Outposts of Conquest: Birmingham research project in the Humanities goes global

First presented on the occasion of the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York, under the aegis of the (US) National History Center, the ‘Outposts of Conquest’ project led by Birmingham Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Post-colonial Studies Dr Berny Sèbe has been going global lately.

Comparing strategies of imperial conquest and administration in arid and semi-arid environments through the case-studies of Russian expansion in Central Asia and French annexations in the Sahara desert, this AHRC-funded project has seen its reach leap across new continents, encompassing not only Europe but also North Africa and Asia, in addition to its usual constituencies in the UK (with project recent presentations in Oxford, London and Southampton).

Last February, Dr Sèbe was invited to present his research results by the network of French cultural institutes in Algeria, resulting in a series of well-attended presentations in Algiers, Constantine and Tlemcen. Together with the project’s Algerian scientific adviser, Sid-Ahmed Kerzabi, Dr Sèbe presented the history and legacy of French fortifications in the Sahara desert, highlighting not only their geostrategic role but also exploring with the public their significance in a post-colonial country. HE Bernard Emié, French ambassador to Algeria, praised the extremely good reception of these lectures among the Algerian public, and the project’s high scientific interest. He described it as a “resounding success”.

In April and May, Dr Sèbe’s visiting fellowships at the University of Montpellier and the Sorbonne allowed him to present the project on several occasions to audiences made of a range of distinguished colleagues as well as the future generation of scholars (doctoral students and post-docs). In partnership with the Institut Universitaire de France and Prof. Jacques Frémeaux from the Sorbonne, the project gave rise in particular to a conference on colonial control in desert environments held on 6 May at the French Academy for Overseas Sciences. The Academy’s honorary president, Prof. Bruno Delmas, celebrated this initiative as a welcome addition to the range of activities which were offered to Academicians. The conference will give rise to a series of articles (including one by Dr Sèbe) in the Academy’s official journal, Mondes et Cultures.

Together with the project’s co-investigator Prof. Alexander Morrison (Nazarbayev University, Astana, Kazakhstan), Dr Sèbe subsequently presented the project at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, on the occasion of the international conference “Across Empires: The British Empire in Comparative Perspective”, which included an entire panel organised by ‘Outposts of Conquest’. Drawing upon a comparison between the Russians, the French and the British (in India and the Sudan respectively), Prof. Morrison and Dr Sèbe analysed the challenges posed by the steppe and the desert to conquering powers intending to control nomadic and predominantly Muslim societies. The project had arranged for a third panelist, Dr Michael Finch from King’s College Defence Academy, to present his work on military tactics to implement what was called at the time ‘pacification’, therefore expanding the scope of case-studies presented on the occasion of the Hong Kong conference.

Lastly, the project gave rise to a keynote lecture at Europe’s leading history festival, the Rendez-Vous de l’Histoire in Blois, on the banks of the Loire Valley (7-10 October). In front of a packed audience in the prestigious setting of the Salle Mansart in a castle wing built under Francis I, Dr Sèbe presented the ‘Empires of Emptiness’ which the Russians and the French carved up in Central Asia and North Africa with the help of a unique network of desert fortresses. This was followed a week later by a well-attended illustrated lecture in Cavalaire-sur-Mer (Southern France) on the occasion of an exhibition on the Sahara and its past.

Whilst archival research for ‘Outposts of Conquest’ is now finished, the project’s intellectual lifespan is far from over: the next few months will see not only the finalisation of new scientific outputs, but also a wide range of public engagements activities in Birmingham and beyond.

A major exhibition will take place on campus from 15 February until 15 May, combining and outdoor street gallery throughout the campus grounds and a photographic and historical display housed in the Aston Webb Rotunda gallery. Empires of Emptiness (Rotunda gallery) considers how empires expand into deserts and explores these vast spaces of wind, sand and stars. It is complemented by an outdoor display across University Square and Chancellors Court: The Sahara & the Steppe contextualises the geographical and human environment where these fortresses were built, offering a unique insights into some of the world's most significant desert areas.

A range of associated events will take place, in particular around the time of the Birmingham Arts & Science festival (commented visits, lectures on the geopolitics of the Sahara, film screenings at the MAC, etc.). The exhibition will then be displayed at the Jackfield Museum (Ironbridge) over the summer. This is just the beginning of a long journey, so please visit www.birmingham.ac.uk/forts for regular updates.