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Reflection on Cederlöf (2013): Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity
In the following, I would like to reflect on three issues that catched my interest while reading and listen to Gunnel Cederlöf’s work: the categorization to make entities governable, the perception of nature as a stable environment and the natural landscape as boundary.
Categorization to make something governable – nature and people
In Cederlöf’s book it becomes clear that mapping and categorization where the main techniques of the preparation of Southeastasia to become incorporated into the British Empire. As Michel Foucault (who is surprisingly missing in Cerderlöf’s book as a reference) showed in his influential work on governmentality, territory and bodies were the objects of the early modern modes of governing: disciplinary power and biopower. Without a map, there is no territory to be governed on, without no system of categorizing land, animals and people there are no beings that are to be governed. This strongly reminded me of several of our last readings in our second Environmental History course. A common conclusion of all of them was that it was the scientific revolution – driven by the ideas of a Francis Bacon or a Carl von Linné – that provided the basic tools for the colonial endeavor. Cederlöf’s work supports this historical explanation at various points.
Perception of nature as a stable environment
By listening to Gunnel’s lecture I also remembered an axiom of the modern thinking that Dipesh Chakrabarty referred to in his article “The Climate of History”: the conception of nature as something that does not change or at least does not change enough to be an object of a historical or political enquiry. This idea, hold from influential figures from Collingwood to Stalin only makes sense in a very anthropocentric world view. And although it can be assumed that it has already been dominant during the 18th century, it baffled me how entrenched this axiom was in the mindsets of colonial officers. Drawing maps over and over again in a landscape that changes significantly every year through heavy Monsoon floods, trying to categorize the land in the delta of Bengal to make it arable and taxable – in retrospective these officials do a hard but hopeless job. But it reflects the past of these individuals themselves, being brought to the very margins of the Empire but with the experiences of only slightly changing seasons (compared to the suptropical climate) and moreover, land that belongs not only to some man but also to some fixed territory. These revealings of Cederlöf’s book might lead one to the conclusion that the stability of nature as an environment is a distinctive Western idea that became universal through imperial practices as exmeplified in her book.
Natural landscape as boundary
Connected to the axiom of the unchanging “nature” of environment is also the idea that one can draw borderlines from the natural landscape. This reminded to our reading of Richard White’s article on the “Nationalization of Nature” in which he discusses the legal dispute on the catching rights of “US-canadian” and “Canadian salmon”. The imposition of social institutions on nature seems to be a distinctive feature of our modern times and Gunnel Cederlöf provides one good example by describing the sruvey of the Sylhet-Tripure border between 1821 and 1822. The colonial official Fisher followed the rivers to find out where the hill ranges begin – but finally had to stop his search for the natural boundary of the region as it’s climate just didn’t work in that way. However, his “food steps” were traslated into first maps of the Sylhet-Tripure area, became governmental district borders in the Empire and finally, a national border between India and Bangladesh. Certainly, the history of the constitution of the two nation states of today is much broader and complex but it can not be written without this reference to the Western spatialization of the environment for the purpose of colonial rule.
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