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Swedish chromium colonialism in Turkey

May 30, 2015

I’m afraid I’ve neglected this website during spring, but here’s an update on what has been my favorite reserach topic for the past couple of months: Swedish resource colonialism in Turkey. It all started some time ago when my PhD student Hanna Vikström brought to my attention the intriguing question of how the Swedish steel industry has historically gone about securing access to critical alloying metals. Swedish steel has long been the subject of national pride, but the focus in terms of the material basis for this industry has, in the existing literature, almost always been on domestically abundant iron ore, charcoal, and waterpower. But what about a critical input such as chromium, which in the 1920s started to used in the production of stainless steel? Chromium ore was not available domestically.

To answer this question Hanna and I together with my colleague Dag Avango took the train to Sandviken, home to the famous steel company with the same name. Helped by the municipality’s excellent archivarian we started to track down one of the craziest chapters in Sweden’s natural resource history. The short version reads something like this: In 1928 the head of the Swedish legation in Istanbul, Gustaf Wallenberg, contacted Sandviken and other Swedish steel companies pointing to the excellent opportunities regarding investments in chromium ore mining in Anatolia. A year later a consortium of steel companies joined forces with a Swedish citizen of Turkish origin, Orhan Brandt, in forming a mining company that quickly seized control over a vast number of chromium ore deposits. Local farmers and their ox carts were hired to bring thousands of tons of chromium ore to the railway and thence to the port of Derince for further shipment to Sweden. The venture seemed on its way to become the world’s largest chromium ore exporter, supplying not only the Swedish steel industry but much of the world market as well. But then the steel companies, realizing that they were about the were about to assume leadership in a segment of global resource colonialism, stepped back. Or would they have acted differently if chromium ore prices had not dropped by 40% in conneciton with the Great Depression?

In any case the whole thing ended in disaster: Brandt and a number of other people involved in the project ended up in court and some were jailed. “Thanks God that I have no responsibility in this,” exclaimed Wallenberg’s successor Boheman in 1935. But during the time the dream lasted, the chromium affair actually contributed in a highly significant way to strengthening Swedish-Turkish political relations and to opening up Turkey as an export market for Swedish goods – including our excellent stainless steel.

Hanna is now taking the lead in writing up this story, which she intends to present at the upcoming Tensions of Europe conference in Stockholm, to be held in September.

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