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A Prize-Winning Study of Environmental and Technology History

August 6, 2018

In a world increasingly defined by the catastrophic collision of technology and the environment, some historical perspective is helpful. Camille Cole’s Joel A. Tarr Prize winning paper, “Precarious Empires: A Social and Environmental History of Steam Navigation on the Tigris,” provides precisely that perspective, revealing the close connections between politics, technology, and the environment in Iraq in the late 19th-century. The prize, awarded every eighteen months, “recognize[s] the best article, published in either a journal or edited volume, on the relationship between technology and the environment in history.” Cole is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History and studies the history of technology and property in 19th century Iraq and Iran.

  “It's strange that until recently historians of technology and environmental historians didn't have more to say to one another, since both are really material kinds of history,” said Cole. “But once you stop thinking about technology as something ‘modern’ and nature as something pure, it's a pretty obvious fit to put the two histories together.”

Cole’s paper, which examines British and Ottoman use of steamships on the Tigris river in southern Iraq, reveals how the precarity of the environment reinforced a sense of imperial precarity.

The British saw steamships as part of a larger enterprise that wouldn’t necessarily lead to colonization,” Cole said. “They were primarily concerned with making alliances and advancing commercial interests. But the Tigris isn’t very well suited to steamships, and the operation ended up being pretty precarious, which led to the British being more forceful with the steamships, and in challenging Ottoman policies.”

Though “Precarious Empires” was an extension of her undergraduate research, Cole’s doctoral research focuses on similar areas and themes. In her research, she examines landowners in Southern Iraq in the late 19th-century and their strategies to acquire and maintain power in an area where state sovereignty isn’t clear. Cole cites her advisor’s influence Professor of History Alan Mikhail in developing her topic and supporting her research at all stages.

Camille Cole’s prizewinning article derives from her ongoing dissertation research on nineteenth-century Iraq,” said Mikhail. “This work promises to revamp our understanding of the relations between empires in contested zones of sovereignty, as well as the connections between commerce and empire and individuals and global capitalist networks of exchange.  It’s a well-deserved recognition.”

Cole received her BA in Politics and Middle Eastern Studies from Pomona College, and earned her MPhil in Historical Studies from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Gates Scholar. Her work has been published in the Journal of Social History, Middle Eastern Studies, and South Asian History and Culture.