Marshall Watson (Yale), “Sailing to the Mountains of the Moon: An Ottoman Expedition on the White Nile”

Wednesday, April 3, 2019
4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
McClellan Hall, Room 101
From the earliest days of Nile civilization, repeated attempts to discover that river’s source were undertaken. Owing to navigational difficulties, however, down-river civilizations possessed only a tenuous grasp of what lie beyond the hazardous cataracts of Nubia and the expansive marshes of southern Sudan. Yet, during the rule of Mehmed Ali Pasha, multiple expeditions journeyed in search of the White Nile’s headwaters, sailing further than any previously recorded attempt. Though unsuccessful in the search for Nile origins, the Ottoman Egyptian fleet returned with extensive details of the southern Sudan’s geography, people, and flora and fauna.
I intend for this paper to reintroduce the Ottoman role in opening up southern Bilad as-Sudan to mélange of intrusive and transformative forces. First, I ask what motivated Mehmed Ali to send an expedition deep into the unknown south long before European men clamored to reach Africa’s Nilotic interior. I then examine the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet’s attempt to negotiate an unfamiliar and inhospitable territory. Lastly, by narrowing in on the Sudd marshes, I also discuss the details and repercussions of an imperial-indigenous encounter in a tropical African marshland. 
Marshall Watson is a doctoral student in the Department of History at Yale University. His fields of study include the Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East, modern Africa, and global environmental history. Broadly construed, his research interests lie in environmental transformations of the Middle East and Northeast Africa during the long nineteenth century. In particular, his work investigates state interactions with untamed geographies and how such spaces are imagined or remade in service of legibility. By exploring the details of such state ventures, Marshall explicates the obscure histories and intellectual genealogies at play in the making and remaking of unproductive or dangerous geographies.

This event is part of the Yale Environmental History Spring 2019 Graduate Student Workshop Series.

To attend and request a copy of the pre-circulated chapter manuscript, please email