Phosphate Mining in North Africa – an Undergraduate Research Project

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To celebrate the launch of the UG Research Scholarship scheme 2018, we’ve looked through the archives to showcase some more great student research. Here, History student Joanna Ballaster reflects on her 2016 project researching phosphate mining in North Africa.

In my research project I worked with my tutor Dr Simon Jackson on the history of twentieth century phosphate mining and flows from North Africa, from the colonial period to the contemporary period. It was a fascinating insight into the number of subjects that could be studied, as well as the interdisciplinary nature of history. Phosphate is a vital component of food fertilisers, and became a sought-after mineral in many countries who had to increase their food output. Phosphate mines in North Africa account for 75% of the world’s reserves and phosphate has long been a strategic part of North Africa’s relationship with Europe (and their competing relationship with phosphate producers like Florida in the USA), yet it is often only mentioned in passing or overlooked.

My tutor was at the beginning stages of his research, so my role was to find previous literature on the subject and evaluate future archival possibilities for the research. We stayed in regular contact over email and face-to face meetings which was really helpful so I could check that my research was relevant and helpful.

Across the course of the research scholarship I developed as a researcher; the interdisciplinary nature of the topic meant that the project Simon was undertaking overlapped with literature from other fields, including geology and social and anthropological studies in phosphate. I developed my confidence as I went beyond reading scientific literature around phosphate as a mineral to look at different disciplines’ approaches to the topic.

I’m grateful that my tutor was at the beginning stages of research, so I got to play a role researching the future possibilities for the project. Perhaps the most important lesson was the amount of trial and error research takes; this was something I anticipated but had not truly realised. A lot of the literature in the early 20th century seemed relevant, but once I ordered the books in, they had little information touching on the topic. However, the time I spent ordering and finding a little information paid off once I found something interesting.

One source I found stimulating from the UK National Archives in Kew was from 1923, and it contained a certain Mr Voss’ notes from the phosphate deposit of Oued Zem-El Boroudj in Morocco. His visit concerned the technicalities of the phosphate production, but there were also times where his descriptions touched on the layout of the mines and everyday life, including discussing the water situation, and the labour of the people themselves.

His impressions of the labour force are particularly interesting for his impression of Moroccan workers and his comparison with other North African colonies: this tells us a lot about colonial mentalities and attitudes in the context of mineral extraction. He concluded – making use of common colonial stereotypes and attitudes –  that ‘the Arab of Morocco is a better class than the native of Algeria and Tunis, and is a good and contented worker’. He describes the working conditions, and states that ‘skilled white labourers and mechanics can be obtained in the towns.’

His reflections on the nature of the French and Moroccan situations are mostly interesting to see the perspective and comparisons he draws up, which illustrate his assumptions and mentality. Interestingly though, he comments on the interconnections between French phosphate mines in North Africa as the engineer he met in Morocco ‘has had much experience in this kind of work, and just recently erected a very much larger plant’ in Algeria.

What makes his reflections so interesting, is its imperial framework. For example, at the same time in the 1920s, Britain was managing phosphate deposits in Australasian islands like Nauru. His analysis thus focuses on the French Empire itself as a political unit and ‘their’ phosphate production. Voss was one of the livelier presentations of the phosphate mines I found, yet his emphasis on reporting and comparing the experience of rival empires and their phosphate deposits stifles the description of the mines and miners themselves.

His official report makes an interesting comparison with the reflections of Norman Douglas, a traveller in North Africa, who eleven years earlier in 1912 wrote a book of reflections. In comparison to the more stifled descriptions from Voss, he brings the mines more to life, even as he deploys many of the same racial hierarchies and stereotypes typical of colonial rule, discussing how ‘the higher posts are reserved for Frenchmen, but among the lower grades you may find a number of other nationalities – hardiest of white Mediterranean races – as well as some Italians and not a few Greeks’.

Whereas Voss mentions passing conversations and condenses them to the facts, Douglas writes about much less formal conversations, and commented on whatever makes an impression on him. For example, he asked a French businessman what happened when they took water from a local village to supply the mines. His interlocutor Dufresnoy replied: “they raised the devil. But we are not civil servants here, who must humour the caprices of half a dozen savages: the health of the settlement was dependent on our getting the water, and we took it, voila!”’.

miners - simon jackson1

An interesting comparison, is both commented on the competition between United States and Moroccan phosphates. Voss makes dry, economic remarks on the Moroccan phosphate monopoly’s stance that ‘the increase in phosphate production combined with a depreciated currency and cheap labour, coupled with the advantage of cheaper ocean frights, [means] they can meet the competition of American phosphates in Europe’. In comparison, Douglas cites a vivid, more political discussion of how ‘if the railway were not ours, if we were not practically dictators of the country, those Americans, with their immense phosphate importation into Europe, would eat us up; and the local merchants would lose everything. That is the justification of our so called tyranny’.

Both of these sources come from the earlier part of the twentieth century, yet one of the most interesting parts of the topic was seeing how the course of the twentieth century changed phosphate production. My tutor and I had discussed how the change from French control of North African phosphates to Moroccan independence would impact the state’s control over phosphate. What I hadn’t prepared for was the significance phosphate had in North Africa during the Second World War, when Britain sent out a mission to analyse the implications this could have on UK food production. After 1945, Europe had competing demands for the phosphate, yet U.K. ambassadors had the task of securing phosphate, but not challenging French control in North Africa.

The undergraduate research scholarship was an amazing opportunity to be given. It shows the confidence that the university has in its undergraduates, and I feel lucky to have been chosen to work on this scheme. It gave me an insight into the world of further study, and the interdisciplinary future that history has. I did the research scholarship before beginning my dissertation preparation, and I can tell the benefit it has had on me as a researcher. I would thoroughly recommend any undergraduate student to apply!

 Joanna Ballaster, BA History (October 2016)

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