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This research paper looks at the environmental history of the empire by looking at histories of environmental change in the tropics by pioneering colonial scientists and by contemporary historians who are carving out the domain of colonial environmental history. The paper argues that the development of an environmental sensibility can be traced to the encounter of seventeenth and eighteenth century Western Europeans especially naturalists, medical officers and administrators with the startlingly unfamiliar environments of the tropics and with the damage done to these environments by them.
- Themes and Contexts in Colonial Environmental History
- Early Colonial Scientists, Environmentalism and Environmental History
- Colonial Environmental Ideas in the Twentieth Century
- Landscape Imagery and Colonial Environmental History
What is environmental history and why should we do it? Environmental History has been described variously as the interdisciplinary study of the relations of culture, technology and nature through time by historians such as Donald Worster and as the historically documented part of the story of the life and death, not of human individuals but of societies and species, in terms of their relationship with the world around them by Richard Grove and Mark Elvin. Clearly some environmental historians argue from a materialist/structuralist perspective while others argue from much more of a cultural perspective. There is some disagreement about whether the natural world constitutes any kind of order or pattern that we can know and, if it does, whether that order can be apprehended by means of science or not. There is also debate on what is natural and what is not, whether indigenous people managed the whole environment or only some part of it, how much was wilderness and how much was mythical. There are divergent opinions over the extent to which nature influences human affairs, some taking the position of limited environmental determinism, others insisting that culture determines all. Worster believes in straddling both worlds by asserting that the cultural history of nature is as significant as the ecological history of culture. In considering how the field has developed historians have given a prime role to the workings of nature independent of human actions while at the same time continuing to place more of an emphasis on human interactions with the rural and nonarable environment. As Caroline Ford had argued many of the recent studies in environmental history stress the blurred aspect of the nature–culture divide. This research paper attempts to explore the various themes within colonial environmental history by examining the work of some of its practitioners.
Themes and Contexts in Colonial Environmental History
Environmental history, then, seeks to address the lacunae of the absence of nature in the study of history by developing new perspectives on the historian’s enterprise. In histories of the empire, for example, this absence is particularly marked considering the fact, as Richard Grove argues, that the development of an environmental sensibility can be traced to the encounter of seventeenth and eighteenth century western Europeans, especially naturalists, medical officers and administrators with the startlingly unfamiliar environments of the tropics and with the damage done to these environments by them. Thus in Grove’s work this unnatural history of the empire has been revised and the growing domain of environmental history has taken root in studies of the empire. Both Grove and Worster argued strongly for the need to think globally about environmental history. Donald Worster notes that one needs ‘to take an all inclusive view to study the planet as a single integrated system that has been radically reorganized by a single, integrated economy, technology and culture . a point in history when people on every continent began to experience the same reality … and to satisfy their personal needs by drawing bon the most remote parts of the earth.’ He notes that it is not easy to put precise dates on that era, which is still incomplete, but we should acknowledge as foundational the discovery of the western hemisphere, the invention of new communication and transportation technologies, and the appearance of worldwide markets. At its core, global environmental history must deal with capitalism as the pioneering, and still the most important, architect of that new integrated world economy.
As a discipline, Environmental history seems to have originated in Europe and America in part as an offshoot of the postwar wave of environmentalism which first made itself felt in the 1960s in Europe and America. Rachel Carson’s The Sea around us (1952) and Silent Spring (1962) were a clarion call not just for new environmentalism but for environmental history. In 1967, there appeared another volume of quite extraordinary breadth and depth, Clarence Glacken’s, Traces on the Rhodian shore. This book really marks a transition between historical geography and environmental history, although in some respects it is a unique study in the history of environmental and cultural change. The 1970s saw the growing strength of environmental history in the US with publications of books by authors such as Roderick Nash, Alfred Crosby and Donald Worster. By the 1980s and 1990s other books followed notably by Richard Grove, Carolyn Merchant, William Cronon, Donald Hughes and John McNeill. Most of the reviews of environmental history argue that the discipline was most firmly rooted in the US and had only a limited following elsewhere including in Europe. However Grove’s pioneering work has attempted to shift the discussion away from the American debates seeking instead to uncover the historiography of environmental history which he believed developed in the colonial tropics in the context of the Dutch, French, and English maritime empires. I shall discuss in this research paper specifically about Worster’s and Grove’s studies, which are a useful background to world environmental history and self consciously have carved out the field of environmental history and global environmental history. As Worster has recently noted, ‘To think globally about environmental history means transcending national boundaries or local concerns that today bind all peoples and all ecosystems together and to understand how that happened and what the consequences have been.’
Worster’s early work Nature’s Economy traced the history of ecological ideas from Gilbert White, who wrote the Natural History of Selbourne in 1789 to Linnaeus whose essay ‘The Oeconomy of Nature’ in 1749 became the single most important summary of the world ecological point of view still in its infancy. Man and his ambitions in the natural economy are an integral part of the Linnaean model, and occupy a special place of dignity and honor.
