Introducing GHoC doctoral research student Itamar Toussia Cohen

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What is your academic background and how did this lead you to an interest in the global history of capitalism?

Before coming to Oxford, my academic interests followed a southbound trajectory, snaking down from Anatolia to Egypt, and from the Hijaz to Yemen, before finally reaching the shores of the Indian Ocean. The core of my research interests has since then been the interface between empire and non-Western actors across oceanic space. During my master’s degree, for example, I examined the effect of labour modalities on epistemologies of racial construction on the sugar plantations of 19th-century Mauritius. For several years now, the central focus of my work has been the southern Arabian port of Aden, a former British colony situated on the southern shores of present-day Republic of Yemen, with which I became closely familiarised while working as research assistant to Professor On Barak at Tel-Aviv University.

It was also through Professor Barak’s project that I became acquainted with Aden’s Parsi (Indian-Zoroastrian) community which, despite its miniscule size, dominated the port’s commercial landscape. In that sense, Aden served as a microcosm of the British Empire, as it was Parsi merchants who bankrolled and supplied the Canton opium trade which laid the foundations of the imperial economy in Asia. Pulling on these historical threads naturally led me to the effervescent and rapidly growing scholarship on Indian Ocean merchant networks;  it was there, in the vernacular commercial idioms of the Indian Ocean bazaar and their intellectual underpinnings that I had my first direct encounter with the global history of capitalism. I was gripped, but equally struck by the near complete absence from this scholarship of Aden and its Parsi community.

With this lacuna in mind, I applied for the DPhil program at Oxford, but it wasn’t however until I met with Professor Faisal Devji, who suggested exploring Aden as a precursor to present-day Dubai, that my doctoral project started to take shape. The legal and material histories of the Free Trade Zones and maritime infrastructure of the modern offshore economy in places like Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong provided context for thinking about first-wave globalisation, enclavic free ports like Aden, and the global history of capitalism. As my own research agenda became clear, I started convening in 2022 a fortnightly online seminar supported by the Global History of Capitalism Project and the Oxford Centre for Global History entitled “Indian Ocean at the Age of Empire,” hosting both early-career and establish scholars working at the nexus of Indian Ocean World studies, Global History, and New History of Capitalism.


Tell us a bit more about your current research and what aspect of this you would like to develop into a GHoC case study?

Unlike ports such as Calcutta, Mombasa, or Singapore, the port of Aden did not represent an outlet for the export of raw commodities from a productive hinterland, nor to any substantial degree an inlet for the import of industrial manufactures. Taking as an analytical unit a non- productive, medial site like Aden—where ships stopped to replenish their fuel supplies while shorefront godowns and telegraph stations gathered commodities and information to be received, processed, and relayed—one of the core research questions of my dissertation asks: what does a history of capitalism look like from the interstice of empire?

The relaying of goods and information was Aden’s raison d’etre. Observing the port across the 19th and 20th centuries, one can glean the full breadth of carbon-fuelled shipping’s history, from the first P&O steamers which connected India to Egypt, stopping to bunker coal in Aden before proceeding up the Red Sea, to modern container shipping first adopted in response to the five-year closure of the Suez Canal starting in 1967, the year of the British withdrawal from Aden. International shipping companies like the P&O have been the subject of excellent business histories: we know for example plenty about its finances, corporate rivalries, and the global strategies which underpinned these companies’ success. But a history-of-capitalism perspective would ask different questions. I would love to develop as a case study a history of the first decades of the P&O’s presence in Aden, looking into the processes by which the firm struck roots in a far-flung, desolate outpost like Aden, with minimal European presence, no logistics infrastructure, and only the most rudimentary of provisions.

As my dissertation project demonstrates, the answer in part to these questions would be Parsi dubash firms to which much of the company’s affairs in Aden would have been outsourced. Reinscribing non-European capitalists into a business history anchored in the personal politics of the small, dishevelled, and highly isolated administrative apparatus of Aden in its first decades will allow us, I believe, to gain a significantly different idea of what in fact went into solidifying the transregional transportation networks which facilitated modern global connectivity.

What have been your biggest influences in relation to your research?  Do you have any recommendations for books, articles, media related to this area?

As a self-identifying Aden nerd, I can’t begin with any recommendation other than R.J. Gavin’s commanding Aden Under British Rule 1839-1967 (C. Hurst & Co., 1975). It stands alone as the unrivalled canonical history of the port. The wide scope of historical contexts in which Gavin grounds his research, from metropolitan imperial discourse in London and Calcutta to Hadhrami Muslim reformers in the East Indies, together with his masterful, elegant prose, makes this a must-read for anyone who is interested in the history of southern Arabia, empire, and the Indian Ocean more broadly.

In terms of vernacular capitalism in the Indian Ocean, I found the works of Fahad Bishara, Hollian Wint, Johan Mathew, and Michael O’Sullivan particularly inspiring, although the list can easily go on. To someone making their first foray into the field, I would suggest starting with Fahad Bishara and Hollian Wint’s article in Journal of Global History, “Into the Bazaar: Indian Ocean Vernaculars in the Age of Global Capitalism.” The article provides a very useful vignette into the world of vernacular financial idioms and intricate commercial relations grounded in Islamic-Ibadi jurisprudence and Kachchhi legal conventions which governed trans-communal, trans-regional connections across the western Indian Ocean, which Bishara and Wint explore further in their individual scholarship.

Finally, to anyone who is interested in the more unsavoury yet foundational aspects of the modern-day, globalised economy, I would recommend Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft (Verso, 2014) and Ronen Palan’s The Offshore World (Cornell, 2003). Be warned, however, that the myth of the territorially bounded, nation-state economy as the organising principle of the world we live in will be difficult to sustain after reading these. A shorter foothold can be gained by reading Venessa Ogle’s masterful article in the American History Review “Archipelago Capitalism: Tax Havens, Offshore Money, and the State, 1950s-1970s.”

How has your life as a researcher changed over recent times?  Do you have any advice/tips for other research students?

Having started my DPhil in 2020, it would be hard to overlook the pandemic as the decisive factor influencing my life as a researcher. On the one hand, it made acclimatising to a new environment more difficult, but the range of possibilities opened in its wake have been transformational, namely the accelerated adoption of remote work, online research methods, and broader digital humanities tools and strategies. In terms of advice for other research students, I would offer the following tips: Embrace technology: being tech-savvy is a major bonus in today’s research landscape. Learn how to use digital tools for data collection, analysis, and collaboration effectively, and take advantage of the possibilities of speaking to people and presenting your work online. At the same time, be conscious that adaptability is key: be ready to adapt to changes in the research landscape, whether they are driven by technological advancements or by external factors like pandemics.

What do you like doing when you’re not buried in your research?!

The intellectual answer would be listening to podcasts on history and politics, while a more colloquial answer (and by no means less veracious) answer would be consuming football in every possible media—from watching live games, to listening to specialised podcasts, to arguing on social media. My weekends and holidays are dedicated to spending time with my wife and our lovely two kids.