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june 7, 2014 vol xlIX no 23 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
The British Empire and the Natural World:
Environmental Encounters in South Asia edited
by Deepak Kumar, Vinita Damodaran and Rohan D’Souza
(New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2011; pp XIV + 280,
Rs 695.
South Asian Environmental History
Lauren Minsky
his volume raises critical questions
of scale for historians engaged in
writing about south Asia’s environ-
mental past. Its keystone is the intellec-
tual legacy of the pioneering environ-
mental historian Richard Grove. Grove
argues that the British empire provides
the expansive spatial and temporal
scales needed to properly explain the
emergence of modern environmental
ideas and processes of ecological
change. Ins pired by Grove’s approach,
this volume’s editors and contributors
expand upon his vision to make two sig-
nificant interventions in current histori-
ographical debates. First, they show how
the spatial scale of Britain’s empire –
consisting of colonial territories and im-
perial networks that spanned the globe –
enables south Asian environmental his-
torians to effectively globalise their
field. Second, they illustrate how the
chronological scale of the British empire
– stretching from the early modern to
the modern period – enables historians
to explain a major transformation in
south Asia’s environmental history: the
emergence of distinctly modern “envi-
ronmental encounters” in the form of
state regimes driven by the twin impera-
tives of resource extraction and scientif-
ic conservation. Ultimately, The British
Empire and the Natural World contrib-
utes in substantial ways to ongoing efforts
among historians to rethink the scales
with which they study south Asia’s envi-
ronmental past.
An Imperial Scale
Perhaps no methodological question is
as compelling or vexing in the current
historiographical moment as that of space.
This book responds by challenging the
use of spatial scales set by the geopolitical
borders of Britain’s colonies and sub-
sequent nation states. Its essays instead
highlight the centrality of a dynamic
interplay between “local” colonial state-
making in the form of struggles to define,
order, manage and cultivate natural
resources in varied ecological settings,
and “global” connections and circulations
of flora, fauna, ideas, policies, practices,
personnel and commodities among both
proximal and distant imperial sites.
The hills, forests and jungles of the
Indian subcontinent constitute one im-
portant cluster of ecological settings and
case studies in this regard. Daniel Rycroft
begins by explaining how a British East
India Company revenue surveyor-cum-
geologist developed a tribal identity for
the Santals of the Rajmahal Hills of
Bengal and, in so doing, subordinated
them via imperial discourses and practices
of deterritorialisation that circulated
globally. Deborah Sutton follows with
an analysis of how the British colonial
officials segmented and conserved small
tracts of indigenous shola forests of the
Nilgiri hills as aesthetically valuable.
Simultaneously, however, they created
large plantation forests of “exotic”
s pecies to meet global market demands
and conform to imperial priorities of
scienti fic forest management. Jayeeta
Sharma similarly illustrates how the
British sovereignty came to be exercised
in Assam through the forcible transfor-
mation of its jungles into industrial tea
plantations closely tied to global capi-
talist markets. Lastly, Asoka Kumar
Sen explores how complex struggles
b etween the ecological priorities of
the British and the Ho tribe produced a
“hybrid” form of imperial state forestry
practices in Jharkhand.
Turning to agrarian spaces, the contri-
butors of this book offer studies of how
the colonial state built irrigation and flood
control works to transform marginal
“waste” lands into zones of intensive and
profitable commercial agriculture. In a
study of the Royal Indian Engineering
College at Coopers Hill (in Surrey),
Christopher Hill explains how an imperial
mindset and esprit de corps – one that
ignored local knowledge and ecological
specificity and diversity – became domi-
nant in imperial irrigation and public
works projects. Next, B Eswara Rao
identifies a significant disconnect between
the imperial ideologies of improvement
and development that circulated globally
and the ecological degradation that
manifested locally in his analysis of the
Economic & Political Weekly EPW june 7, 2014 vol xlIX no 23
Godavari anicut in colonial Andhra.
Praveen Singh discusses how local com-
petitive embankment politics involving
civil officials, engineers and zamindars
in north Bihar confounded and reshaped
imperial ideologies and approaches to
flood control in that region. In conclu-
sion, Peter Schmitthenner demonstrates
the diversity of irrigation histories in
British India by comparing the environ-
mental and cultural consequences of
i mperial irrigation projects in the Cauvery
and Godavari deltas.
