SNF Ambizione

The SNSF Ambizione project was successfully launched in February 2021. Due to the profound disruptions of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the great uncertainty about the potential long-term closure of the archives needed to carry out several of the original project goals, the focus of the research projects changed according to the available primary sources needed to write book-length studies.

Moritz von Brescius (Principal Investigator) is currently completing a groundbreaking Habilitation thesis that provides a new understanding and geography of the nineteenth-century rubber plantation revolution, written from the margins of empire in northeast India. Here, in Assam, colonial officials and scientific foresters established the world’s first large-scale, scientifically managed rubber plantations as an act of imperial preemption at a time of fears of future rubber shortages. The work traces the boom and bust of Assam’s rubber frontier across multiple global conjunctures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the first extractive operations by Indian capitalists, indigenous collectors and European agency houses in the 1820s to the emergency resource schemes pursued by the Allied powers during the two world wars. To this end, the work explores new historical materials in German, French, Dutch, Italian, English, Hindi and Assamese from over 30 archives on three continents.

David Rentsch (PhD student) has developed an ambitious project on rubber cultivation and extraction in the Belgian Congo after 1908, in the wake of the red rubber scandal of King Leopold’s brutal regime. It is provisionally entitled: Yangambi and the Global Rubber Frontier: Cash-Crops, Science and Social Change in the Belgian Congo, 1908–Present. Based on extensive archival research in Europe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as oral history interviews conducted in the DRC, the work provides a new understanding of cash crop production, social change and developmental colonialism from 1908 to 1960, with an eye to the echoes of commodity colonialism in contemporary Africa.


As part of the Ambizione project, the PI has organized a series of groundbreaking international conferences in Bern and Harvard (as John F. Kennedy Memorial Fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard and Fellow at the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Global Transformation). These conferences included a reflection on the importance of material substitution in modern industrial economies: “Resources and their substitutes: natural surrogates and synthetic competitors in world history” (Harvard, June 2022).

Another conference (in Switzerland in late June 2022, co-organized with Christof Dejung) addressed the theme “The Temporalities of Capitalism: Time, Timing and the Formation of the World Economy”. It explored the significance of temporal regimes for the breakthrough of capitalism globally. By linking the history of temporality, which has become a vibrant research field in the last few years, to the history of capitalism, this international event analyzed how economic history in general, and the history of capitalism in particular, cannot be understood without investigating the cultural processes that accompanied, and often made possible, the implementation of specific economic structures.

A further international event, organized in June 2023, discussed issues of resource extraction and competing claims to sovereignty: “Natural Resources, Sovereignty and Markets: Revisiting Socio-Economic Histories of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”.

The last conference in the series explored the history of exploding human consumption of natural resources and the origins of the Great Acceleration: “Extraction, Sovereignty and Resources in the Long Great Acceleration: Writing Global Economic and Environmental Histories, 1800-2000” (Bern, August 2023).

An upcoming conference will explore the ambivalent global histories of resource, political and geographical frontiers: “Frontiers in Global History: Connections and Disconnections” (Bern, November 2023).

In addition, findings from the various research projects have been presented at numerous international events, often by invitation. These included presentations in Bern, Berlin, Paris, Geneva and Harvard, as well as several online events.  


Moritz von Brescius, “Ficus Elastica: The Global Pathways of a Failed Plantation Crop”, Panel: “Economy”, Geneva Conference: “Modern Transimperial and Interimperial Histories: Forms, Questions, Prospects”, 13.05.2022

Moritz von Brescius, “Expeditionary science, the spectre of scarcity, and rubber’s plantation revolution revisited”, Paris Conference “Voyages savants: Documenter le monde et produire des savoirs depuis l’Europe”, 20.10.2022


Moritz von Brescius, ‘The Plantation Gaze: Imperial Careering and Agronomic Knowledge between Europe and the Tropics’, with Christof Dejung, Special Issue of Comparativ: Journal of Global History and Comparative Social Research on ‘Transimperial Histories of Knowledge: Networks of Exchange and Collaboration’, 31:6 (2021), pp. 572–590.

Moritz von Brescius, ‘The “Mobile Plantation” of Charduar: Local Connections, Imperial Portfolios, and the Global Pathways of Assam Rubber’, in Ulrike Lindner and Nicholas Miller (eds), Plantation Knowledge (Cornell University Press, forthcoming).

Moritz von Brescius, Empire of Scarcity: A Global History of Assam Rubber (Habilitation thesis, manuscript length: 84.000 words).

David Rentsch, ‘Kongogräuel, Komplizenschaft und koloniale Unschuld. Schweizer Kolonialbeamte in der Debatte um Gewalt und Ausbeutung im État indépendant du Congo, um 1902–1908’, Traverse, 2023/1, pp. 106–118.

David Rentsch, Yangambi and the Global Rubber Frontier: Cash-crops, Science and Social Change in the Belgian Congo, 1908–present (Doctoral thesis, manuscript length: 41.000 words).