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

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Mirabel Joshi # Posted on February 4, 2014 at 14:41

Below you will find reflections on the newly published book Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers: 1790-1840 (2014) and the following discussion with the author Gunnel Cederlöf  at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University on the 3 February 2014.

As a Global Environmental History student what I find most interesting and useful in Cederlöfs research is not so much of the actual events in the region of East-North Bengal during the rule of the British East India Company, even though this is interesting and well written, but the critical approach of how to understand space and change in history in general. Cederlöf makes three points regarding the quality of historical research and the selection, collection and interpretation of historical data. 
First, the quality of historical research is defined largely by which sources and data is seen as useful and also how it is used and collected. For example the North-East of Bengal is a monsoon region and this must be be taken in to account when interpreting the historical data found in the archives such as revenue reports and maps. Many of the maps which were made and used by the British East India Company are of dry land mainly. However in the monsoon periods there is little dry land as large parts of the area is covered in water in long periods. To understand a monsoon region Cederlöf argues that ”water” has to be understood.  Disregarding the significance to understand a key element in an environment makes useless historical accounts. An extreme example of this is that of the agrarian historians, made by Cederlöf at the seminar, who mostly used revenue reports and maps from the archives disregarding that the areas of interest were continually flooded and were deeply impacted on by climate and meandering river systems. 
Second, Cederlöf claims that many scholars make their research in good weather conditions disregarding the natural conditions of an area and takes the example of good-weather anthropologist. This shows a disregard for nature as a dynamic and important force in for culture and history. Natural conditions are part of a historical context. It became very clear in Cederlöfs research that the historical context can’t only be found in the archives but that it is of great importance to visit a research area many times during various weather conditions.
Third, historians have a tendency ”to do history backwards”. In the case of the British Empire Cederlöf argues that there is a tendency to look to the peak of the empire and project this view of the Empire on the whole period of when the British were a part of ruling the North-East. In the period when the EIC ruled the North-West, as granted by the Moghul, little resources were actually spent on ruling as the EIC were a corporation and most of the men in charge of the administration where foremost in India to make money, not to govern territory. It was not the case of making India British but to bring in the revenue and trade of the Empire.The North-Eastern frontier was in this period regarded as an expansion line for trade. This mercantile rationale on space and administration had a huge influence on how the Britain could expand into an Empire.
The conclusion I make is that to make a qualified analysis of the social ecology of the past  one can not ignore the natural conditions of a space nor how how the world revealed itself to different groups within the research period.