Middle East Studies

Rebecca Gruskin

Ph.D. candidate in History, Stanford University

Nationalization beyond the National Scale: Phosphates, Independence, and Economic Sovereignty in Tunisia (1940s-1960s)

Tunisia’s Gafsa phosphate mines nourished Europe’s ravenous appetite for agricultural fertilizers throughout the colonial period. Profits flowed to the Gafsa Phosphate and Railway Company’s French owners and shareholders, until the Tunisian government nationalized the phosphate industry in the 1960s. The phosphate industry’s nationalization built on French-inherited structures of control, but these structures did not develop cohesively, nor can the history of nationalization be understood purely within a national frame. Instead, I show how the nationalization of Tunisia’s largest phosphate company was shaped by anti-colonial resistance in the Gafsa mines and by industry stakeholders’ engagement with other mining sites across North Africa. Drawing on mining company documents, diplomatic correspondence, oral histories conducted in Gafsa, and archived records at France’s Ministry of the Economy and Finance, I trace the interconnected histories of Tunisian trade unionists, government officials, French technical experts, and capitalists as they contested the meaning of decolonization and economic sovereignty, both before and after Tunisia’s independence in 1956. These contestations shed new light on the linked trajectories of post-independence states across the Maghrib.

Rebecca Gruskin is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at Stanford University. Her research focuses on social history, environmental history, political economy, and extractive industries in France’s North African colonies. Her current project, “Phosphates: Local Resistance, Global Agriculture, and Environment in Gafsa, Tunisia, 1890s-1960s,” reconsiders Tunisia’s colonial history from a perspective that centers Gafsa's subaltern residents, offers a new approach to global commodity histories, writes Tunisia into the world history of capitalism and modern heavy-input agriculture, and proposes new ways of considering the relationship between capitalism and nature.