Start › Forums › Courses › Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History › 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
|February 5, 2014 at 11:32 #11484|
Current Debates–Seminar 1: 3/2/2014
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.
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.
|February 5, 2014 at 12:03 #11485|
Reply to Michael Deflorian’s reflection
For the sake of clarity I will follow the tripartite structure that Michael himself employs in his reflection. He addresses three crucial issues that emerge after reading Cederlöf’s text and are well worth of further scholarly attention and debate.
|February 5, 2014 at 12:18 #11486|
Reply to BERGLUND KRISTINA’s refection
|February 5, 2014 at 12:18 #11487|
Reply to BERGLUND KRISTINA’s refection
|February 5, 2014 at 12:47 #11488|
reply to Marcus’s reflection:
The reflection on academic/scientific urge to categorize and order in colonial situation is of course a difficult issue. The book tries to look into the perspective of the British settlers, and why they had this urge to re-order. In the end the goal of the British was to gain excess to new resources, so I would wonder how this affected the need to categorize the conquered land. Of course nowadays we have a adacemic and scientific need to quantify information, but back then it might have a different origin to do so
Of course science is powerful today, therefore it is good to question certain methods of producing this information. I believe there are too many assumptions made in a lot of reserch projects. The book is doing a good job at trying to show different perspective and question certain assumptions, this is shown by the fact that multiple readers pick up on this.
However, in the end in science you do need to set clear boundaries when you want to come to a clear result, which makes it still really hard to argue with this, which is a shame
|February 5, 2014 at 12:55 #11489|
Response to Nisa’s Reflection
Your reflection is very thoughtful and helpful as it draws out clearly one of the key themes in the book in a very lucid way.
I have two thoughts which might contribute to taking your reflection further. The first is when you suggest that the British annexed land which was unassessed. I wonder, though, whether this slightly simplifies the argument which the book was trying to make in the sense that it was the lack of stable output / revenue from the land – assessed or unassessed – which undermined some of the British attempts to exert control. In this sense I think your discussion with Mikael is relevant, as it would seem to me to be useful to consider a Foucauldian element to the nature or absence of power in relation to the subjects discussed (Fiscal or otherwise) in the book. By which I mean that it seems important to understand further how the people in the region experienced the different types of power imposed upon them by different actors, and how this then relates back to the question of land annexation. What does it mean to say that the British annexed the land? How did that affect the experiences of those who lived on it if there were no taxes being levied?
The second area which your reflection illuminates is the overlap and interactions between bureaucracy and mercantilism, or ‘corporate bureaucracy’ as you put it. One thing which is discussed in the book is that the individual merchants continued to make themselves very rich – for example Lindsey through limestone. Gunnel emphasised this in her lecture. This might lead us to ask the question of why the same people were poor at governing and good at making money. I think this bears on your argument that the ‘corporate bureaucracy’ was dysfunctional because it had mercantile characteristics. It is an interesting feature of this argument that those same characteristics – when not applied to governance – were extremely succesful (in financial terms, for the British), while they failed to be so when attempting to govern. A clearer disaggregation of the mercantilism and the bureaucracy might help in this regard.
All in all a really helpful reflection which certainly made me understand the book better.
|February 5, 2014 at 14:34 #11490|
Reply to Archie Davies’s reflection on Gunnel Cederlöf’s seminar and reading
Well written reflection Archie. You have picked up some interesting aspects in your reflection and you have a high level of analysis. You seem to focus on the issue of different sets of boundaries and the consequences they might have.
|February 5, 2014 at 16:22 #11495|
Reply to Sabbath Sunday
You cover the general parts about environmental history in the beginning of your reflection. I find it interesting that you include different environmental historians and perspectives; it gives a wider knowledge and understanding of the field. It´s good to reflect on Cedelöf´s book with other perspectives in mind to broaden the environmental discussion.
You cover the imperial expansion in both Cederlöf´s book and Worster & Crosby. The discussion about “duty” is interesting for our field. The imperial expansion covers travel routes with one aim; to find new land and new resources. The imperial reflection in regards of nature is very much relevant. Especially in regards of exploiting nature to gain capital and power. When reflecting on Cederlöf´s book, I think you make a good job in relating to Worster & Crosby. Especially when considering the discussion in terms of ecological imperialism. I also find the term “capitalist ecological revolution” interesting, that is something I will look into more.
