Colonialism in Palestine: science, religion and the western appropriation of the Dead Sea in the long 19th century

Norris, Jacob (2014) Colonialism in Palestine: science, religion and the western appropriation of the Dead Sea in the long 19th century. In: Aldrich, Robert and McKenzie, Kirsten (eds.) The Routledge History of Western Empires. Routledge, London, pp. 165-178. ISBN 9780415639873

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In 1930, the British Colonial Office signed a formal agreement with Moshe Novomeysky, a Russian-Jewish mining engineer from Siberia, creating a British-Zionist company, Palestine Potash Ltd (PPL). This company was given exclusive rights over the extraction of mineral salts from the Dead Sea for a period of 50 years and was the predecessor to the massive industries found today on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the lake. From a British perspective, the Dead Sea industry proved to be one of the few success stories of the Palestine Mandate, although it remains virtually unexamined by historians. The project embodied much of the interwar emphasis on colonial development – construed at that time as the more intensive exploitation of natural resources found in imperial domains. The barren and seemingly lifeless quality of the landscape around the Dead Sea provided an irresistible piece of symbolism for those extolling the transformative capacity of Britain’s colonial presence in Palestine. The lake’s status in religious scripture as a sinful wilderness rendered this symbolism all the more powerful. To turn this hostile and cursed body of water into a thriving site of industrial modernity was to demonstrate everything that European colonial development was capable of in the new ‘Middle East’.

At the same time, however, the Dead Sea development was built upon much older foundations laid during Europe’s period of ‘rediscovery’ of the Holy Land during the long nineteenth century. This chapter will therefore examine the creation of the Dead Sea industry as a product of a gradually encroaching western colonialism in Palestine that far predated the assumption of formal British rule in 1917. Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a kind of canon of expertise on the Dead Sea was compiled by western scientists and explorers, establishing the lake as a site of potential improvement and economic exploitation. In this body of work, only westerners were held capable of such a transformation as they were considered the only people able to view the natural environment from a detached, empirical perspective. The chapter will assess these claims in a critical light, demonstrating the extent to which sentimental attachment to the lake continually blurred the boundaries between science and religion, objectivity and subjectivity. So often in histories that examine the western ‘rediscovery’ of Palestine in the nineteenth century, the consequences for the period of direct British rule in the twentieth century are left untouched. This chapter bridges these two historiographical domains, showing that the Dead Sea’s status in the interwar years as one of Britain’s largest ‘undeveloped estates’ was heavily dependent on the years of exploration and discovery in the nineteenth century.

Item Type: Book Section
Keywords: colonialism, Palestine, history of science
Schools and Departments: School of History, Art History and Philosophy > History
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA History of Great Britain > DA010.5 British Empire. Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth
D History General and Old World > DS History of Asia > DS101 Israel (Palestine). The Jews
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Depositing User: Jacob Norris
Date Deposited: 19 Oct 2015 14:38
Last Modified: 19 Oct 2015 14:38
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