Reply To: 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism Reply To: 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism

Author Replies # Posted on February 4, 2014 at 15:20

Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History
February 3rd Seminar: Gunnel Cederlöf
Morag Ramsey

What was of particular interest in the seminar on Gunnel Cederlöf ‘s book Funding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontier, was her analysis of the complexities that are often overlooked when studying the role of the state in colonial history. This aspect of Cederlöf’s work struck me as interesting for two reasons: 1) the way Cederlöf deconstructed boundaries and space yet again illustrated to me the innovative lens a post colonial theory can offer to an author, and 2) the manner in which Cederlöf’s perspective resonated with many of the authors who we examined in our earlier class with Benjamin Martin As of late, the issue of choosing and applying theory while one researches and writes has been of interest to me, and as such this reflection will focus on this theme.
Essentially what Cederlöf seems to be doing is deconstructing the existing coherent narrative in colonial history that treats the state as one coherent actor with one set of interests. This was an interesting point as I have unconsciously made this assumption of The State time and time again. Cederlöf first issue with the state as an actor arose when she noticed the prominence of commerce and the power of the East Indian Trading Company as a dominating force in North-Eastern India and not the state per se. Cederlöf also mentioned in seminar how it was important to her work to dismiss the notion that there is a collective colonial bias. As an example, she mentions how primary documents have illustrated disparity between reports made by mercantile corporation officers when it came to perspectives on climate in North-eastern India. Cederlöf writes how, “As long as we retain the state as the axiom of our enquiries into the formation of British rule in India, we risk applying intentions and interests that had little bearing on the actions of the officers of a mercantile corporation.” (11) Having a one-dimensional view of the state, or in this case the EIC, does not strengthen a colonial analysis. However, ever since the emergence of nation states, the state as an actor has been a popular way to understand historical events. As Cederlöf said in seminar, it is best to look at events understanding that “no one knew of the nation states to come” and that people did not act according to unforeseen future events and boundaries. While post colonial academia offers alternative narratives from the official state perspective of events, Cederlöf is offering another way to avoid binaries and boxes, but this time by reimagining the intricacies of the dominating colonial power.
How Cederlöf tackles this issue of the state and then the EIC is of interest regardless of its connections to our earlier class, yet its connections to the Theory and Methods course are intriguing. In addition to deconstructing the state, a number of aspects that Cederlöf mentioned during the seminar resonated with comments from other historians concerned with historical theory. In addition to Cederlöf’s attempts to reimagine the complexities of the EIC, she is concerned with spaces and the impact of created space, which Doreen Massey also touched on in her work “ Spatialising the History of Modernity.” In addition to this, Cederlöf mentioned the way in which different interpretations of history give meaning to people’s lives as she recounted James Scott’s analysis of maps (in particular when it came to mountainous regions and tribes). This echoed Jim Sharpe’s positive conviction that interdisciplinary efforts lead to different interpretation of events, which provide people’s lives with meaning. As Cederlöf encourages interdisciplinary studies, especially between natural science and agrarian history, she seems to subscribe to an academia with multiple paradigms, as does Sharpe.
It was interesting to read and listen to a historian ‘s process of writing, especially as theory will be an important part of our individual theses. Cederlöf mentioned that she first wrote chapter three of her book, and spiraled out from that point, resulting in two halves. The first half deals more with environmental history and climate, while the second half was heavily influenced by legal history. Seeing the theoretical connections Cederlöf made with other historians was also useful, and the manner in which Cederlöf placed her own work within the existing scholarship felt instructive. As a student with little experience in research compared to well established historians such as Cederlöf, it feels pertinent to note different proven structure, theory and research methods.