In the end you summarize the climate cycle with it´s “harsh environmental condition”. It reflects on both the indigenous and the empire. Nature goes it´s on way. I think you have made a good reflection and an overall view of Gunnels book with relevant inputs from yourself and other sources.
|February 5, 2014 at 16:38 #11502|
Reply to Karin Sillen’s Reflection by Morag Ramsey.
Karin covers many important themes from Cederlöf’s book in her reflection.
Karin’s point about how the empire is the main actor in Cederlöf’s book was interesting because it encouraged me to consider the similarities and differences between Funding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontier, and Marc Cioc’s The Rhine: An Eco Biography. We were introduced to the debate about agency and nature earlier in this masters program, and while the environment is present throughout Cederlöf’s book, it is not always at the forefront of the action. The way in which Cederlöf encourages a more intricate analysis of history that includes climate, environment and natural science into its investigation does not directly deal with the issue of agency, yet complicated and strengthened the historical analysis nonetheless.
Karin’s focus on the relationship between merchants and the environment covered an important point from Cederlöf’s work as well. The fact that human relationship to nature alters and impacts our actions and decisions can easily be ignored to favour large memorable historical events, yet the environment and climate are extremely present in people’s day-to-day lives. As Karin notes, it is also important to consider discrepancies in climate and environment which different regions may have, despite being contained by man made boundaries.
|February 5, 2014 at 16:46 #11503|
Reply to HIRSCHSTEIN NICK’s Reflection by Yaqi Fu
Thanks very much for your thoughtful and broad reflection on both history and environmental sides.
In your reflection, first you wanted to figure out what is the main utility of history. From Gunnel’s book, you found the approach is looking history forwards, not backwards. I think this would be interesting if you can explain this “forwards thinking” idea further, because I did not fully notice this idea and from my experience, I am the person who always looks back from the long-standing Chinese history as well.
I find you tried to use history as a reference to overview the British colonial history in India. The comparison view between the British and Dutch is quite inspiring. I am also wondering how the British could learn effectively from the previous experience and what proportion of their policy-making were affected by history factors. I think the British had at least learned some valuable lessons from Dutch and they needed that, for colonial governance is more tricky than domestic issues.
The comparison between China and India in environmental issues is interesting and also needs to do cautiously. As you mentioned, China and India have quite a lot differences. In my mind, the differences are probably much larger. Huge population is one of the main reason that I can imagine causes many problems in the two countries. Besides that, what are the similarities that can effectively bridge the two countries? China and India have different culture, language, climate and history. The natural barriers between China and India really effectively separate the two countries, two cultural circles in history. Now they are still working or “working” in people’s mind. From my perspective, Chinese people know little about India, even less than the British.
I can imagine the monsoon in India changes the landscape obviously in different seasons. You wondered how much evidence on rapid environment changes in 1800, which I think is a very good question with great significance in understanding boundary vicissitude. The British rigid attitude is another thing that I did not pay much attention to. The resource insufficiency which is a rewarding question deserves to think twice. But sorry I am not able to say much about this.
|February 5, 2014 at 19:54 #11504|
Comment to Yaqi Fu
Thank you for making many good and interesting points.
The main focus in your reflection Founding an Empire is on the identity process and the idea of space which is an insightful and interesting approach. In Cederlöfs research the main sources are maps and revenue reports from the British rule and as you point out it would be very interesting to see how the historical narrative of the British Empire and the North-East would perhaps change when adding Chinese and Mongolian sources which is an excellent point made. Another good point you make is that of how the perception of nature defines identity and how nature acts as boundaries separating culture and countries in the region in a different and maybe more absolute sense then political or economic boundaries. Why did it take so long for the British to accept that the monsoon defines regional practises? Was it an identity crisis. How do you govern territory when one can’t be sure what the territory consist of?
|December 18, 2014 at 14:41 #15780|
Reply to Murag Ramsey’s reflection, Gunnel Cederlöf’s seminar, Feb 3 2014
You point ot how Cederlöf is “deconstructing the existing coherent narrative in colonial history”, which I would agree she is. Cederlöf is definitely trying to tell a new, and more complex narrative of early British colonialism in India. And I, just like you, have also too often made simplistic assumption about colonial histories and nation state’s interests.
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