Oil Frontiers in the British and Dutch Empires: Land, Labour and Environment in the Making of an Imperial Oil Regime, 1890-1940

Oil has shaped our world profoundly. It has created wealth and mobility, but also socio-ecological degradation and colonial inequalities. Jafari’s project shows how both trends occurred simultaneously due to the ways oil companies and imperial states transformed land ownership, labour relations and the natural environment in oil producing regions. To overcome the obstacles and resistance that they faced in that process, oil corporations introduced legal, managerial and technological solutions that connected the oil producing regions with the rest of the world. The problems of socio-ecological degradation and colonialism were institutionalized through the unequal interaction between empires, oil corporations and local communities involved in oil production. This global history project compares and connects two case studies, southern Iran while under the influence of the British Empire and the Dutch East Indies. It offers a bottom-up perspective on how oil frontiers transformed the countryside in these regions and integrated them into a global system through the movement of people, ideas and technologies.

“Oil corporations such as the forerunners of British Petroleum and the Royal Dutch/Shell, assisted by empires, opened up new oil frontiers through land dispossession that drove migration, introduced indentured and wage labour along racial hierarchies, and changed local ecologies,” explains Jafari.

This project is hosted at the International Institute of Social History as part of the Commodity Frontiers research group. See also: https://commodityfrontiers.com/