Arthur Asseraf: The Circulating Ones
The Circulating Ones: News, Cables and Translators in the Electric Mediterranean, 1854-1908
My project examines changes in the circulation of news in the 19th century colonial Mediterranean. In particular, it looks at the relationship between flows of news and flows of people at a time when the two were undergoing rapid changes. The introduction of the electric telegraph combined with a hardening of racial boundaries under increasing European colonialism to create an environment where news was quite literally electric. By going underwater, engineers hoped to vanquish the distance of the sea and facilitate the colonial control of the Northern shore over the Southern one. The electric telegraph promised to separate the circulation of information from the circulation of men, allowing news for the first time to travel faster than ships. In Algeria, for instance, the telegraph reduced communication between Marseille and Algiers from 50 hours to 10 minutes. Yet in the process it only made relations between European settlers and Algerian Muslims more distant. Instead of vanquishing distance, it redistributed it.
European attempts to bypass the waters by wiring the seabed with cables led to unexpected new geographies. The news industry created by the cables generated its own demands for the migration of information specialists to edit newspapers, often in the service of French, British, Italian or Ottoman imperial interests. The cables were meant to embody a new, direct form of European control of the Mediterranean, but the new information order they created led a small group of men to move between the Levant and North Africa, bringing two Arabic-speaking regions of the Mediterranean shore in closer contact through the creation of a unified Arabic publishing industry.
Originally from Paris, Arthur Asseraf is an Examination Fellow in History at All Souls College, Oxford. A historian of France and North Africa, he has recently completed a thesis on the uses of foreign news in colonial Algeria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. More broadly, his research bears on the social and technological history of information circulation in the modern Mediterranean.