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

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February 3, 2014 at 14:18 #11443

Reading: Cederlöf, G. 2013. Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity.Oxford University Press

Instructions: Read the text and follow instructions given by the student organisers. A 1 page reflection according to instructions given by the student organisers must be submitted on 4 feb 18.00 in discussion forum. You must also comment a fellow students text before 5 feb18.00.

10-11 Introduction to the course
Course group: Mirabel Joshi, Michael Deflorian, Sarah Allouche-Rodrigue (studentrepresentatives GEH), Anneli Ekblom (Archaeology and Ancient History), Daniel Mossberg (CSD Uppsala)

11-12 Discussion seminar Gunnel Cederlöf (Cm 122 e, Geocentrum, Villavägen 16)

15.15-17 English Park Campus ENG 9-3036. Lecture and Book Launch “Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers” Gunnel Cederlöf (Guest professor at Division of History of Science and Technology, KTH, Guest professor Linnaeus university, researcher Uppsala University). Mind & Nature open lecture.

17 Official Book Launch organised by Mind & Nature

February 4, 2014 at 14:41 #11460
Mirabel Joshi

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.

February 4, 2014 at 14:54 #11461

Reflection paper: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism (Gunnel Cederlöf seminar)
Kristina Berglund

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.

February 4, 2014 at 14:55 #11462

Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History
Yu Wang
History department&Global Environmental History
Reflection 1 (2014-02-04)—
Cederlöf, G. 2013. Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity

Cederlof, G’s book Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity focus on the “North-Eastern Fronties”of India which was the colony of The British. At that time India was govern by the British East India Company(EIC). And as it known that , The EIC has played an important role in the British colony history in the past 200 years, especially to India and China. Colonial rule in India has an important role for the British , the British India is not only important for cheap raw materials , but also the important product dumping ground for Britain , for British India can not be replaced with other colonial role for economic reason. And also,. British India was very important strategic position geographically , At that time India including today’s India, Pakistan , Bangladesh and other now bordering India several small countries in South Asia. the guardian of the Indian Ocean to the Pacific traffic arteries is forefront of British aggression in Southeast Asia . The last important role is concern about China., the India’s environment was very suitable for planting opium in some areas , and bying river to take from opium from Indian port to China is also very convenient. , India is the UK ‘s main opium producing area in Asia, Britain earned a lot from the opium trade with China. and actually the opium trade with China is an important means of development of capitalism in the early British capital accumulation . A fact couldn’t be ignore was, the British War is a war between China and the East India Company . Those British troops were from India , not from the United Kingdom.
The last part of the book is about “The Fiscal Subject and the Absent Citizen”. This rule caused the traditional Indian society’s collapse and disintegration of feudal political and economic system. But were they all bad?, Marx had done this evaluation of British rule in India as, “the British social revolution in Hindustan caused entirely by a very vile interests reason, and those ways to get these benefits are also very stupid. But the problem is that , if the social situation in Asia without a fundamental revolution, could humans change their own destiny? If not, then, no matter how much offense the British did, it still caused this revolution, after all, is to serve as an unconscious tool of history. ”
In the end, this is my first course about enviromental history, I have no idea about the subject. But Gunnel’s book gives me a new idea to broad my view, enviroment is not such far away from our life like what I thought before.

February 4, 2014 at 14:59 #11463

Reflection 1 Yaqi Fu

In the afternoon’s lecture, around her book Gunnel posed three questions which I think are quite important in helping us understand the North-Eastern India area.

The first is about the formation of identity in absence of state. The North India is different from the South in language, tradition and identity. It’s hard to admit that the state has functioned effectively in shaping the identity of India. The north-eastern parts were often been depicted as a constitution of unions of tribes. With the absence or negative act of state, it would be an interesting topic to investigate how the identity of the north-eastern area produced, and further related to the other parts of India.

The second is about space or the idea of space. Gunnel’s book, unlike previous research, sees the region of North-Eastern India as a center for communication and commerce in ancient time. It worked as a hub that connected both the marine and overland “silk road” which incorporated Southwest China, Southeast Asia, India Peninsula. On the other hand, the North-Eastern India is also seen as the boundary between India and Southeast Asia. Boundary demarcating makes this region a more diversified identity according to different standards of boundaries.

The third is a about the perception of nature. Nature in this area is usually perceived as something dangerous. Natural disasters like drought and flood make indigenous people suffer death and become homeless. The landscape in this region also changes greatly such as water and land altering according to seasons. More importantly, nature functions in another way as boundaries that divide and separate different culture and countries in this region. So, nature is not mere the outside nature in this sense, but serves as a key factor in shaping people’s identity and also help separate different groups.

