Author: Christopher Szabla

CfP: Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Antarctica (Oslo, Dec. 2020)

As the world heats up, so has the competition for resources and strategic advantages in the polar regions. Later this year, scholars will meet to address the ongoing history of such efforts in the Antarctic in Norway, long one of the most avid participants in the game of polar exploration – and territorial claims. Yet…

CFP: “(Forced) Migration and Large-Scale Settlement” (Dresden, April 2020)

As world politics continue to revolve around questions and controversies concerning refugees and migration, historians have begun to pay increasing attention to earlier forms of human movement that have been compelled or assisted by states or international organizations, which can offer valuable background and precedents. A conference to be held in Germany next year seeks…

CfP: Imperial Legacies of 1919 (Texas, April 2019)

The next year will see the culmination of a half decade of events celebrating and commemorating the centenary of the First World War – a year in which the focus will be on the conflict’s aftermaths and consequences. And at a time when much of the reassessment of the Great War has been concerned with contributions from and effects on colonial territories – which helped truly make the event a war that spanned the world – several conferences have and will be turning their gaze toward the impact of the conflagration on empire, broadly speaking, integrating its impact on such events that are also seeing their centenary as the Amritsar Massacre, the First Egyptian Revolution, and the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

In that vein, the University of North Texas, located in Denton – part of the Dallas-Forth Worth metropolitan area – has invited paper and panel proposals focused on the imperial legacies of the conflict.…

When the Ottoman Empire Scrambled for Africa: An Interview With Mostafa Minawi


Left: An 1892 Ottoman map of the empire’s sphere of influence in East Africa; Right: Minawi at Palmyra, Syria

It can be a challenge to keep up with Mostafa Minawi. The peripatetic Cornell historian never lets the relative isolation of Ithaca define him, continually popping up for engagements or research stints in places across the globe. That’s not unlike Minawi’s work itself, which spans traditionally separate subdisciplines. Taking his chief specialty, the Ottoman Empire, out of the Middle East area studies prison to which it’s so often confined, he has traced, in detail, many of the long-missed connections between the Sublime Porte – the center of Ottoman governance – and sub-Saharan Africa. More specifically, his research has demonstrated how those links played into the Ottoman Empire’s participation in the late nineteenth century “scramble” for territory by European empires on the African continent – an episode in which, Minawi argues, the empire played a much more active role than has previously been assumed.

Minawi’s first book, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz (Stanford University Press, 2016) documents some clear examples of this engagement. Its foil is, explicitly, historians who have seen a weak Ottoman empire take a backseat to European expansion during the fin-de-siècle. But his argument might be best understood through a series of images Minawi displayed during a talk given to Cornell’s Institute for Comparative Modernities this past December. In 1856, when the empire was formally welcomed into the European “family of nations,” its officials stood, individually recognizable, front and center in artwork representing the conclusion of the peace after the Crimean War. By the period of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, famous for its role in the Scramble, the sole Ottoman official visible in depictions of the event is an almost anonymous background figure with his head buried in his hand. In the minds of European observers, the empire, its territory dramatically reduced in military contests with Russia, its treasury encumbered by burdensome debts, was clearly the proverbial “sick man,” destined to play little role in the races for territory that defined the late-nineteenth-century New Imperialism.


A representation of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference. The Ottoman representative, head in hand, is at rear in the center-left of the image.

Yet the picture, Minawi contends, looked much different from Istanbul – and perhaps even more so from the African territories in which it sought to preserve and extend its influence. Trade routes from Ottoman Libya stretched across the Sahara to Central Africa’s Lake Chad basin, where the empire claimed influence over a number of kingdoms. In order to protect and solidify these bonds in the course of the Scramble, the empire solidified its alliance with the Sufi Sanusi order, which established lodges throughout what the Ottomans claimed as part of their African sphere of influence. The empire was not only a more central participant in the Berlin Conference than European art let on, but proved an expert wielder of the international legal terminology that developed in the course of the Scramble for the establishment of sovereignty over territory – building terms with legally specific connotations, such as the German Hinterland (territory in the interior empires which coastal territories were allowed to claim for themselves) directly into Ottoman Turkish, and appealing to the doctrine of “effective occupation” (essentially establishing a presence on the ground in claimed territories) by extending telegraph lines from the Libyan coast deep into the Ottoman Sahara.

However skillfully demonstrated de jure, however, Ottoman claims in Africa were less respected in fact. European powers concluded secret agreements allotting Ottoman territories to their own dominions regardless of the artfulness of the legal arguments emanating from the Porte, the empire’s efforts to fulfill the requirements for colonial occupation, or Istanbul’s acumen at determining whether Europeans were acting in bad faith. For Minawi, all this is important and yet somewhat beside the point. Redefining the Ottoman Empire as an active participant in the Scramble demonstrates that its potency persisted even as late as the period just before the empire’s dismemberment after the First World War. It also forces us to rethink teleological assumptions about the inevitability of Ottoman downfall that seem to follow so easily from European accounts that missed the empire’s efforts in Africa or failed to take them seriously.

In November, I managed to catch Minawi when he was between trips to New Mexico and Sudan. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity below, ranges from his recent talks to politics in contemporary Turkey to his unusual progression from engineer to consultant to historian to why the Ottoman Empire can only be studied outside a paradigm that seeks to box it into traditional area studies categories, the relationship between history and current events, and his next project, which follows up on his first book to look at how the Ottoman Empire engaged in the process of making claims in another part of the continent: the Horn of Africa.

Christopher Szabla

CFP: Technological Innovation and the Spread of Globalization in the Cold War (Vienna, October 2018)

Last Monday, 5 February, marked a milestone in the history of the post-Cold War era: for the first time, the period during which the Berlin Wall has been down has now lasted longer than the period when it divided its namesake city – and, more symbolically, Germany, Europe, and the world. As the height of…

CFP: The Global Irish Revolution (Belfast, June 2018)

Global history is sometimes criticized for a kind of vague superficiality: reducing detailed and complex events to a whirlwind blur of mobility, connection, or convergence, either overemphasizing the coherence of its theses around a diverse, complicated world or else forced to make them so general as to generate little meaningful argument. As David Bell put…

CFP: Encounters, Rights, and Sovereignty in the Iberian Empires, 15th-19th Centuries (Portugal, May 2018)

The University of Évora in Portugal is soliciting submissions for its international conference, to be held on 24 and 25 May 2018. The overall theme is “the colonial encounters fostered by…Iberian empire-building processes and…the strategies developed to regulate the rights and lives of native and colonial populations.” The goal of the conference however, is to…

CFP: Entangled Others – Other Entanglements: Critical Perspectives on the Relationship of Racism and Antisemitism (Berlin, June 2019)

At least since the end of the Second World War – and Hannah Arendt’s suggestion in her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism that the Holocaust was an outgrowth of attitudes developed in the context of European colonialism – historians and other scholars have been preoccupied with the links between antisemitism and related forms of othering and…

CFP: Globalization and Migration in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Paderborn, Germany – November 2018)

“Europe has, in the final analysis, a utilitarian relationship to globalization,” write the organizers, at Germany’s Paderborn University, of a conference on how the subject relates to migration. It is a perspective that, for them, emerges from observing European efforts to impose controls on incoming refugee and migrant populations. “Yet,” they continue, “the history of migration…

CFP: Global Mountains (Cambridge, UK – July 2018)

Lauren Benton’s 2009 book, A Search for Sovereignty, introduced mountains as terrains of power often as uneven, relative to the polities that claimed them, as their angled peaks: contested spaces often beyond the fully encompassing reach of states and empires. A two-day conference at the University of Cambridge this summer now seeks to take the…