All these treasures of nature, so artfully contrived, so wonderfully propagated, so providentially supported through her three kingdoms, seem intended by the creator for the sake of man. Everything may be made subservient to his use; if not immediately, yet mediately, not so to that of other animals. By the help of reason man tames the fiercest animals, pursues and catches the swiftest, nay he is able to reach even those, which lie hidden in the bottom of the sea.
Worster then moves on to look at Thoreau and Charles Darwin. For Darwin the discovery of the Galápagos Islands introduced a counternarrative to the Arcadian vision of Gilbert White and Thoreau. In the Argentine pampas, especially along the La Plata river, the arrival of a European population with its domestic stock had worked disaster on the aboriginal order of nature. ‘The countless herds of horses, cattle and sheep,’ not only have altered the whole aspect of the vegetation, but they have banished the guanaco, deer and ostrich,’ he wrote. Darwin had enough evidence to believe that the present order of animals was by no means the first to live on this land, and that death was as possible for a whole ecological system as it was for any of its members. Such a realizaion made its contribution to Darwin’s awareness of the potent forces arrayed against the living. Extinction and conflict were far from the qualities of Arcadia. Wherever he turned he saw the ‘universal signs of violence’ Among Darwin’s chief guides were Lyell’s Principles of Geology published 1830 and Alexander Von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of 1807, a pioneering work, one might argue, in ecological biology. This is all very informative and interesting. However what Worster fails to point out is that perhaps most important among the 16 major books which Darwin carried with him on the Beagle was that by Alexander Beatson, an Indian army engineer who published Tracts Relative to the Island of St Helena in 1816. This book included a listing by William Roxburgh of the endemic plants of St Helena Island and comments on their rates of extinction. This became vital in the construction of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
So too, Worster in attempting to examine the origins of ecology, looks exclusively at the Anglo-American world, neglecting the development of understandings about man and nature in the tropical world. To understand this we have to look at the work of Richard Grove in the 1980s and 1990s and to his pioneering work in locating the emergence of a unique environmental awareness, not in the metropolitan center but in the colonial periphery from a very early period. Much of this awareness was based on the development of climatic anxieties. Indeed world environmental history is today increasingly concerned with the historical impact of global climatic anomalies, a major theme in Grove’s work, which I now want to discuss.
In Green Imperialism, Grove argues that the emergence of a truly global environmental awareness was a very specific historical development. It depended on new empirical knowledge of the scale of the world and actual observations of human ability to change the natural environment on a global basis. Global environmental awareness was thus directly connected to a new capacity for people to travel large distances, transform the earth, and acquire knowledge about the environment. Two elements were necessary for this awareness to emerge: first, the institution of capital and shareholder-rich maritime trading companies backed by state legislation and assistance; and second, the settlement of previously uninhabited islands and continental peninsulas in the tropics and subtropics by colonial settlers and planters. The profit motives and mechanisms of these trading companies, especially of the East India Companies of Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and France, resulted in intensive cash-crop plantation activities on oceanic islands and the clearing of forests for agriculture, fuel wood and ship construction.
This process had already begun with Portuguese and Spanish settlement and plantation agriculture on the Azores, Canaries, and Madeira Islands during the fourteenth century, but the sheer scale of its impact was massively expanded as the European trading companies developed their routes to India, the East Indies, and the Caribbean. As early as the 1670s, the catastrophic consequences of their capital- and labor-intensive activities became clear as the early island colonies experienced drought due to the drying up of perennial streams, soil erosion, dust storms, and the disappearance of animal and plant species. These developments all made practical survival on oceanic islands difficult and encouraged wider questions about the sustainability of a confined settlement. Islands soon became symbolic of the explored world and encouraged ideas about limited resources and the need for conservation or sustainability. (The idea of regional environmental degradation or control was not new; indeed the word ‘conservancy’ was first adopted in Britain in the 14th century with relation to the control of whole river basins, such as that of the Thames river. Similarly, in the Venetian Republic, well-developed ideas existed about the control of deforestation in the hills in order to control erosion and silting downstream. These initiatives may have been early signs of responses by new, highly sophisticated maritime states to the first consequences of early merchant capitalism and trade that had a global reach. Indeed, even before the advent of large continental-based European empires in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, the scale of artificially caused environmental change was already being transformed as European maritime countries started to exploit new kinds of natural resources on a global scale. Sugar and other crops essential to the new urban markets of Europe were cultivated on small islands, especially in the West Indies, Indian Ocean, and East Indies. After about 1400, fisheries extended to an oceanic scale as seals and whales were hunted from pole to pole. See Grove, Green Imperialism, Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1800.)
