to me. I mean, she probably doesn’t even remember who I am, but it was tremendously helpful to me to learn to treat writing as a craft.

With my research, I was really lucky to be able to draw on people I knew working in very diverse areas. Being a Graduate Student Associate with the Weatherhead Center at Harvard was very helpful because so many places about which I knew very little were on display week after week. So that was a big help to me, especially because I was trying to really extend my study from Europe to other parts of the world, although that’s obviously quite presumptuous. There were also just so many people doing exciting, diverse things at Harvard. Just stopping by people’s office hours asking questions about a particular place or a particular time and getting their take on it allowed me to identify, I think, certain gaps in coverage about either a given theme or a given place. That was really cool.

INTERVIEWER

As I was reading Rogue Empires, I was trying to work out where the project started for you: the starting piece of the puzzle. Was there a specific thread that drew you in to what would become your first book?

PRESS

Yes, well, I first became interested in zones where sovereignty was shared. Initially, I was really interested in things like Guantanamo and the Chinese concession areas [that were subject to extraterritorial jurisdiction by the European powers]— late nineteenth-century cases where sovereignty was bought or sold. Over time, that became my abiding concern with these anomalous areas. A lot of them seemed to fit with or emerge from that kind of practice. That is something I was thinking about as I started to read for my graduate work in European imperialism. That seemed like an important and maybe somewhat under-analyzed element of the Scramble for Africa. So these interests in liminal spaces and anomalous zones, as they related to specifically say the 1880s and 1890s in Africa, were something that I saw coming together for me.

INTERVIEWER

So originally as the dissertation was conceived Rogue Empires would have taken a more case study-based approach?

PRESS

Yes and actually when I submitted my thesis prospectus it was more on the basis of thematic or case study work, and certainly less chronological. What I was doing initially was trying to compile and study a number of places that fit under the heading of strange, liminal spaces or non-traditional territories—certainly not nation-states—in the nineteenth and twentieth century. And just sort of noticing commonalities initially between say the Borneo cases and the Africa cases is what led me to inquire further. One of the things that helped with thinking about the Scramble for Africa is that it had such a chronological setup in place for me to do the kind of work that proceeded with more or less chronologically arranged chapters. And that helped over time, I think, to really crystallize something about what my argument would be.

When I did my prospectus way back when, there was some sort of newsletter that was circulated after the fact where students would anonymously review people’s prospectus materials. And I received the “where is the plot?” award for having this structure—preliminarily, at least—that didn’t look like the normal work of a historian. So, after time, I arrived at something that looked more chronological, more neatly sequential.

INTERVIEWER

So Rogue Empires is a revenge project, really?

PRESS

Yeah, that’s it. I was kind of like, “I’m really going to show how chronological I could be.” No, I mean, there are different ways to do it. I guess most dissertations do proceed chronologically and that’s probably for the best. Certainly, when you’re thinking about wider audiences, people on the whole are going to want chronological approaches, I think.

INTERVIEWER

I imagine that working out the place of Borneo in your story was pivotal in figuring out the chronology. You seem to use the idea of the Kingdom of Sarawak—the Bornean state sold by the Sultan of Brunei to an ex-officer of the British East India Company, James Brooke in 1841—as the conceptual lynchpin for the book. The Kingdom of Sarawak thus becomes a case study, in a sense, but one that moves chronologically over time and across geographies, taking in not just Brooke’s Borneo, but also King Leopold’s Borneo and Bismarck’s Borneo.

Borneo, 1881. The territory claimed by Overbeck and Dent is shaded. Note Kimanis Bay, the base of the ill-fated American colony, near the southwestern edge of Sabah. Source: Edward Stanford, Borneo: Shewing the Lands Ceded by the Sultans of Brunei & Sulu to the British North Borneo Company (London 1881). Courtesy of Library of Congress, Control Number 2007630401.
German “possessions” in West Africa, late 1884. At right, a map with the territory of Lüderitz, as sketched by the missionary Theophilus Hahn, one of Lüderitz’s early associates. Top left corner: The Bay of Biafra, home to Woermann’s aspirations in the vicinity of the Cameroon River. Bottom middle: Plan of Angra Pequeña harbor, Lüderitz’s operational base. Source: Bruno Hassenstein, Die deutschen Besitzungen in West-Africa (Gotha 1884). Courtesy of Harvard Map Collection.

