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.…
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.
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…
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.
For readers interested in urban history, see this call for papers for the Special Session 30 of the 14th International Conference on Urban History (EAUH) to be held in Rome, 29 August – 1 September 2018: As Cooper & Stoler, amongst others, have demonstrated, colonialism is not only premised on asymmetries and distinction, but is…