The extension of what Immanuel Wallerstein has called the capitalist “world system” on a global scale between 1200 and 1788 had a critically important dimension in terms of resource exploitation. European merchants and companies found that they could exploit the trade goods, markets, and resources of almost every land, in what became an expanding commodity frontier, the “unending frontier” in the title of John Richards important recent book on the environmental history of the early modern world. However, capitalist accumulation and trade developed quite autonomously in South and East Asia, something Wallerstein was really unable to incorporate in his global theory. But in the centers of indigenous capital too, major transformations of the natural landscape took place. Some, like the deforestation of the Ganga basin, had already been long in progress, but they were quickly accelerated after 1400 as powerful mercantile empires developed. However, it was in the tropics that the destructive environmental impact of globalization made its most obvious impact to the observer. One of the first symptoms of the early phases of globalization was the marginalization, enslavement, and then extinction of small indigenous cultures, especially those of island peoples; the indigenes of the Canary Islands are a classic example. However, it was on uninhabited islands such as St. Helena and Mauritius that the full effects of highly capitalized plantations, forest clearance, and import of alien animals (especially pigs, goats, and rats) were first observed. The extinction of the dodo made a great impression on contemporary naturalists. The fact that oceanic islands were perceived as highly desirable ‘Edenic’ locations in long-running European cultural traditions served to emphasize the shock of their manifest and rapid degradation. Moreover, their degradation threatened their role as watering and supply stations for company ships. In these circumstances, the colonial governments of many small islands became environmentalist, if only to ensure their own survival and that of their agricultural settlers and slaves.
It is possible to argue that early environmental inquiry seems to have been driven by neo-Malthusian concerns about the possible demise of civilization as a result of the ‘limits to growth.’ A parallel concern is the discussion of the historical collapse of previous societies linked to apparent resource exhaustion and the failure of institutions to adapt to looming crises in time to prevent disaster. The classic discussion is the debate about Easter Island and the fate of its population doomed by deforestation and overfishing. Neo-Malthusian ghosts haunt the discussion of resource shortages and the failure of adaptation on the part of many societies for example in the recent work of Jared Diamond, Collapse. But it is worth noting that the theme of collapse also haunts European history, Environmental matters have been more fundamental to imperial politics than is usually understood. In Richard Grove’s terms, colonial ecological interventions, especially in deforestation and subsequently in forest conservation, irrigation and soil ‘protection,’ exercised a far more profound influence over most people than the more conspicuous and dramatic aspects of colonial rule that have traditionally preoccupied historians. Over the period 1670 to 1950, very approximately, a pattern of ecological power relations emerged in which the expanding European states acquired a global reach over natural resources in terms of consumption and then too, in terms of political and ecological control. The reasons for this are not very complicated, but they need restating more frequently than has been the practice in most discussions of environment.
The argument presented by Grove about the expanding resource frontier of Europe has also been replicated by other environmental historians notably by Alfred Crosby in Ecological Imperialism where he argues that the process of imperial expansion, whether in terms of direct conquest in what Crosby calls the neo-Europes, or indirect disruptions as a consequences of trading patterns and military actions, fundamentally changed many ecological processes. The introduction of horses to the Americas, rabbits to Australia, or even the humble potato from the Americas to Europe, changed the environments of these places. This is not the first time such changes had altered the planet’s ecology; the emergence of agriculture and the domestication of animals has meant that the Holocene, the geological period since the last glacial episode, has been one of anthropogenic-induced changes in most places, but the accelerating speed and scale of change in the last half millennium is what is most important. The ecological dimension of such imperialism is what needs much more attention than it has received until relatively recently. However, Crosby focuses exclusively on the white settler colonies and omits any discussion of the much extensive regions of the colonial tropics. In Grove’s terms, the focus on the political and the administrative dimensions of empire have occluded the practical material impacts of colonization on people’s lives and on land, animals, fish, forests and other facets of their ecological contexts. The environment has, in these terms, simply been taken for granted until recently when the ecological dimension of human history, minus the distractions of environmental determinism, is once again being worked into the picture.