The road between China and India can be summarized as two: the overland one and the marine one. Mongol had governed China in Yuan Dynasty. In a larger sense, the governance of India by Mughal Empire can also be seen as the road created by Mongolians that connected China and India. The three ways were important in communication before the British came and still functioned under the Bureaucratic organization established by the Britain. It would be interesting if Chinese and Mongolian materials can be used to investigate this area.

February 4, 2014 at 15:17 #11464

Nisveta Dedić. Current Debates. Seminar 1, reflection 1. 4th of February 2014

The book “Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers” is an overwhelming read; it almost seems as if the topic of the book, which is defined by fluidity and dynamic ecological conditions of north-eastern Bengal, is reflected in the structure of the text. The text does not aim to give a totalizing account of the polity-forming process and questions the conventional history writing within the frames of nation states and essentialized categories of colonizer-colonized. Having an interest in philosophy of law, I mostly followed the thread of subject formation in bureaucratic practices, since it offers a unique insight in how the mercantile corporation the East Indian Company (EIC) moulded common law with custom-based local practices to create a civil bureaucratic apparatus and how a corporate bureaucracy driven by heterogenous interests differs from centralizing tendencies of state bureaucracy. Thus my reading of the text was primarily read through my interest in legal history, but the text also pushed me to question my preconceived separation of legal history from ecological conditions. What seem as stable legal categories in codified law, such as legal subject, private property, legal and/or political rights of subjects, came under serious questioning in the region characterized by drastically shifting landscape and consequently livelihoods depending on it, which renders the European cadaster-like land assessment quite irrelevant.
It is precisely the rigid revenue system created by the EIC that was not in accord with ground realities that challenged and halted the initial optimism of the EIC officers, who believed that an entreprenurial spirit and a simple bureaucratic fix will result in stable revenue and clear land rights. The Mughal Grant ceded to the EIC not only profits from revenue but also jurisdiction of the territory, but the corporate bureaucracy was alien to the social network framed by the Mughal administraton and consequently did not manage to construct a flexible apparatus. According to Cederlöf the primary intention of the so-called Permanent Settlement of 1793, was avoiding litigations arising from landholding rights disputes (p.130). But ignorance and downright denial of custom-based property rights resulted in fragmentation of land (cultivators became smallholders), thus adding to the chaos. Attempts at universalizing property rights on the basis of specific tribal societies that were comparable to European definition of legal subjects (male with property) resulted in access to land enabled by blood relation only and annuling of matrilineal inheritance (p.121). As time progressed, it became clear to EIC commissioners (Scott the foremost) that the revenue system based on classification unattuned to local social and ecological conditions, is inefficient. However, costum-based rights proponents (Orientalist or pragmatic) were disregarded and the British Governance simply annexed the unassessed land. After the Charter Act of 1833, when the EIC lost monopoly in China and tea trade, the EIC pushed on the north-eastern frontier towards the autonomous kingdoms. The land revenue system was inefficient again, because it did not correspond to shifting cultivation practices and the conditions of landscapes.
I believe the dysfunctionality of the corporate bureaucracy is partly due to its mercantile characteristics that was not able and was also unwilling to create ruler-subject relations that would not be determined only by fiscal advantages (the fiscal subject as termed by Cederlöf). This subject formation resulted in excluding the majority of population out of the polity network and especially people without property, bound labourers and women. The transfer of European codified law that was at the time undergoing major shifts (the emerging of discourse of rights) to a colonial polity was a differentiated, gradual and selective process; the abstract administrative revenue classification had to be remoulded in time- and space-bound conditions, thus internal strife between the EIC commisioners and the centralized Calcutta government was not unknown.

February 4, 2014 at 15:20 #11465

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.

February 4, 2014 at 15:47 #11466

Markus Nyström
Reflection paper 1
Current debates, 2014-02-03, ntroduction/Gunnel Cederlöf’s lacture

