Association pour l’anthropologie du changement social et du développement
Association for the anthropology of social change and development

“Frontierization”: fixity and migrations (Syria and Zimbabwe in the 19th century)

Auteur(s) : Rey Matthieu ;

This research explores the relationship between the creation of imperial borders in Africa and the Middle East, the intense migrations of the period, and the destruction of old pattern of organization. During the first half of the 19th century (1800-1860s), both Southern Africa and the Middle East were characterized by intense movements of people. This work focuses on two regions — of southern Zimbabwe/ Northern South Africa and the Euphrates rivers — compares how demographic realities radically changed. This occurred through the intrusion of nomadic groups who settled and reorganized the areas through new political economies and practices of land management based on a loose but real territorial control.

This massive disruption in the political landscape resulted from several factors, including environmental change and conflicts. Over the course of just a few years, new groups migrated, took root, and destroyed or completed the process of destroying prior order. At the same time, another dynamic, mostly from exogenous actors, affected the relations between authority and space.  In the region of the Euphrates River the Ottoman Empire sought to establish new fixed points of control and spatial delimitation; in Southern Africa several actors from both the mercantile and political spheres set similar events in motion. These twin processes underline a global phenomenon, frontierization, from which modern borders emerged and which deeply affected the borderlands.

A comparative approach, as Marc Bloch delineated, allows us to highlight this encounter between spatial regimes, analyzing it not as a South African dynamic with local specificities (the advent of the Boer Republic, beginning of colonial British order) nor an Ottoman process (recapturing provinces by the center) but a world dynamic in power relations. Such a comparative approach, informed by oral histories collected in both areas, traveller diaries, Ottomans records, and Zimbabwean archives, helps to clarify how nomads and sedentary powers evolved in this crucial period. The concept of frontierization refers, therefore, to the control imposed on the newcomers who had already changed the demographic, social, and economic situations. In a sense, frontierization is the direct product of a crisis as the notion underscores both destruction and advent of a new reality.

Mot-clé : borders, empire, migrations, and nomads

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