PRESS

I’m glad that’s the impression you got, because that’s precisely what I wanted to do. That is something that did not come to me immediately, but evolved as I was working on a couple different case studies. The original thesis had a very different title. It was less focused on the disreputable characters and more focused on the idea, which was basically a private state or some sort of non-public government.

The process of trying to revise the dissertation into a book was attended by certain people telling me that publishers hate the word “state,” publishers love the word “empire,” these sort of superficial considerations. So that was part of why it changed. But there were also more substantive reasons. One of the things I really tried to do in turning the dissertation into a book was to focus on making sure there was a through-line from Borneo to every aspect of the book, making it less about case studies and more, in theory, about a linear flow of an idea. That had been there kind of latent in what was the dissertation, but it still felt a little disjointed—relative to what, I hope, it wound up being. I was also really thinking about honing the writing and trying to make sure that I wasn’t saying too much or too little at any given point. I was thinking about ways to balance the text so that I had what I hoped to be a maximal efficiency with regard to the reader’s experience: trying to hone the way in which I described various locations, really trying to focus on not exactly character development, but allowing colorful quotations to do some of the work for me that might otherwise have been done in a kind of workman-like way.

I also focused on how to deliver different pitches depending on the audience. Part of the revision process basically consisted in throwing out a lot of the gestures that one makes in a dissertation towards the historiography in the introduction. This, of course, is not something I was really inclined to do. Trying to learn how to make historiographical interventions without being explicit in the introduction—that was something I was trying to achieve. A lot of the pitches seem superficial in hindsight, but one of the things I think they really did help with was condensing my ideas and really focusing on the transnational flow of the idea rather than anything else.

INTERVIEWER

There’s also an argument, I suppose, in the way in which the book itself is structured in that you’re placing these “disreputable figures”—like Brooke—alongside much more traditional actors in this state-making zone—King Leopold, Bismarck, and the like.

PRESS

Absolutely, and I suppose on some level I enjoyed the way in which that elevates the status of one and lowers the status of the other. I enjoyed trying to level the playing field, much like the people I’m writing about.

Penetration of Congo River and Basin, November 1884. A copy of this map – made using data of the “International Congo Association,” found its way into the possession of American diplomats lobbied by Leopold II. The Association’s putative territory lies to the right of the darkened line – a glaringly blank space. Note the areas marked “French” and “Portuguese,” to the top and bottom of the darkened lines nearest the Atlantic Ocean respectively. Source: Institut National de Geographie, Croquis de l’Afrique Équatoriale (Bruxelles 1884). Courtesy of Library of Congress, Control Number 2006627675.

INTERVIEWER

Returning to something you said earlier, your book is obviously a history of ideas, but it doesn’t focus on the kinds of individuals we might usually associate with intellectual history. How did you conceive of the kind of global intellectual history that you wanted to write?

PRESS

As an undergraduate, I had read a lot of intellectual history dealing with the refined communities of European intellectuals. One of the nice things about the kind of people that I was interested in after that Jill Lepore class was that so many of them were disreputable and really not moving round in the rarefied air of Europe and the world. But they had ideas, too, and really colorful lives.

Emma Rothschild has written about “medium ideas”—this is something I found compelling. It seemed like there was a gap here, especially in the setting of the Scramble for Africa. Now, these aren’t the sort of ideas that one thinks of in regard to European intellectual history, but it’s a history of ideas nevertheless. Working on sovereignty was tough, because I started with a lot of case studies and it was difficult to maintain a kind of narrative continuity. I found it to be a lot easier, obviously, with characters or places that straddled different time periods, and which, in a way, were kind of being passed about as the ideas were.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have particular models in mind—fiction or non-fiction—for writing this kind of history?

PRESS

Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007) was something I was thinking about: the way in which he structured that book I found very enlightening. The way he mixed ideas with political actors as well as others was something I found liberating. Prior to entering graduate school, I had been, I guess, tied to the old-fashioned way of doing diplomatic history and had to kind of shed some of the old diplomatic history baggage along the way. Obviously I still retain a lot of it. But a lot of people instinctively don’t like old-fashioned diplomatic history because of various problems and biases that are latent. And when you’re talking about the Scramble for Africa that’s certainly something you have to be aware of.

