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Sabbath Sunday # Posted on February 4, 2014 at 15:55

Current Debates–Seminar 1: 3/2/2014
India and the Environmental History of Imperialism:
Reflections by Sabbath Sunday

The book by Cederlöf. G (2013) is one of the various historical accounts that enable us to understand environmental histories of other parts of the world. The issues of organization of human society, ecology, climate and modes of production and are well tackled. My reflections on this piece of work will be based of several perspectives by some environmental historians who have given their arguments on how to understand this new academic discipline in order to enable us handle our environmental challenges with informed backgrounds.

According to Worster, D. and Crosby, A.W. (1988) “much of the materials for environmental history have been around for generations if not for centuries” so it is our duty “to organize them in light of our recent experiences.” So in the case of Cederlöf’s book, the British and the Mughal’s imperial occupation in the region of north eastern India is a manifestation of Donald Worster’s arguments in his recent presentations “Second Earth: Thinking About Environmental History on a Planetary Scale”, that the discovery of the Americas and a sea route to India via the Cape, triggered off a rush for search of new land and natural resources by European imperialists. This was just the exportation of environmental depletion in other parts of the world after wrecking havoc in their European home countries. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British all struggled to control north eastern India because of its abundant natural resources but the British came out successful. This territory had been under the Mughah Empire (1525-1857) having defeated an earlier Ahom kingdom (1228-1826) but all of these were imperialists. All these successive socio-political organizations had one objective; to exploit the natural wealth for the economic sustainability of their empires through agriculture, fishing, mining, lumbering, hunting and trade. Gunnel, C. (2014) makes it clear that the British East India Company (EIC) was more interested in mercantile activities rather than administration. This could have encouraged the ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude towards environmental degradation and respect for indigenous settlers. Theirs was total ecological imperialism as observed by Crosby, A. W. (1986) whereby apart from taking away natural wealth, “the Europeans also introduced domestic animals, plants, pathogens, varmints, and weeds in many regions of the world”.

On the other hand, Merchant, D. C. (2010) has another concept of colonial ecological revolution as a fresh approach to environmental history. The environmental historical situation of the American Indians in New England of North East of North America faced the same tragedy as that of North East India in southern Asia. In both cases ‘the integration of the Indians with their natural world, was interrupted by other invading economic regimes and social structures who not only came to control plant and animal life but also to dominate the host communities. The Ahom, the Mughal and the British East India Company brought about a succession of ‘capitalistic ecological revolution’ that changed and monopolized natural resource exploitation in disregard of the indigenous settlers whose mode of production was friendlier to the environment.

My other reflection focuses on the alleged harsh environmental conditions which caused the suffering of both the imperialists and the indigenous settlers in one way or another. In his argument about nature and human history, Cronon, W. (1992), and referring to Donald Worser’s Dust Bowl, maintains that nature acts naturally. Nature does not have a conscience so as to be aware that it is acting wrongly on mankind. Therefore, in its processes of self protection or rather reorganization, mankind ends up being one of the victims in disasters like earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc. Nature’s actions do not only affect its own tormentor but also humans who dominate other humans.
References
Cederlöf, Gunnel. (2013). Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity.Oxford University Press Crosby, Alfred, W. (1986). Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Studies in Environment and History) Cambridge University Press.

Cronon, William. (1992). A place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative, The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No 4 (Mar., 1992, pp 1347-1376Accessed: 17/06/2009 05:42.

Donald Worster and Alfred W. Crosby (1988). The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, Cambridge University Press.

Merchant, D. Carolyn ( 2010). Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. The University of North Carolina Press.