Engineering the Nile: Irrigation and the British Empire in Egypt, 1882-1914

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Cookson-Hills, Claire
Egypt , Irrigation
This thesis examines technological and social mechanisms of British imperial water control as created and managed by British irrigation engineers in Egypt between 1882 and 1914. In the aftermath of the British military conquest of the Ottoman colony, irrigation engineering was lauded as a way to make Egypt prosperous and financially solvent through the growth and sale of cash-crop cotton on the global market. The irrigation engineers who transferred into Egypt in the wake of the British occupation to enact this revivification of irrigation were Indian-experienced military engineers; these Royal Engineers officers and their British superiors in Egypt and the Foreign Office enacted the principles of late nineteenth century liberal economy, including the construction of large-scale public works. The British engineers imported their Indian experiences when they transferred to the Egyptian Irrigation Department. Their engineering epistemologies included economic frugality, an emphasis and reliance on hydraulic science, and skepticism of the viability of local irrigation practices. Permanent dams were built or reconstructed across the Nile at Cairo (Delta Barrage, 1887-1890) and at Aswan (Aswan Dam, 1898-1902). With these structures, among other major projects, the engineers created a system of water control that extended their abilities to manage the Nile and local irrigation practices. Always chaotic, contingent, and geographically and temporally specific, the engineers forced Egyptian peasants, cash crop cotton, and the Nile into the interconnected web of politics, economics, and science that was transnational British imperialism.
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