It’s interesting to read and hear about the complexities in the establishment of a colonial rule in the case of the early era of British rule in India as. Colonialism is naturally a very large subject but is often treated and talked about as something homogenous, and well-defined both temporally and spatially.
I my reading of Cederlöf’s book, there was a rather short section early on in the book that caught my attention in particular. It is graphic and telling, and though short, I would like to base my reflection on that section since I believe it points toward something bigger.
The section is the first three pages of chapter 2 (p. 17-19). What’s described was the effects of a powerful earthquake the 2 april 1762 in the Arakan and Chittagong area. Amidst the countless descriptions of the devastation the quake brought, there is the correspondence of the “revenue suerveyors” of the East-India Company. They only had eyes open for the cultivated land and revenue assessment. Cederlöf writes: “While the disaster reports spoke of chaos and represented nature as out of control, revenue and cartographic surveys were in search of a regular, stable and ordered landscape.”
The key words in that sentence are: “were in search of”. The surveyors had a strict method, as it were, guiding their perception and reporting. It as an apt description of how methodological bias blinds you, as a researcher/investigator/surveyor, from portraiting a subject of study fully or truthfully. It’s a healthy reminder and a very apt metaphor for research.
But I want to discuss something larger still. The act of (re-)categorization, of (re-)structuring, (re-)naming the (new) world that the colonialists encountered was in the border zone of science and struggle for colonial power. The work of cartographers and scientists were necessary for the colonial states to appropriate power. Without this knowledge (and this kind of knowledge), territorial colonialism would not have worked. I here combine the acts of research with the act of bureaucratization – including tax systems and the bureaucracy to uphold those systems – since I believe they stem from the same desire to rule and dominate – both nature and people – through an imposed system on knowledge.
It seems, as exemplified by Cederlöf, that there was a structurally demanded urge to put all of reality into the 18th century equivalent of a Windows Excell Document. Everything neatly in boxes of understanding and order. Order means control – not only in the colonial context, but generally – which means that categorization (or “methodological bias”) was a means of control. In other words, the result was control and power. But it is an assumption that the desire for power alone was the source of this urge to categorize.
I believe one could make a valid argument that there lies something deeper, still today, in the scientific/academic urge to order and categorize reality. In performing this ordering, in looking at the world and ignoring chaos and disaster, one is undoubtedly left with a view on reality as predictable, ordered and maybe even benign. I believe, to put it clearly, that this ordering could be a result of existential angst, leading away from faith in religions as both explanation of, as well as salvation from, a world full of dangers and death, to a materialist, secular “faith” in humanity itself.
I’m not implying this to be a good or a bad move. I merely want to point out the existential benefits of seeing the world as “regular, stable and ordered” instead of a place of disaster and chaos. In chaos, death is always close. In order, the inevetebility of death can be kept at bay.
It’s interesting in this regard to think about the role of science today. Of course, science is still a means of power and (today perhaps more than in the 18th century) technological prowess. But in the increasingly secular, or atheist, and globalizing world view of capitalism, there is undoubtedly an existential void to fill. Is it so unlikely that science is vital in filling that void? I think it’s an interesting thought experiment since it would mean that science is not only about knowledge and power, but an existential endevour.

February 4, 2014 at 16:04 #11468

Overall I think Gunnels book was interesting. I get the impression that the book is mostly about the British Empire and its expansion in India. Gunnel said at the discussion seminar that it´s good to start with the answer and work from that. In this case the British Empire is the answer. During the book you can learn about how the empire tried to find trade routes and connect with locals so the empire could gain as much profit and influence. Instead of direct rule, the empire tried to gain influence/power/profit by indirect ruling (Cederlöf, 2013: discussion seminar).

Due to the focus on the British Empire I experience that I gain lots of knowledge about the empire. The environment is there, in the background throughout the book, but the main actor is the empire. You get to read about land and sea routes as the Silk Road, how coins differed in materials, how the monsoon was important to have knowledge about and different tool and artwork materials among many things (Cederlöf, 2013:45-47). It´s a general understanding on how crucial nature and it´s resources were to the people living there and to the merchants operating in different areas. India is a large country, so it’s important to see the differences, and what kind of resources and landscape there are at specific places. For example, Bengal had a large network with different trade routs to marketplaces and to different water routes. (Cederlöf, 2013:46).

India’s eastern frontiers were important to understand from “ecological and political terms”. For example, the areas forests needed to be cut and maintained due to trade. The forest and it´s wildlife would grow back and make trading routes harder to use otherwise (Cederlöf, 2013:2). Without knowledge about surrounding environments there would be no profit gains for merchants. An ecological understanding is in best interest when entering new landscapes. The monsoon climate, for sure, was necessary to gain knowledge about. Knowing when and how the monsoon came made travels and trade easier (Cederlöf, 2013:3). There was this climate cycle to learn. I see the connection with nature and the importance to learn how nature works when it comes to imperial conquest. Probably the right ways to gain power in these areas are by indirect ruling and take advantage of local rulers, knowledge and long traditions.

