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Reflection paper: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism (Gunnel Cederlöf seminar)
In the first seminar with Gunnel Cederlöf, her book Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity was discussed. The area in focus, the north-eastern part of India, is a strategically located region which the British East India Company (EIC) during the late 18th century sought to control. Cederlöf (2013:3) writes in the introductory chapter that the British expansion was driven by “commerce and by competition between the European nation states on whose sanction the corporations operated in India”. I other words, the British did not arrive as a state but as merchants, seeking trade possibilities and opportunities to get wealthy. As mentioned in the discussion seminar, the role of corporations has often been left out in history, where a strong focus instead often has lied on the nation state. This reframing of the regional history of South Asia is one of the things that make Cederlöf’s book different from other descriptions of the area. I think a relevant point here is the importance of examining spaces that overlap political boundaries and also to look at the phenomena that that are indifferent to political borders, such as the natural environment. When writing history, we have to put ourselves in the positions of the subjects that lived during the specific period, as Cederlöf pointed out. If we want a relevant analysis of the past therefore, we cannot view the past with the glasses of today – in this case think in terms of empire rather than in terms of nation states.
What I find most interesting with Cederlöf’s historical analysis is that it is grounded in ecological and climate- related dimensions. This period in India’s history would not have been possible to properly grasp without an understanding of the environment. Natural conditions posed severe difficulties for the EIC, such as dense forests, flooding, malaria spreading mosquitoes, and in general a very unpredictable climate (ibid:239). The EIC had to “bargain with both people and nature, neither of which adjusted well to their plans” (ibid:225). However, the natural conditions also included possibilities, such as the rivers that were used as trading routes and means of conveyance. Since environmental history aims to interpret current environmental questions through the analyze of the past I would like to have heard more about what the main ’lesson’ this book brings to the contemporary discussion of environmental challenges and global politics. How can we use this historical example to understand current subject-formation or discuss contemporary policy-making? I guess one of the important aspects is the fact that ecological dimensions are often more crucial than might often be recognized in historical narratives as well as in contemporary policy-making.
Reply To: 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
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