Empire and Catastrophe


Empire and Catastrophe

Decolonization and Environmental Disaster in North Africa and Mediterranean France since 1954

Spencer D. Segalla

France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series

306 pages
3 maps, index


May 2021


$65.00 Add to Cart

May 2023


$30.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

Empire and Catastrophe examines natural and anthropogenic disasters during the years of decolonization in Algeria, Morocco, and France and explores how environmental catastrophes both shaped and were shaped by struggles over the dissolution of France’s empire in North Africa. Four disasters make up the core of the book: the 1954 earthquake in Algeria’s Chélif Valley, just weeks before the onset of the Algerian Revolution; a mass poisoning in Morocco in 1959 caused by toxic substances from an American military base; the 1959 Malpasset Dam collapse in Fréjus, France, which devastated the town’s Algerian immigrant community but which was blamed on Algerian sabotage; and the 1960 earthquake in Agadir, Morocco, which set off a public relations war between the United States, France, and the Soviet Union and which ignited a Moroccan national debate over modernity, identity, architecture, and urban planning.

Interrogating distinctions between agent and environment and between political and environmental violence through the lenses of state archives and through the remembered experiences and literary representations of disaster survivors, Spencer D. Segalla argues for the integration of environmental events into narratives of political and cultural decolonization.


Author Bio

Spencer D. Segalla is a professor of history at the University of Tampa. He is the author of The Moroccan Soul: French Education, Colonial Ethnology, and Muslim Resistance, 1912–1956 (Nebraska, 2009).


"With a detailed view of debates about reconstruction, architecture, and urban planning, Segalla discusses the continuing effects of colonialism and decolonization on contemporary patterns of environmental modification and utilization and examines the role of disasters in enhancing the centralized power and hegemonic objectives of authoritarian states. His outstanding research is also noteworthy for its illuminating use of literary materials and memoirs in the reconstruction of lived experiences."—B. Tavakolian, Choice

"This work is a unique take on the major events of revolution and the creation of the post‐colonial world in North Africa. While grounded in archival work, it takes flight in the literary analysis of contemporary sources that touch on the events. As such it is a fascinating read."—Gregory H. Maddox, H-Africa

“Richly sourced and persuasively argued, Empire and Catastrophe weaves together metropolitan and imperial narratives. . . . The book’s intellectual rigor is matched only by the clarity of its prose.”—Christopher M. Church, author of Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

“Similar to Edward Simpson’s Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India, Spencer Segalla’s brilliant book offers an innovative fusion of political, cultural, and environmental history to examine decolonization and the creation of postcolonial Algeria, Morocco, and France.”—Michael G. Vann, author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam

“Engagingly written and richly sourced, Empire and Catastrophe is an important contribution to our understanding of the broader ecosystem of empire. Looking at a series of local disasters across the space of French imperialism, Segalla evokes the ways catastrophe and decolonization shaped, and continue to shape, each other.”—Brock Cutler, author of Ecologies of Imperialism in Algeria 

Table of Contents

List of Maps
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Algeria, 1954
Chapter 3. Fréjus 1959, under Water and at War
Chapter 4. Poison, Paralysis, and the United States in Morocco, 1959
Chapter 5. Death, Diplomacy, and Reconstruction in Agadir, 1960
Chapter 6. The Soul of a City
Chapter 7. Rupture, Nostalgia, and Representation
Chapter 8. Conclusion: Humanity and Environment

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