Steven Serels

Steven Serels holds a joint appointment as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a Research Officer at the the Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Regionalstudien at Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg. He is an economic and environmental historian whose research focuses on the causes and consequences of structural poverty in the Southern Red Sea Region (SRSR). This volatile region is comprised of modern day Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. With the sole exception of oil-rich Saudi Arabia, the United Nations considers these countries as having a ‘low’ level of Human Development. Despite current conditions, this region has not always been poor. Through the eighteenth century, communities in the SRSR were relatively rich because they played key roles in the robust trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean basins. Now many in this region are unable to lawfully secure for themselves the necessities of life.

Dr. Serels’s current project examines the negative consequences of the regional adoption of modern currencies, i.e. government issued fiat currencies whose value is determined by international currency exchange markets and whose circulation is supported by central banks with sweeping powers. Development theory often posits that the development of a modern currency system is the first necessary step towards meaningful market-based poverty alleviation. However, Dr. Serels’s research demonstrates that the dismantling of the traditional regional currency system and the integration of the SRSR into the modern international monetary system increased economic instability and decreased the ability of local communities to cope with economic downturns. This project is currently supported by a Postdoctoral Researchers International Mobility Experience (PRIME) grant from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD). It builds off of Dr. Serels’s previous scholarship on the regional history of famine, slavery, trade, land use and ownership, pastoralism, textile manufacture, and environmental disasters.

Dr. Serels received his PhD and MA in history from McGill University and his BFA in studio art from the Cooper Union. From September 2014 to August 2017, he was an Associate Research Fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. Before that he held postdoctoral positions at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (2012-14) and the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History (2013-14), both at Harvard University. Dr. Serels has received numerous fellowships, awards and scholarships, including ones from the DAAD (2018-19), the Gerta Henkel Foundation (2016-18), the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (2015-16), the Volkswagen Stiftung (2014-15), the Social Studies and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2010-11 and 2012-14) and the Indian Ocean World Center (2007-10).


The Impoverishment of the African Red Sea Littoral, 1640-1945. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Edited Collections and Special Issues

Editor. Special Issue: Red Sea Connectivities, Northeast African Studies 17, No.1 (Spring 2017, forthcoming).

Articles and Chapters

‘Food Insecurity and Political Instability in the Southern Red Sea Region during the ‘Little Ice Age,’ 1650-1840’ Famines during the ‘Little Ice Age’ (1300-1800). Dominik Collet and Maximilian Schuh, eds. New York: Springer Science, 2018. 115-129.

‘Starving for Someone Else’s Fight: The First World War and Food Insecurity in the African Red Sea Region.’ Environmental Histories of the First World War. R. Tucker, T. Keller, J. McNeill, & M. Schmid, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 208-230.

‘Famine and Slavery in the Southern Red Sea Region, 1887-1914.’ Bondage and the Environment in the Indian Ocean World. Gwyn Campbell, ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 227-244.

‘A Worn Insecurity: Textiles, Industrialization and Colonial Rule in Eritrea during the Long Twentieth Century.’ Textile Trades, Consumer Cultures, and the Material Worlds of the Indian Ocean. Pedro Machado, Sarah Fee and Gwyn Campbell, eds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 133-156.

‘Early European Colonial Rule on the African Red Sea Littoral.’ Special Issue: Red Sea Connectivities, Northeast African Studies 17, No.1 (Spring 2017) 1-23.

‘Spinners, Weavers, Merchants and Wearers: The Twentieth Century Decline of the Sudanese Textile Industry.’ The Road to Two Sudans. Saud T. Ali, Stephanie Beswick, Richard Lobban and Jay Spaulding, eds. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2014. 160-176.

‘Indigenous Debt and the Spirit of Colonial Capitalism: Debt, Taxes and the Cash-Crop Economy in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1956.’ Debt and Slavery in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds. G. Campbell and A. Stanziani, eds. London: Pickering and Chatto Publishers, 2013. 133-141.

‘Famines of War: The Red Sea Grain Market and Famine in Eastern Sudan, 1889-1891.’ Space Mobility and Translocal Connections across the Red Sea Area. Special Issue of Northeast African Studies. 12:1 (2012) 73-94.

‘Political Landscaping: Land Registration, the Definition of Land Ownership and the Evolution of Colonial Objectives in the Sudan, 1899-1924.’ African Economic History. 35 (2007) 59-67.