Grove argues for example, that the Caribbean and its littoral, along with Bermuda, has been a very important area for working out the processes going on in world environmental history in the context of European economic expansion and globalization. Some of the first comprehensive forest protection legislation on such colonies was introduced after 1620 in Bermuda and a little later in the Caribbean Leeward Islands. In Montserrat, the mountain forests of the island were protected from felling after 1702 by a rigid ordinance, with the knowledge that unrestricted logging caused soil erosion and flooding on lower grounds and in towns. The Caribbean islands, with their large settler and slave populations, came under sustained ecological pressure at an early date and, as on Mauritius and St. Helena, awareness quickly grew of the physical changes and extinctions brought about by commercial clearance. As early as 1616, measures had been taken to protect the indigenous edible sea birds in Bermuda. By the mid-eighteenth century, overfishing and major reductions in catches were taking place around many now densely populated islands. Other legislation followed making conservation an integral part of colonial landscape control. Before the 1760s, the effects of colonial economic globalization were addressed on a piecemeal basis in order to protect local food, fuel, timber supplies, and what were already recognized as rare island species. However, in the mid-1760s, responses to deforestation in particular suddenly changed. This was due to the rapid spread of a theory first enunciated in France by Pierre Poivre that linked deforestation to rainfall and regional climate change. In the ensuing century, forest-reserve legislation responding to fears of deforestation-induced climate change slowly began to spread around the world, especially throughout the French, British, and Dutch empires. By the late 1830s and the 1840s, the reiteration of climatic environmentalism by Alexander von Humboldt and Jean-Baptiste Boussingault was being acted upon by environmentally minded scientists and officials working not just only on the islands but also on the large land masses of India, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, and Australia, where the demands of European colonial empires were now bringing about deforestation at an unprecedented speed. It is to these specifics that we will now turn. The context is the growing discussion of the environment by scientists, travelers and administrators in the context of empire in the nineteenth century.
Early Colonial Scientists, Environmentalism and Environmental History
It is no accident that the earliest writers to comment specifically on rapid environmental change in the context of empires were scientists who were themselves often actors in the process of colonially stimulated environmental change. In a study, Grove and Damodaran have argued that the early pioneers of an environmental critique of the European and American empires depended on having an historical perception of rapid rates of ecological change, and access to evidence for rapid change. As early as the mid-seventeenth century we find that intellectuals and natural philosophers such as Richard Norwood and William Sayle in Bermuda, Thomas Tryon in Barbados and Edmond Halley and Isaac Pyke on St Helena were all already well aware of characteristically high rates of soil erosion and deforestation in the colonial tropics, and of the urgent need for conservationist intervention especially to protect forests and threatened species.
On French colonial Mauritius (the Isle de France) Pierre Poivre and Philibert Commerson framed pioneering forest conservation legislation designed specifically to prevent rainfall decline in the 1760s. In India William Roxburgh, Edward Balfour, Alexander Gibson and Hugh Cleghorn (all Scottish medical scientists) wrote alarmist narratives relating deforestation to the danger of climate change. Their distinctively modern environmentalist views owed a great deal to the precocious commentaries of Alexander von Humboldt in his Personal Narrative and in the Cosmos. East India Company scientists were also well aware of French experience in trying to prevent deforestation and rainfall change in Mauritius. William Roxburgh, together with Alexander Beatson on St Helena, went on further to observe the incidence of global drought events which we know today were globally teleconnected El Nino events. The rise of imperial networks of information thus enabled the emergence of a new global environmental awareness as well as the first accurate accounts of global change.
The writings of Edward Balfour and Hugh Cleghorn in the late 1840s in particular illustrate the extent of the permeation of a global environmental consciousness and could be said to constitute some of the first writings in world environmental history. In very similar fashion Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller in Australia, George Perkins Marsh and Franklin Benjamin Hough in the United States and John Croumbie Brown in South Africa all wrote multiple and voluminous texts that display formidable textual knowledge of evidence of global environmental change through time, which was used by all these men as material to warn of the dangers of future environmental profligacy and global ruin. It is significant that most of these men published their most important texts during the 1860s, a period which we could appropriately name the ‘first environmental decade,’ and which embodies a convergence of thinking about ecological change on a world scale that may well have been permeated in part by ontological and existential concerns elicited by the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859.
It was in the particular circumstances of environmental change at the colonial periphery that what we would now term ‘environmentalism’ first made itself felt and its colonial proponents were often in a position to make use of historical evidence for environmental change in government records and thus became de facto environmental historians. Victorian texts such as Strzelecki’s Physical Description of New South Wales, Berthold von Ribbentrop’s Forestry in the British Empire, Brown’s Hydrology of South Africa, Cleghorn’s Forests and Gardens of South India and Marsh’s Man and Nature were not only vital to the onset of environmentalism; they were also meticulously documented works in environmental history. One preoccupation stands out in them above all. This was a growing interest in the potential human impact on climate change, in particular a fear that human activity, especially deforestation, might lead to global desiccation. This fear grew steadily in the wake of colonial expansion and fed into postcolonial fears about desertification articulated by international bodies and global nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It also critically affected the early direction of environmental history. The preoccupation with climate probably owed much of its strength to notions linking climate, civilizational degeneration and racial types. Many of these notions had first been formally articulated by the Comte de Buffon.
