Undergraduate Debunks Churchill
James Fargher ’13 awarded “nation’s top undergraduate prize in history” for exposing importance of long-forgotten Red Sea encampment.
Winston Churchill dismissed Britain’s 19th-century occupation of the Sudanese port Suakin as an unimportant distraction from other foreign engagements. But Drew University history major James Fargher ‘13 disagrees—and the strength of his argument is raising eyebrows among some of the world’s foremost historians. Included among them are the members of Phi Alpha Theta (PAT), the national history honor society, which recently awarded Fargher its prestigious Lynn W. Turner Prize for his thesis on the long-overlooked significance of Suakin.
“Nobody has written about this for more than a century,” says Fargher, who refutes Churchill’s theory in his award-winning paper.
He argues that Britain invested in colonizing the Red Sea port so it could be used as a strategic battleground to fight off French and Italian explorers with designs on controlling the Suez Canal. But, in doing so, the British inadvertently tipped off a period of European imperialism that swallowed up control of much of the African continent, he says.
“The canal was Britain’s lifeline to India—which offered advantages that they had a clear interest in protecting,” says Fargher. “Colonizing Suakin was intended to do nothing more than enable that protection. Unintentionally, it marked the beginning of one of history’s most intense periods of European power grabbing—which constitutes its vast historical importance.”
Fargher first became interested in Suakin when he picked up an old book at a giveaway hosted by the Drew Library. The book, “Desert Warfare,” recounted the British colonization of Suakin through a series of newspaper articles by Benett Burleigh, who went on his country’s 1883-84 expeditions to report on them for The Daily Telegraph.
“It looked like it hadn’t been opened in 100 years,” says Fargher of the leather-bound volume.
Jonathan Rose, Drew’s William R. Kenan Professor of History, served as a close faculty mentor to Fargher, helping him maximize his opportunities for research—which included a fully funded trip to the British National Archives in London, funded by Drew’s Leavell-Oberg Summer Fellowships in History. According to Rose, the high caliber of Fargher’s thesis makes it worthy of the PAT award, which he describes as the “nation’s top undergraduate prize in history.”
“If you read this thesis, you will have to remind yourself that it was written by an undergraduate—not a professor,” says Rose. “The papers [Fargher] writes always display a professorial mastery of the subject, and are impressively well-informed and sensitive to the nuances and complexities of history. This one is no different.”
Fargher attributes part of his success as an emerging scholar to Drew’s emphases on faculty mentorship and small class sizes, along with the school’s abundant and well-funded undergraduate research opportunities—which he acknowledges are uniquely available at smaller liberal arts colleges like Drew.
After graduation, he plans to attend graduate school in Europe, a place whose history is of great relevance today.
“We live in a world that’s built on the ruins of the European struggle for dominance,” he says. “The history of that continent is everywhere.”—Michael Bressman