Adam Hothschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998) was also always in the background as probably the dominant work on not just Belgian colonial history but the Scramble for Africa. I mean, if you go into any bookstore it will have that volume and probably not much else. In my mind, the foremost achievement of that book was in raising public awareness of what would otherwise be a fairly obscure matter and place. Without that kind of awareness, I don’t know whether there would be a place for my own book. That said, I think it is a work that primarily deals with secondary sources: a lot of great work done by Belgian and to some extent French scholars.

That nuance intrigued me because it was clear that if one wanted to take a fresh look at the sources in a more international context there might be a lot of room there. I started thinking about networks of communication and I knew the Harvard Business School Library held the papers of an old German banker named Gerson Bleichröder—Bismarck’s banker. But there was also a ton of communication with Leopold in there. Hothschild and other Belgian historians understandably had not accessed this, because they were looking at places like the Belgian Foreign Ministry and the Royal Palace Archives in Brussels. So I thought, “hey, maybe if I’m coming at this from an international perspective, not as someone who is primarily interested in Belgian historiography or Leopold II, then maybe I can bring some fresh insights.” And particularly, I was not satisfied with Hothschild’s take on the Berlin Conference; here I was thinking that a lot of German archival records had become accessible in the last decade or two, and hadn’t really been looked at yet. I thought there was room there to add something and maybe to internationalize Leopold II a little bit. I don’t think that that had been sufficiently done.

Political Divisions in Africa, 1905. Just twenty years removed from the Berlin Conference, Europeans had nearly completed the partition. Note the continued independence of Leopold’s Congo State. Stark changes are reflected not only in demarcated boundaries throughout the continent’s interior, but also in dotted and straight lines tracing a proliferation of railroad, shipping, and telegraph cable routes. Source: Central Committee on the United Study of Missions, Map of Africa, for use with Christus Liberator, an Outline Study of Africa (Buffalo 1905). Courtesy of Yale University Library Map Collection.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, the connections between Leopold and James Brooke were, I assume, somewhat underexplored.

PRESS

Right, this is something that in certain biographies of Leopold would get brought up basically in passing. People would not scrutinize James Brooke, or the connections between their ideas. Also, I think, the continuities or discontinuities between the early modern and the modern periods hadn’t been really addressed by someone like Hothschild or most of the other people who write about the Scramble for Africa for that matter, even though in a sense it should have been there since we’re talking in theory about two fundamentally different eras: new imperialism and old imperialism.

INTERVIEWER

Archival work seems crucial to how you initially conceived of the contribution you could make. What was it like as a graduate student designing a project in global history—one that was both multi-archival and multi-lingual?

PRESS

I spent a lot of time worried initially that I would not be able to deliver anything like adequate coverage of the archives. That said, having a transnational or global story in a way made it easier for me, because so many of my archival visits could be focused on the transmission of, say, ideas, rather than complete mastery of a given set of documents. That doesn’t mean I stopped as soon as I found what I wanted. But it means if there were forty files on the Berlin Conference and ten of them had to do with declarations, I would probably go a little soft on the declaration ones and focus mostly on the ones that seemed more stimulating.

I was really helped by the digitization of so much new material. Harvard as a very generous institution afforded me access to a ton of digitized material from the UK National Archives; a ton of digitized material in the way of newspapers. And online digitized finding aids made it possible for me to go on shorter archival trips with a pretty good foreknowledge of what I needed to do. Without really generous funding on the part of Harvard, I also would not have been able to work in African archives for any significant length of time, and I would not have been able to go on exploring trips to various European archives.

I did a lot of work in Namibian archives, and the really great thing there is that the archives are not heavily used—a great thing for me, I should add, though not for the Namibian people. When I went to Windhoek—the capital, where the archives are—there was a very welcoming atmosphere, a very permissive atmosphere with regards to things like taking large amounts of photos. That certainly assisted in allowing me to review the documents over a very long period of time, with a kind of rigor and precision I would not have been able to do in person. Really starting to look at treaties in archives as unique sources—that was something I found very exciting. I went to Namibia and I found that many of the treaties had gone missing, basically. That encouraged me, in a way, to think that some of these things weren’t as irrelevant or dusty or obscure as they might otherwise have seemed.

INTERVIEWER

And the sheer number of them as well!