Particularly after the 1860s, and even more after the great Indian famines of 1876- and 1899–1902, these connections encouraged and stimulated the idea that human history and environmental change might be firmly linked. The years immediately prior to 1900 saw a renewed interest developing in what were essentially millennial theories of global desiccation closely related to contemporary convictions about the ‘inevitable’ extinctions of both indigenous people and large tropical mammals such as the African Elephant. These theories were reinforced by climatic events. By the end of the nineteenth century it was evident that short-term vicissitudes of the African climate were of considerable economic importance. In East Africa the level of Lake Victoria rose suddenly in 1878 after unusually heavy rains. A few months later there was abundant rain over the Blue Nile’s catchment in Ethiopia and disastrous Nile floods followed in Egypt. In Southern Africa in 1862 and between 1881 and 1885 there were severe droughts. Alexander Knox in The Climate of the Continent of Africa (1911) pointed to what he saw as a decline in the rainfall of nineteenth century Senegal. The mean at St Louis in the 1830s had been about 600 mm; over the years 1892–1905 it was about 400 mm; in 1903 it was only 125 mm. Over the next decade rainfall was greater in Senegal and the rest of the Sudano-Sahelian but in 1913 there came a drought disaster, the terrible results of famine in Northern Nigeria that year being graphically described by Hastings in Nigerian Days. In Egypt the flow of the Nile was phenomenally low, and in Southern Africa there was widespread drought.
During the same period a number of American geographers started to pose a postglacial desiccation of the environments of central Asia and China based on the twin tenets that wet conditions characterized the glacial phases of the Pleistocene and that aridity had increased since the warming of the Pleistocene ice sheets in the Holocene. Travelers in central Asia pointed to the occurrence of dry water courses and lakes and abandoned settlements as evidence of this desiccation and suggested that deteriorating environmental conditions had spurred successive nomadic invasions of their more civilized neighbors during periods of increased aridity. A major early exemplar of this group of scholar-travelers was an American, Ellsworth Huntington, a geographer and environmental determinist whose views were formed by his travels and intelligence activities in Central Asia. His first major work, The Pulse of Asia (1907) set an agenda for both desiccationism and environmental determinism. Both Huntington and Kropotkin (the latter in a landmark article published in The Geographical Journal in 1904) were critically influenced by the rise of contemporary anxieties in the tropics and a growing interest in climatic interpretations of history, boosted by the great Indian famines of the late nineteenth century. While at Harvard, Huntington had been a pupil of William Morris Davis at a time when the latter had been developing his theories of evolutionary landscape geomorphology. Huntington was, together with Andrew Douglass, one of the first practitioners of dendrochronology. They pioneered the use of this new dating technique on the Sequoia trees of California, whose immense age made a great impression on Huntington. But his formative experiences were in Turkey, where he taught at Euphrates College in 1897–1901 and in Turkestan. After Harvard, Huntington accompanied William Davis on the Pumpelly (1903) to Turkestan and then went with Barrett’s (1905–6) expeditions to central Asia.
Colonial Environmental Ideas in the Twentieth Century
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the experience of central Asia, which had exerted so much influence on Huntington, continued to exert an influence on the desiccationist school. The Chinese meteorologist Coching Chu, in 1926, summarized much of this in a paper on ‘Climatic pulsations during historic times in China’ Geographical periodicals and institutions were, as in the previous century, important as fora for the desiccation debate. In Africa this meant that the concerns of the 1920s now began to embrace some colonial territories that had not featured at all in the earlier environmental literature of the years before the Great War, but which were now the subject of considerable colonial interest and infrastructure investment. In the 1920s the Colonial Office was the main employer of British biologists, geologists and geographers. This was especially the case in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, about which some of the first literature on desert-spreading or desertification now began to be written. A pioneer in this area was E.W. Bovill, who echoed Schwartz in South Africa in his 1921 paper on ‘the encroachment of the Sahara on the Sudan.’ His arguments were further followed up in an article entitled ‘Sahara’ in 1929 Bovill’s articles were in turn taken much further by G.T. Renner in one of the first articles to paint Africa as a potentially famine-ridden continent, under the title ‘A famine zone in Africa; the Sudan,’ published in 1926. A widespread semiarid region meant that a disproportionately large alarmist South African literature developed on environmental matters. Prominent among these was the 1926 work by J.C. Smuts on Holism and Evolution, a work heavily influenced by the ecological theories of Arthur Tansley.
The emergence of a period of environmental alarmism in North America consequent on the prolonged ‘dustbowl’ droughts in the southern United States in the early 1930s supplemented the existing colonial panic over desert-spreading. This increased local anxieties and affected policy in some British and French colonies. Thus the New Deal conservationism of the United States was emulated particularly in the east and central African colonies. Soil erosion had already become a prominent issue in India during the period 1890–1925 and huge investments to control it were made, for example, in the Etawah region of the United Provinces of northern India. These efforts, like similar measures in West and South Africa, long predated the American ‘Dustbowl’ alarmism. In 1934 E.P. Stebbing, a very prominent Indian forester, and onetime Professor of Forestry at Edinburgh University, visited West Africa. Stebbing was the earliest historian of Indian forests and by the time of his visit has already published a three volume work on The forests of India, much of which detailed the history of environmental concern and early conservationism among the first surgeon-foresters of the East India Company medical service. His short visit to the French and British West African colonies, made significantly during the dry season, provoked him into writing a feverish warning on what he saw as the dangers of desert-spreading. The title of this essay ‘The encroaching Sahara; the threat to the West African colonies’ indicates that he had almost certainly read Bovill’s similarly titled 1921 article on ‘The encroachment of the Sahara.’