February 4, 2014 at 16:06 #11469

Reflection on Gunnel Cederlof Seminar, Lecture and Reading
4th February 2014
Archie Davies

Maps and Borders

Central to Gunnel Cederlof’s thesis is an analysis of the interaction and disjunction between British attempts at exercising power and the physical realities of the region of North-East India under study. In this context she draws attention to the role of maps and map-making in the establishment of borders (of multiple types) in the region. She argues that there is an important difference between a border constructed out of linked points – which she associates with the mercantile expansionist border-making of the East India Company – and a border which manifests as a physical line. She argues that in the case of political or state borders, which she conceives of as continuous lines, “political power [is] correlated with space” while in the case of the mercantile borders “military and strategic concerns resulted in maps of interlinked strongholds.” She suggests (broadly speaking) that we could understand the development of political boundaries in North-East India as the former developing into the latter over time.

The case that there is a change in the nature of these borders over time is fairly convincingly put forward. However, it is not absolutely clear what the fundamental difference is between the two types of borders which she posits. Whilst it is comprehensively demonstrated in the book that a mercantile motivation leads to a different treatment of space and expansion in North-East India, the way in which this connects back into the nature of the borders is less clear. Though different subjects within what she describes as the ‘dual polities’ of the area in the period had different experiences of the operation of power, as explained for example through the question of land rights and fiscal subjectivity, it appears that this is less a consequence of one type of border over another, than of differing exercises of power – through governance, taxation, land control etc – within the space of the North-East. Though the analysis of the different processes undertaken in the course of establishing borders is clear, as is the historical import of different types of borders, the socio-political consequences of different types of borders is less obvious. Therefore it seems worth questioning what the substantive difference is between the two. After all, most political borders (with some very small number of exceptions) are not physical, man-made walls, but lines on the map and interlinked strongholds, which blurs the differentiation which Cederlof posits. She emphasises that the border was constructed through natural, rather than human interventions. Whilst some borders are aligned with natural features, even these are of course arbitrary human distinctions placed on the landscape. How artificial or natural the border lines are is relative rather than absolute. As is the fixity and continuity of the border over space.

What the consequences of different types of borders are is not fully considered. It would be interesting to consider, for instance, what the difference would be for a subject in the period between crossing a ‘mercantile’ border constructed of interlinked strongholds, and crossing a ‘political’ border understood as delimiting a political space.

This consideration of multiple types of borders, and the question of how borders manifest themselves within political spaces is of topical interest. The nature of surveillance and technological bureaucracy has rendered borders a more invasive concept. For instance in the United Kingdom, the government is currently considering proposals to introduce responsibilities for landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, a controversial move which would extend borders into and throughout the political space of the state. This type of border is of course of a different order to that discussed by Cederlof, but it is an example of how borders in the 21st century have developed. In this case it is clear that the nature of the border itself as a fixed and active metaphor for an exclusive national identity with associated rights is important in understanding the nature of political life for those within the space delimited by the border. The nature of the border therefore has consequences. How this dynamic plays out in North-East India in the period under study would be interesting to understand further.

February 4, 2014 at 16:58 #11470

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.

February 5, 2014 at 09:48 #11471

Reply on Mirabel Joshi’s reflection posted on February 4th, 14:41

Mirabel makes a very good point in emphasizing Gunnel’s recommendations for historical research: without taking nature into account the whole picture is incomplete. A historian can not claim to understand the past of the Northeast Bengal region without including nature in its various forms as a subject of inquiry: it is the monsoon floodings which change the livelihoods of local communities constantly, it is the water flows which make trade through this region possible and it is the wavy, inaccessible landscape which led to a quite arbitrary border between today’s India and Bangladesh. Nature DOES change over time and it influences human thinking and behaviour inevitably. In this sense, Collingwood is proven wrong in his anthropocentric conception of history and every historian is well advised to broaden her scope to the non-human drivers of the past.

Mirabel’s third point of reflection is noteworthy as well and can be extended to the nation state as the institutional background of most historical analyses. Every historian of today is born and raised in the “environment” of the modern state, with all its practices to govern individuals on a fixed territory. This raises the question of how a historian can reenact the thoughts of someone who has never experienced the state as a political institution before; or how it might feel for someone who is supposed to “build” a new state on a territory and people that are used to other forms of governing. “To do history forwards” entails to not take any institutional environment for granted but to conceive it as something that had become – and has to be rearticulated to stay in the present.