PRESS

Yes, it’s staggering. In the European archives, you see so many differently worded versions of what, in theory, ought to be a uniform text. This was really exciting. I had done a lot of work with literature as an undergraduate, as well as in my early days of graduate school, and being able to really think about these treaties and read against the grain and read between the lines was very exciting. And, I thought that this kind of reading that legal historians do hadn’t been done so much with the nineteenth century.

INTERVIEWER

And maybe some of that excitement also came from the breadth of historical literatures that Rogue Empires speaks to. It’s obviously a book that has something to say about the historiography of empire and the Scramble for Africa, but there’s also an international law story here, albeit a less traditional one that looks at how these ideas play out on the ground.

PRESS

Absolutely, and again, I’m bringing in the disreputable actors. I look at how these ideas don’t stop, obviously, in the halls of parliaments. I’d seen people do work on early colonial American history and on the British East India Company with regards to legal ideas circulating among disreputable types: people like Alison Games in The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560–1660 (2008), Chris Bayly in The Birth of the Modern World: Global Connections and Comparisons 1780–1914 (2004), and Lauren Benton in A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (2010). I borrowed from Bayly, for example, in speaking about the transmission of treaty precedents from Southeast Asia to Africa in the 1880s.

I was also interested in taking a close look—as a micro-historian might—at the diplomatic environment surrounding international lawyers at the time. I thought that was really exciting, as well. Seeing how they show up, say, in the correspondence of someone like Bismarck—that is something that I don’t think has been attempted much by people like Martii Koskenniemi and the other greats of the genre.

INTERVIEWER

I’m intrigued by the obvious interest you have in these disreputable people. Historians often talk about the relationship they have with their subjects: what was yours like? Was there a specific character or set of characters that first hooked you in?

PRESS

These American guys I wrote about. The ones who were would-be James Brookes in Sabah, in Borneo. I became pretty obsessed with them. I think one of the things that drove my obsession, so to speak, was that there was so little documentation about them, but there was just enough to give me hints. One of the guys I’m talking about, James Torrey, died in Boston, and just being able to walk over to another part of the city and see where he resided for a period of time or recreate his network in my mind was very exciting. I’m really intrigued by a little bit of documentation and then a vanishing of the rest of their life. These disreputable people come into contact with eminent statesmen and so forth—I find that for some reason very intriguing. It was also interesting because I could go to Washington, D. C. and make connections to Torrey that otherwise I just wouldn’t have had the energy or urge to track down.

INTERVIEWER

How much of your research didn’t make it into the final dissertation? Or then in the jump to the book?

PRESS

One case study on Guantanamo was originally part of the dissertation, but it didn’t really work structurally as part of the book, so it was published as an article in the Journal of Modern History. The idea that I could really go back and look at the origins of the lease treaties in Guantanamo was really exciting. It was kind of appalling at first that people hadn’t really done that, but then it really made me feel like I could make a unique contribution. The few people who had looked at it had only done it in an American context, it seemed, so it was really thrilling to be able to do it in an international context.

For the book, I wound up cutting off part of the dissertation on diamonds in particular in Namibia and south-west Africa. This is going to be, I hope, my second book project.

INTERVIEWER

Can you elaborate on your second book project?

PRESS

It has to do with the back-end of a lot of what I write about in Rogue Empires: these chartered companies, these individuals with control over states. It’s about how their “rights” were liquidated or dealt with after the high-point of imperialism. A lot of these “rights” continued to be legally contested not just in the twentieth century but even into the twenty-first.

Namibia is one such place. I am really interested in how, when the Germans discovered what was at the time the largest diamond find in history in a desert in southwest Africa—the same sort of ground over which Adolf Lüderitz was running around trying to sign treaties—the rights of the companies became essential to the way in which the Germans tried to compete with De Beers and build a new diamond cartel. I’m also interested in how this vision endured World War I—a time with much thinking about cartels and thinking about public versus private and a lot of ideas about where states began and ended. The same colonial issues are still there, but are being explored in a different context. This diamond story is something I’ve been working on. And I am able to, I think, mentally distinguish it from the first project because it didn’t totally fit with the Borneo story, or with that particular process.

