The Straits of Europe: History at the Margins of a Continent

Nov 08, 2012

26th Annual Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Johannes Paulman (Universität Mainz)

The 26th Annual Lecture was delivered by Johannes Paulmann, who approached European history between 1848 in 1914 by examining the margins of the continent, namely, the straits of Europe. Paulmann began with the Kara Strait in the Arctic Sea, continued with the Öresund (the Sound) and the English Channel, and then moved on to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Dardanelles and Bosporus, concluding with the Suez Canal. This verbal circumnavigation of Europe sought to decenter European history and to elucidate its transnational and relational character.

In his examination of the Kara Strait, Paulmann stressed that explorations of the Arctic sea were enterprise that were driven both by economic interests and scholarly curiosity. In the publications of Arctic explorer Adolf Nordenskiöld, the term "Europe" meant "civilization," and "European" referred to people who conquered the globe. In contrast to the Kara Strait, the Öresund was economically profitable for long time. From 1429 until 1857 Denmark levied tolls on foreign ships passing the straits. In 1857, Denmark had to give in to international pressure and agreed to the internationalization of the straits connecting the North and Baltic seas. In his discussion of English Channel, Paulmann discussed the many projects, beginning in the 1850s, to build a bridge, dig a tunnel or establish a railway ferry across the channel. Although the channel tunnel was not built until the 1990s, already in the mid-19th century the introduction of regular steamship services greatly facilitated cross-channel traffic.

The Strait of Gibraltar was a "fuzzy border" between Europe and Africa; on both sides, particular localities developed from regional and transnational sources during the nineteenth century. Ohe northern side was controlled by the British since 1704. Always considered an important military base, the advent of steamship travel made it a pivotal point in a worldwide system of coaling stations. By about 1900, the civilian population had grown to more than 20,000, of whom only a small minority were British subjects; the rest were mostly of Spanish, Portuguese, Genovese, Maltese and North African origin. The largest impetus for government regulation and reform came from epidemics, which, starting in the 1860s, led to the sanitary reforms and curbs on immigration and naturalization. On the other side of the straits, the Moroccan Sultan exercised no real control over the Rif's coast, one of the poorest areas of the Mediterranean; in 1912, the treaty of Fez made the Rif a Spanish protectorate.

At the other end of the Mediterranean, the so-called Turkish Straits, consisting of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, were a "pivotal spot of European diplomacy and warfare." Istanbul / Constantinople comprised a conglomerate of religious, ethnic, and national groups speaking a wide variety of languages. Although the Russian Navy desired ice-free access to the world's seas, the Conventions of London (1840/41) guaranteed that the Turkish Straits remained closed to all except Ottoman warships throughout the nineteenth century, another example of the partial internationalization of important European waterways.

The construction of the Suez Canal between 1859 in 1869 was initiated by French diplomats and engineers and financed largely with French capital. Although the British had initially been suspicious of plans for the canal, they proved to be the canal's greatest beneficiary. For the financial costs of the canal's construction led to the bankruptcy of the Egypt and thus paved the way for the establishment of the British protectorate over Egypt in 1882. The canal's shortening of the sea routes to East Africa and Asia together with the increased production of steamships greatly benefited British financial interests.

In conclusion, Paulmann argued that an examination of Europe's straits performed the important function of decentering European history, demonstrating that essential spaces of European history were in fact located at the Europe's geographic periphery. Furthermore, this examination revealed to the transnational and relational character of nineteenth and early twentieth-century European history. Finally, a study of the straits revealed the importance of "translocality" in modern European history.

In his comment, Helmut Walser Smith noted that Paulmann's lecture elucidated the historical moment at which human capabilities to reconstruct the environment were at their apex. It was the fall of Constantinople in 1453 that provoked the first use of the notion of "Europe" and the "European." He raised four major questions related to the enterprise of writing Europe's history from the outside in: How does one include Germany's largely sedentary, rural population in a narrative about the geographical margins of Europe? Second, how does one include transatlantic relations, the circulation of people in labor between Europe and America, in modern European history? Third, how does one integrate race into such a narrative? Finally, when and how did contemporaries know that they had entered "Europe"?

Lecture and comment will be published in the Spring 2013 issue of the GHI Bulletin.