February 5, 2014 at 11:08 #11481

Current Debates
Seminar 1: Gunnel Cederlöf
Reflection Seminar 1

One of the ideas that I found interesting about the approach in the book is the concept of thinking about history not backwards, but forwards. Nowadays we try to use history to learn from previous mistakes. With this in mind to regard of the book, I was wondering if there was any evidence to be found where EIC explains or expands on their decisions at the time where they take earlier colonial conquest, successful of failed, as an example. The book sets from the end of the 18th century to halfway through the 19th century. About a century earlier the Dutch EIC experiences for example a really profitable period of trade, which then is followed by a great downfall of that same trade in South-East Asia. From my past education all I can remember (whether this is correctly or not) they dealt with some of the same circumstances. This makes me wonder whether the British had used some of the knowledge gained in earlier voyages and now tried to install a ‘better’ system in place. For example how Cederlöf mentioned how the British really tried to legitimize their rule (68). Was this a strategy based upon earlier experiences?
On the environmental level I believe this book offers an interesting bases for further research on current environmental problems. How has the British colonial interference still has its effect today? Does the monsoon still have such a great effect on the land usage? Also a comparison to the Western part China could be instituted. China and India are similar in some (environmental) characteristics, but differ much at the same time. Population growth, pollution, disease are components to compare, where one has had a period of colonial oppression, versus a region which has not or barely. Both India and China suffer from certain environmental problems, however these can have very different forms. Cederlöf mentions ecological barriers; are these still visible, now or in recent history.
The looking forward approach towards history is also helpful on the ecological level. How much evidence was there at the time that environment can rapidly change like it does during the monsoons in Asia. There is some research on rivers and their patterns in the early 1800’s, however these are often set in Europe, in very different circumstances. To what extend can you question the position of the British and their rigid attitude with the limited knowledge that had been offered. This is often criticized, however, since revenue is not their main purpose according to some sources, their rigid attitude is not so surprising.

February 5, 2014 at 11:21 #11482
Sabbath Sunday

Reply to Wang Yu’s reflection by Sabbath Sunday

Irrespective of your worry that you are a new student in the subject of environmental history, you have already pointed out very important issues in your reflection of Gunnel’s book. The collapse of the traditional Indian societies at the hands of the invading capitalist imperialists, who were struggling among themselves to control North East India, indicates a transition from subsistence to commercialized modes of production. This is a development that some environmental historians argue that it increases pressure on the environment because more resources are required as raw materials for growing industries.
Also you mentioned the ‘social revolution’ by the British, as an ‘unconscious tool in the construction of environmental history’, which is a very important point. I agree with you in a sense that the introduction of feudal political and economic systems not only contributed to increased exploitation of environment but also changed society’s perception on it. This is what D. Carlolyn Merchant has referred to as ‘ecological revolution’ because of how different societies can change their relationship to nature. Apart from social and economic changes, you could have supported your point with the factor that the imperialist who came to this region also brought with them plant and animal species which were introduced in the environment, e.g new crops and weeds from Latin America.
Finally another point which I can develop from your opening reflection is that the factor that North East India was naturally endowed with massive wealth, several imperialists were attracted, like the British, the Mughal, Ahom, Chinese, Burmese and others who took away their booties. The region was never been the same again as before because of ecological and economic exploitation which put the environment at a great risk.

February 5, 2014 at 11:24 #11483
Sabbath Sunday

Reply to Wang Yu’s reflection by Sabbath Sunday

Irrespective of your worry that you are a new student in the subject of environmental history, you have already pointed out very important issues in your reflection of Gunnel’s book. The collapse of the traditional Indian societies at the hands of the invading capitalist imperialists, who were struggling among themselves to control North East India, indicates a transition from subsistence to commercialized modes of production. This is a development that some environmental historians argue that it increases pressure on the environment because more resources are required as raw materials for growing industries.
Also you mentioned the ‘social revolution’ by the British, as an ‘unconscious tool in the construction of environmental history’, which is a very important point. I agree with you in a sense that the introduction of feudal political and economic systems not only contributed to increased exploitation of environment but also changed society’s perception on it. This is what D. Carlolyn Merchant has referred to as ‘ecological revolution’ because of how different societies can change their relationship to nature. Apart from social and economic changes, you could have supported your point with the factor that the imperialist who came to this region also brought with them plant and animal species which were introduced in the environment, e.g new crops and weeds from Latin America.
Finally another point which I can develop from your opening reflection is that the factor that North East India was naturally endowed with massive wealth, several imperialists were attracted, like the British, the Mughal, Ahom, Chinese, Burmese and others who took away their booties. The region has never been the same again as before because of ecological and economic exploitation which put the environment at a great risk.

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