While Stebbing’s somewhat hysterical warnings were downplayed by local colonial scientists, who had much greater experience of the causes, rates and seasonality of local desertification and erosion, his terminology was taken up with alacrity by governing circles in Paris and London. Stebbing’s writings led directly to the founding of the Anglo- French Boundary Forest Commission. This commission, started in 1934, soon found that Stebbing’s warnings were largely unjustified, and his analysis was decisively dismissed by B. Jones, a member of the commission, in an article published, as Stebbing’s had been, in The Geographical Journal. Notwithstanding, in 1937 Stebbing, now Professor of Forestry in Edinburgh, pursued his concerns in Forestry in West Africa and the Sahara; a Study of Modern Conditions and in an inflammatory work called The Creeping Desert in the Sudan and Elsewhere in Africa. He was not alone. In 1938 Francis Ratcliffe, fresh from his investigations of the causes of soil erosion in South Australia and Queensland, published Flying Fox and Drifting Sand, a savage indictment of the impact of extensive outback agriculture, and the first of a long line of apocalyptic books on the degradation of the Australian environment, many of which exercised a disproportionate influence on global environmental concerns far outside the antipodean context. Ratcliffe was familiar with the writings of Keith Hancock, later a prominent historian of the British Empire and Commonwealth, who in 1931 had published a virulent attack on profligate deforestation and land-clearing by settlers Hancock, a Quaker, was the biographer of Jan Smuts and was undoubtedly influenced by the ‘holistic’ views of the latter, not least in his role as an early environmental campaigner and environmental historian. Both men were profoundly interested in the historical impact of white colonial settlement on indigenous peoples and their environments at an imperial and world scale, Hancock ultimately writing on this theme in what was one of the earliest and most influential texts in Australian environmental history. In Hancock’s mind the two world wars, Nazi death camps and the ecological crisis were linked catastrophes in a personal existential crisis which was partially expressed in his writing of environmental history.
In 1938 Gordon East published the first of many editions of The Geography behind History, a wide-ranging work which echoed many of the contemporary colonial anxieties albeit in a rather more detached and academic mode. Thus by 1938 the global environmentalist ball had truly started to roll, propelled largely by colonial exemplars and Stebbing’s alarums, along with comparable simultaneous warnings from the United States which were soon being echoed by a cacophony of popular writers and journalists and above all by Graham Jacks and R.O. Whyte in their inflammatory, semiracist and highly colored account book of 1939 entitled The Rape of the Earth; a World Survey of Soil Erosion. This book skillfully marshaled evidence for the kind of rapid environmental change which had been predicted by John Croumbie Brown and G.P. Marsh 70 years earlier, but referring to world-wide evidence of a detail which they had not been in a position to compile. The book set the scene for the postwar British (and French) colonial obsession with soil erosion and gullying in their postwar ‘second colonial occupations,’ as well as for the global desertification mania which developed in the 1970s in the wake of major droughts in West Africa. Conceivably, The Rape of the Earth owed some of its impact to underlying political anxieties in Britain, France, and the United States about the growing threat now posed by fascist regimes and above all by Nazi Germany both on the domestic and colonial front. Environmental fears were, conceivably, more palatable and thus easier to articulate and confront.
These agendas of colonial environmental thinking had taken over academic debate by the 1930s. Once the discipline of environmental history began to establish itself as a separately defined field of scholarship in the 1970s, these early ideas continued to fuel academic thinking. Grove’s work seized the initiative for early environmental scholarship away from the American academy where practitioners believed it to be most deeply rooted to the colonial context of the tropics. Colonial environmental thinking he argued had an important impact on the emergence of the field.
