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When writing political histories of the modern world, historians are increasingly turning to the concept of sovereignty to inject our writing with new creativity. On face value, sovereignty is a simple legal concept. But if we dig deeper, it becomes slippery. All sorts of people and institutions have made claims to sovereignty, with different justifications. They have claimed control over the same territory at the same time, or to some of the people and practices taking place there but not others. Throughout the modern period we have seen people move between sovereign states, exploiting the legal pluralities that exist in these in-between spaces or, finding themselves exploited. Moreover, with the growing international and global visions of the modern era, state sovereignty has been weakened or divided with the creation of supranational institutions like the League of Nations, UN, EU, and so on.

In this seminar, we will look at unusual claims to sovereignty in the 'Scramble for Africa'. We will think about how Europeans sought to take ownership of territory in Africa in the years leading up to the Berlin Conference, the power inequalities behind these contracts, and the lasting effects they had. From this focused discussion, we will then try to branch out and think about how historians might engage with claims to sovereignty in a range of other periods and places, and the importance of thinking about the relationship between sovereign states, globalisation, and supranational institutions today.

Core Reading:

  • J. Sheehan, 'The Problem of Sovereignty in European History', The American Historical Review 111(2006), 1-15
  • Steven Press, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe’s Scramble for Africa (Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 2017)

Seminar Questions:

  • What do we mean by sovereignty? Is it something we could write a history of?
  • Why are contracts such a useful source for Press? How does a focus on international law recast our understanding of the 'Scramble for Africa'?
  • Are there certain voices missing from this type of history? How might we rectify that?
  • What other periods, places and themes might we explore with the help of sovereign claim-making?

Further Readings:

On Sovereignty:

  • D. Grimm and B. Cooper, Sovereignty: The Origin and Future of a Political and Legal Concept (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015)
  • D. Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)
  • G. Feindt, B. Gißibl, and J. Paulmann, Kulturelle Souveränität. Politische Deutungs- und Handlungsmacht jenseits des Staates im 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprrecht, 2016)

Historians of Political Thought on Sovereignty:

  • H. Kalmo and Q. Skinner, Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present, and Future of a Contested Concept (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Legal Historians/Historians deploying Sovereignty in their Work:

(a) Sovereignty and Empire

  • A. Fitzmaurice, Sovereignty, Property and Empire, 1500-2000 (Cambridge: CUP, 2014)
  • (*) Lauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900 (Cambridge: CUP, 2009)
  • (*) Any other of Lauren Benton's books/articles.
  • Mary Dewhurst Lewis, Divided Rule: Sovereignty and Empire in French Tunisia, 1881-1938 (California: University of California Press, 2013)

(b) Informal Empires in other Sovereign States (eg the United States in Central America; Germany in Romania etc etc)

  • Deborah Cohen, ‘Love And Money In The Informal Empire: The British In Argentina, 1830–1930’ Past & Present (2019)
  • (*) David Hamlin, Germany's Empire in the East: Germans and Romania in an Era of Globalisation and Total War (Cambridge: CUP, 2017)
(c) Struggles for Sovereignty over Natural Resources
  • Steven Press, ‘Sovereignty and Diamonds in Southern Africa, 1908-1920’, Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law 28 (2018), 473-480.
  • Christopher Dietrich, Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonisation (Cambridge: CUP, 2017)
  • Katayoun Shafiee, ‘Technopolitics of a Concessionary Contract: How International Law was Transformed by its Encounter with Anglo-Iranian Oil’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 50 (2018), 627-648.

(d) Struggles to Control Money Crossing Sovereign Borders (Tax Havens and Overseas Property Investments)

  • Vanessa Olge, 'Archipelago Capitalism: Tax Havens, Offshore Money, and the State, 1950s-1970s,' American Historical Review 122 (2017): 1431-1458.

(e) Struggles to Control People Crossing Sovereign Borders and Holding People Beyond Borders

  • Sasha Pack, The Deepest Border: The Strait of Gibraltar and the Making of the Modern Hispano-African Borderland (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019)
  • Anything on 'Fortress Europe' in the library catalogue and the outsourcing of border control. See for example: 
  • Steven Press, 'Sovereignty at Guantánamo: New Evidence and a Comparative Historical Interpretation', The Journal of Modern History 85 (2013), 592-631
  • You can also look for other contentious historical borders and migration across them in the library catalogue

(f) Diplomats and Extraterritoriality

  • Nacy Shoemaker, ‘The Extraterritorial United States to 1860’, Diplomatic History 42(2018), 36-54
  • Ferry de Goey, Consuls and the Institutions of Global Capitalism, 1783-1914 (London: Routledge, 2014)

(g) Sovereignty and the Development of International Governance

  • Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: OUP, 2015)
  • Leonard V. Smith, Sovereignty at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (Oxford: OUP, 2018)

(h) The Formation of International Law

  • Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: CUP, 2005)
  • Kate Miles, The Origins of International Investment Law: Empire, Environment and the Safeguarding of Capital (Cambridge: CUP, 2013)
  • Anthea Roberts, Is International Law International? (Oxford: OUP, 2017)
(h) The Life and Death of Sovereign States (which can entail investigations into state-succession and the reallocation of state treaties, debts, archival holdings, and cultural property etc etc)
  • M. Shaw, International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). See 'state succession'

  • The breakup of Europe's land empires (Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Romanov, and Ottoman) after WWI provide interesting insights into state succession, as do studies of Germany after WWII, and studies of Central and Eastern European states after the collapse of the USSR.
  • Andrezej Jakubowski, State Succession in Cultural Property (Oxford: OUP, 2015)
Essay Questions
  • "Sovereignty is best understood as a set of claims." Discuss.
  • How does a study of sovereignty rather than states help us to recast the way we write political history?