The Power of Ice: Norwegian Cold in 19th Century Colonial Algeria. Environmental Lunchtime Discussion

Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a modest but regular export of block ice from Norwegian lakes to Algeria. Why is it worth talking about a commodity that was rapidly melting away in the Mediterranean heat? In this Environmental Lunchtime Discussion, historian Solfrid Klakegg Surland will explain how studying the marketing and consumption of Nordic ice in a hot colonial market can teach us something about the relationship between humans and things.

Image may contain: Boat, Vehicle, Mast, Naval architecture, Watercraft.

Photo: Norwegian Maritime Museum, catalogue no. NSM.3000-033.

In the French colonial project in Algeria, Norwegian natural ice worked as an agent, exercising a power of its own that we may call “ice power”. As the colonisers increasingly domesticated ice by making it a normal household item, ice domesticated the colonisers back into dependency.
 
Ice helped the colonisers obtain a comfortable and reassuringly familiar life that was not too different from the life they knew from their homeland, in contrast to the unbearable heat and dust of the colony. 
 
At the same time, ice was playing a role as a cultural marker of Frenchness and modernity, highlighting the asymmetric binary of the “modern” French and the “backward” indigenous culture. This Orientalist perspective manifested itself in the social practices of French-style and Muslim cafés, where differences between colonisers and colonised were put into relief. In the French colonial narrative, Muslim cafés were characterized by idleness and standstill, contrasted by French cafés which showcased modernity and elegance. To the French, cafés were places where their perceived moral, estethical and intellectual superiority was evidenced. Ice creams and cold drinks at the café table told a subtle tale of modernity and superiority. 
 
Another way that Norwegian ice exercised its thing power, was in its ability to invoke dreams of a sublime Nordic land of crystal brilliance and freshness. Marketing Norwegian ice was to sell a southern idea of “Norwegianness”, a northern land of cool purity compressed into a block of ice.

About the presenter

Originally an engineer in the oil industry, Solfrid Klakegg Surland spent some years sailing while taking up writing on freelance basis. Her up until then slumbering interest in history woke up when she sailed with her family around Great Britain, reading the history of the Vikings, Scots, and English together with her young daughter. She completed her MA in history this spring, as part of Norwegian Maritime Museum’s research project The Last Ice Age, on Norway's export of natural ice in the 19th and early 20th century.

Currently, she is contributing to a book on emotional history edited by two historians at the University of Oslo. Also, she will be contributing to an anthology from The Last Ice Age research project, and is also working on articles for historical journals about the Norwegian-Algerian ice trade.

About the event series

The OSEH Environmental Lunchtime Discussion series consists of short, 15 minute presentations by invited guests, followed by a discussion. We invite speakers from a wide variety of fields, both academic and beyond. The presentations are accessible and are aimed at anyone with an interest in environmental issues. All are welcome.

Tags: OSEH, HF, Environmental Humanities
Published Sep. 7, 2021 5:44 PM - Last modified Nov. 11, 2021 7:24 PM