The Postcolonial Seas Research Seminar series by The Centre for Postcolonial Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London

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Silent Sentinels in Seas of Sand: French Fortresses in the Sahara, 1850s to the present day. Dr Berny Sèbe (University of Birmingham)

How can empires expand into seas of sand, which by definition pose significant logistical challenges to any intruding force? How can technology compensate for the relative weakness induced by the conquerors’ limited knowledge of the human and physical geography of openly hostile spaces? From the Romans to the British, these two questions have remained pertinent.

The use of fortresses in desert environments, as late modern empires started to come into contact with sparsely populated and arid areas, reflected clearly a strategy of symbolic assertion of sovereignty towards predominantly nomadic populations. At the same time, the practical benefits bestowed by secure strongholds able to shelter troops and supplies from potentially hostile forces were also significant, since they provided invading armies with useful intelligence-gathering bases, from where policing operations could be launched.

Looking at the role of fortresses and fortified outposts in the French expansion in North Africa, this talk explores the pivotal role played – in reality or in the public imagination- by military buildings erected in the vast expanses of the Sahara, from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Dr Berny Sèbe (D. Phil Oxon, FRGS, FRHS, FHEA) is a Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes (1870-1939)(Manchester University Press, 2013 and 2015)and the co-editor of Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and Colonial Legacies (IB Tauris, 2015). He is the principal investigator of the ‘Outposts of Conquest’ research project (www.birmingham.acuk/empires) , which has given rise to the Empires of Emptiness circulating exhibition (

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