More recently the story of colonial environmental history has developed in different ways. For example in South Asia, a shift toward an ecological questioning of conventional agrarian history developed among historians of South Asia in the early 1980s, and particularly in the minds of Richard Tucker and John Richards, the latter being a specialist in the monetary and agrarian history of Mughal India. Both men were convinced that ecological changes accompanying economic transition in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, while clearly large-scale, had never been properly quantified. Almost immediately Richards and Tucker, working in tandem, realized that their questioning could not be confined to South Asia but was equally requiring of answers researched in terms of global economic history in general, particularly with the advent of an era in which the connections between deforestation, carbon dioxide production, and global warming were becoming major popular anxieties in what Teresa Brennan was already calling the ‘Age of Paranoia.’ In two major edited works they therefore set out to review the global history of deforestation, especially in the tropics. However, in making the quick and logical intellectual leap from South Asia to world history, Richards and Tucker had ironically left the environmental history of South Asia itself largely undone with the exception of some very limited essays, regional studies, and essay collections. This is now being redressed in several recent studies on the environmental history of South Asia. In particular, the work of K. Sivaramakrishnan, Mahesh Rangarajan, Ravi Rajan, Rohan D’Souza, Vasant Saberwal, Dhirendra Dangwal. Not only have these works made a substantial presence in mainstream South Asian history writing but in terms of institutional advance as well. As D’souza notes ‘these studies have propelled the South Asian experience to the center stage of the field of environmental writing.’ In some respects the early work in Indian environmental history resembled that in the Americas and Africa, positing an ecological golden age but more recent work is starting to challenge this notion.
Landscape Imagery and Colonial Environmental History
Another burgeoning trend in colonial environmental history is in landscape imagery and construction, which builds on the work in the 1980s and 1990s of Paul Carter, Simon Schama, Denis Cosgrove, and Steve Daniel. In the colonial context, the recent work of Graham Burnett, Matthew Edney, and David Arnold explores the culture of the tropics in implicitly rejecting the nature–culture dualism and blurring the boundaries. This is particularly true of David Arnold’s work, The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze which examines the invention of the tropics from the eighteenth century. The eighteenth century was inter alia, an age of decorative gardens and of gardeners. One of England’s more notable contributions to the neoclassical movement was the landscape garden in which the formal, regular, and ostentatious shapes of the baroque era were swept away to be replaced with no-less cultivated, but naturalistic landscapes complemented by artificial lakes and classical ruins blended into the surroundings. The picturesque landscape of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton are examples of these. But, as Addison noted:
Why may not a whole estate be thrown into a kind of garden by frequent plantations, which may turn as much to the profit as the pleasure of the owner?
The search for more exotic decorative plants was intensified in the new era of exploration as evident from David Mackay’s work (In the Wake of Cook: Exploration, Science and Empire, 1780–1801, 1985). Eventually, with the voyages of Bougainville and Cook, the Arcadian quest encompassed the south Pacific. The perception of the tropics that explorers and their artists carried with them was one of a naturalistic landscape with lush forests, steep cliff walls and waterfalls, instead of lakes and temples. A naive and noble savage formed part of the scenery as he sheltered in the romantic grotto from the elemental powers of nature. This romantic prospect frequently conflated the dramatic and the verdant landscape of Tahiti with the real economy of its inhabitants. Incidentally the same notions were transferred to the Indian Ocean islands, an apparently Utopian realm that has been little explored by scholars.
In his magnificent study, The European Vision and the South Pacific Bernard Smith has shown how exotic topography was elevated to high places reserved for ideal landscapes by the late eighteenth century, and underlines the significance of the fact that the term picturesque was being used to embrace the growing interest in the exotic. As a tradition conceived by Uvedale Price in 1794, the picturesque was perceived as an aesthetic category distinct from the Burkean notion of the sublime and the beautiful; it was distinguished by roughness, sudden variation and irregularity. While artists like William Hodges still sought to make the tropical landscape conform to the taste of their time by adapting it to the Italianate landscape there was an emerging perception in the late eighteenth century among philosophers and writers such as von Humboldt that the noblest landscapes were to be found in the tropics.
This burgeoning interest in landscape imagery and construction, some of which fed into environmental history, explicitly uses Saidian notions. For example in Burnett’s work entitled Masters of All They Surveyed, on the exploration of British Guyana in the nineteenth century argues that colonial constructions of landmarks became not only ‘places to see, but places that enhanced seeing and a technique for establishing a control over space.’ He notes that, like the imperial picturesque of India which was used by British topographical surveyors both as a natural representation of the Indian landscape and as an invitation to British conquest, representations of the Guyanan landscape worked in similar ways. Explorers such as Richard Schomburgk, ‘were aware of the power of their images and the processes involved in renaming, landmarking and resource assessment leading to the establishment of colonial boundaries and colonial order.’ There are problems with using explicitly Saidian notions for understanding colonial engagements with the landscape. Bernard Smith’s story is not one of simple appropriation, control and establishment of order through topographical art, but a story of a much more complex relationship between art and ideas. While between 1750 and 1850, a great deal of artistic talent was brought in to serve the biological and geographical sciences in the colonies a ‘vigorous and aesthetically vibrant art movement was beginning to emerge in the context of the exploration of the new worlds.’ While depiction of plants and animals within a typical landscape became increasingly common landscape painters were beginning to recognize the fact that the tropical world contained its own distinctive sceneries, which had a visual unity of its own. It was in the paintings of William Hodges that these ideas first began to challenge neoclassical values, but it was through the work of Alexander von Humboldt that this new artistic movement was celebrated, influencing such writers and artists as Gustav Carus and John Ruskin and in a circular sense, reinvigorating artistic and environmental sensibilities in Europe. Tim Bonyhady’s (2000) book, entitled The Colonial Earth, a superb essay on the development of environmentalism in pre-1900 Australia, contains an excellent analysis of this development of independent colonial sensibilities, especially in connection with the work of the painter Eugene von Guerard.