I don’t really have a clear idea of where the new project will end chronologically, although a lot of the system the Germans put in place for diamond mining in Namibia is still present. One of the things the Germans did was to seal off the entire desert, because the diamonds there were so easily accessed—one could pick them out of the sand. It was a very strange situation. And one of the things that was going on, too, was that everybody in the world was saying, “there’s so many diamonds here, but they don’t fit with our understanding of where this diamond wealth ought to come from, so how is this possible?” Depending on whether people thought the diamond mining would last, they took rather different approaches to how the wealth should be distributed and how the area should be governed and so on.

One of the things I like about this project is that it’s also a global and transnational story. A lot of these diamonds went to United States: 75% of demand at the time was American. It’s very interesting seeing how these diamonds work their way back to Europe and then on to America through nodes like Berlin or Amsterdam or Antwerp, and how the Germans are competing with De Beers, a sort of global power in its own right. I’m also looking at smuggling networks too—full of disreputable types, again —so that’s fun.

INTERVIEWER

What is the archival basis for this project? Will you be using a similar mix of archives to your first book?

PRESS

It is an oddly similar set of archives: Namibian, German, British, Belgian, French to some extent. De Beers is not one hundred percent friendly but I hopefully will gain access there. The German archives are great, and they’re really pretty much untapped on this subject. Belgian archives have a lot of material in regard to Antwerp. The UK National Archives are great; they have a ton of stuff about the importance of these diamonds during World War I and various networks and legal cases. There’s a great wealth of private papers in California related to an associate of a lot of these mining tycoons that hasn’t really been utilized. And some of the relevant business actors are really transnational types, like the diamond and gold mining entrepreneur Ernest Oppenheimer, as well as Herbert Hoover—so their papers are really terrific.

INTERVIEWER

One last question. I was interested to read you teach a course called “How to Create a State.” How have you found designing a course in global history, especially one so closely related to what you write on?

PRESS

I guess on one level it feels like cheating, because I’m teaching something about which I have such a strong professional and research interest! But it’s good. It tests me in a lot of ways because I’m looking at current evidence and current phenomena about which I’m not necessarily prepared to comment with any expertise. The class spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to think about global ramifications for processes or phenomenon I’m interested in–it’s been really helpful in that way. We look at Chinese island-building in the South China Sea, for example; these are questions about which a historian can think in certain ways with a lot of insight.

The class starts with some ridiculous people and ridiculous cases, then tries to bridge the gap to established world powers over time and show how the respectable and eminent is not necessarily so different from what we see as ridiculous or farcical. So we look at a lot of farcical and ridiculous cases initially, then we kind of over time migrate to the more serious stuff. I don’t know whether that’s pedagogically sound—maybe it should be the other way round—but I like to pull the students in and make them comfortable with some of these concepts, which otherwise can seem very intimidating, especially to freshmen. A lot of these students are highly educated, much more than I was at their age, but they don’t necessarily have the same kind of comfort or ease with global history as they do with regional or national histories.

The class is not chronological, it moves thematically on the basis of case studies. The first half of the course is devoted basically to different ways of taking or claiming possession, and the second half is devoted to the consequences or the fallout of that. We start with micro-nations like Sealand, then do some time on company-states like the East India Company; we do a week on the Guano Islands; we do a week on discovery and symbolic acts of possession, exploring the different ways in which this was contested and promoted. Stuff like that. I am basically trying to turn a lot of this on its head and start from, again, the disreputable side.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel like there is a dialogic relationship between your teaching and your research? How has one informed the other?

PRESS

It has been very helpful for me to witness the energy with which students in a lot of cases have greeted the course; that’s been encouraging to me. Learning about all of the great research students are capable of doing in a short period of time was obviously very productive, but I also benefited I think from trying to take a more global perspective in my teaching. Really being open to so many different times and places, I think, was something that kept stimulating me in my research to look broadly across all sources for connections. For example: Digging around random newspapers in random parts of the world was something I was doing when I first taught the course. There was one case in which a student did fabulous primary source work about a company-state, the Royal Niger company, and I wound up citing that in my book.

INTERVIEWER

What kinds of readings do you set?

PRESS

We do close readings of treaties and other primary sources, but we also read David Armitage’s The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007). It is a good fit for global history. Because so many of the students have encountered a lot of these ideas in a strictly American setting, it’s great to not only expand their horizons to Europe, but to so many other times and places. The class is an experiment, but it’s going pretty well so far. It’s good to experiment.

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