Hydrology and Empire: The Nile, Water Imperialism and the Partition of Africa

Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Volume 39, Number 2, June 2011 , pp. 173-194(22)


Why did the British march up the Nile in the 1890s? The answers to this crucial question of imperial historiography have direct relevance for narratives and theories about imperialism, in general, and the partition of Africa in the nineteenth century, in particular. They will also influence our understanding of some of the main issues in the modern history of the whole region, including state developments and resource utilisation. This article presents an alternative to dominant interpretations of the partition of Africa and the role of British Nile policies in this context. It differs from mainstream diplomatic history, which dominates this research field, in its emphasis on how geographical factors and the hydrological characteristics of the Nile influenced and framed British thinking and actions in the region. Realising the importance of such factors and the specific character of the regional water system does not imply less attention to traditional diplomatic correspondence or to the role of individual imperial entrepreneurs. The strength of this analytical approach theoretically is that it makes it possible to locate the intentions and acts of historical subjects within specific geographical contexts. Empirically, it opens up a whole new set of source material, embedding the reconstruction of the British Nile discourse in a world of Nile plans, water works and hydrological discourses.