Although what was termed ‘nature’s wild garden’ by the Romantics had its effects on Sir Joseph Banks when he traveled with Cook, the sort of gardens in which he was interested by the 1780s was largely botanic ones. At Kew, Chelsea, and Edinburgh, men were trained in the empirical processes of observation, comparison and evaluation, and they began to gather comprehensive collections of native and exotic plants for microscopic examination. Drawing on the pioneer work in plant classification carried out by Linneaus, Britain despatched plant collectors to every corner of the globe, and these men sent home living plant specimens, seeds and dried samples to their patrons and employers. As early as the seventeenth century in Malabar, the botanist and traveler Van Reede moved further away from European precepts to a wholly Malayali classification of plants. Van Reede’s reliance on local informants and his frequent contacts with Tiya and Ezhava ‘low-caste’ plant collectors helped to incorporate local Ezhavas botanical knowledge into the Hortus Malabaricus Indicus. This gigantic twelvevolume work which adhered religiously to local systems of plant classification and which rejected both Arabic classification and nomenclature and Brahminical systems, as well as European knowledge, all of which had proved virtually useless to the realities of plant identification and systematic knowledge as far as the Dutch were concerned. The extraordinary utility of the indigenous Malabar plant knowledge systems and systems of classification as compiled by Van Rheede and Itti Achuden, his main informant, were explicitly and remarkably recognized by Linnaeus. Indeed Linnaeus simply incorporated the Ezhava classification system wholesale, and without changes, when he came to describe the tropical plants of South India.
From the middle of the eighteenth century onwards the utilitarian strain in natural history became more pronounced as scientists and collectors interested themselves in the practical benefits which might be reaped from their endeavors. In many respects, it was thought, the world of nature had not endowed equally the peoples of the earth. Botanists in particular believed that their technical skills would enable them to rectify the imbalance by transferring certain natural productions from one region to another, and acclimatizing them in the new environment. Periodic famines in India, for example, could be averted by planting Sago or other drought-resistant crops. English cotton mills might be supplied with raw cotton from improved seeds, while transplanted flax could provide cheap fibers. Above all, attempts were made to transplant spice and pepper species into new territories where they were previously unknown.
Such schemes had the mercantilist purpose of destroying the monopolies or predominance of rival nations and colonies and substituting that of another. Particular efforts were made by the French and British to break the Dutch spice monopolies in the East Indies. Botany and great power rivalry became intertwined as nations endeavored to guard their precious treasures. It was in this context that Captain Bligh’s expedition took place. The story of Sir Joseph Banks, breadfruit and Tahiti is well known. Less well known is that it stimulated the advent of forest protection in the West Indies, just as spice transplantation to Mauritius had stimulated forest preservation there during the ancient regime.
However most of the studies of the culture of the landscape in the context of empire are about the colonization of space and how landscapes gain a moral and even redemptive significance. Some of it is a postmodern interpretation of landscape imagery and of the landscape as a cultural text. In doing so, writers such as Arnold uses a range of sources mainly Paul Carter, Michel Foucault and Bernard Cohn to see the environment as socially constructed and to suggest the idea that the ‘tropics were invented as much as they were encountered’ for example by the British in India in the nineteenth century. The idea of the tropics as ‘warm, fecund, luxuriant, paradisical and pestilential’ was central to the constitution of British colonial knowledge and was a critical ingredient in the larger colonizing process.
Thus we can see that environmental history allows for divergent opinions over the extent to which nature influences human affairs, some taking the position of limited environmental determinism, others insisting that culture determines all. While Crosby, Grove and Diamond fall into the former category, Arnold, Carter, Cosgrove and Daniels fall into the latter. Worster’s point about straddling both worlds by asserting that the cultural history of nature is as significant as the ecological history of culture is a pertinent one and gives us new ways of understanding the history of European intervention in the tropical world. This research paper has attempted to explore the historiography of tropical environmental history which can now claim to be an important subfield within the discipline of environmental history. As John Mcneill has noted ‘interest in environmental history depends, in large part, on anxiety about contemporary social problems.’ (John Mcneill, ‘Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history, History and Theory, 42, 2003.) With ecological concerns increasing environmental history and especially tropical environmental history is a burgeoning and innovative field of interest.
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