The three remaining chapters of this
book, which open and close the volume,
shift attention from ecological settings
within British India to places located out-
side of its territorial borders, yet within its
sphere of influence. Aparna Vaidik opens
by considering British imaginings and
administrative renderings of the “wild”
Andamans and “Edenic” islands like
Mauritius as part of a global process of
imperial state-making throughout the
wider Indian Ocean world – and one, too,
that connected to the Caribbean and
Pacific worlds. The final set of essays,
meanwhile, explores British India’s influ-
ence on neighbouring states. D G Donovan
considers how British India – as a major
market, investor and model – transformed
forestry practices and forest cover across
the Himalayas in Nepal. Looking south,
S Abdul Thaha finds that the forestry
policies and practices of Hyderabad state
were substantially modelled upon those
of British India.
Taken together, this volume illustrates
the rich potential of working with the
spatial scale of the British empire to
globalise south Asia’s environmental
history. Additionally, it offers a compel-
ling model for thinking in ecologically
informed terms about the subspaces
of south Asia, and for visualising these
various “local” subspaces as articulating
with ideas and practices that circulated
globally. The only aspect of the volume
that is somewhat puzzling, given the edi-
tors’ insistence on the value of working
with a global scale, is that all of the case
studies are drawn from south Asia and
that the majority of the “global” connec-
tions considered are between the imperial
metropole and these south Asian loca-
tions. Ultimately, too, one wonders about
the methodological implications of em-
ploying a post-second world war United
States’ imperial area studies category,
defined by the aggregate borders of nation
states, to delineate the sub-space of anoth-
er nation’s empire during an earlier period.
To raise these points, however, is simply
to illustrate the tremendously fertile
spatial issues that this book opens up.
There are, too, important reasons in the
present moment for its editors to focus
on “south Asia”. As mentioned, doing so
demonstrates the tremendous diversity
of ecologies and global interconnections
comprising this region. Moreover, there
are substantial institutional impediments
to the production of scholarship across
area-studies divides. Long-standing and
deeply-institutionalised divisions mark
the historiographical landscape and ensure
the organisation of scholarship and its
central debates, scholarly presses, book
series, training of graduate students, and
academic conferences (such as those in
New Delhi, from which this edited vol-
ume emerged) accordingly. By focusing
on south Asia, the editors of this book
make meaningful interventions in this
area’s particular historiographical dis-
cussions. It is to these contributions that
this review now turns.
Ecological Footprint of an Empire
Perhaps the most widely debated questions
in the general historiography of south
Asia concern the nature and impact of
the British colonial rule and the relative
agency of British versus indigenous actors.
During the 1980s and 1990s, a consensus
largely prevailed that, prior to the arrival
of the British, indigenous south Asians
lived in harmony with nature and engaged
in ecologically sustainable agricultural
and forestry practices. With the arrival
of the British, an abrupt rupture occurred:
indigenous people were subordinated
and their environmental practices sup-
pressed and replaced by the extractive,
unsustainable and destructive practices
of the British colonial state.
In recent years, environmental histo-
rians have done much to complicate and
revise these early conclusions. Those
e ngaged in rejecting methodological
n ationalism and in rethinking the spatial
scales of south Asia’s past have, more over,
tended to be at the forefront of these ef-
forts. This book contributes purposeful-
ly to this project. Framed as it is around
the British empire, the volume not sur-
prisingly upholds the period of the Brit-
ish colonial rule as the critical rupture
and transformative moment in south
Asia’s environmental past. However, it
also offers an especially lucid and com-
pelling explanation for why this was the
case. The Indian subcontinent – long
home to the world’s leading sites for cot-
ton textile manufacture – was colonised
in a process that was largely concurrent
with Britain’s industrial revolution in
textile production. The creation of British
India was an integral and s imultaneous
part of the emergence of the British
industrial capitalism.
The temporal scale of Britain’s empire
in south Asia, thus, enables historians
of this area to pinpoint and explain the
late 18th and 19th centuries emergence of
characteristically modern “environmental
encounters” in the form of state develop-
ment regimes. The volume’s Part II
(“Making Natural Resources for the
Empire” with essays by Hill, Sutton and
Sharma) and Part III (“Impacts and
Negotiations: The Empire’s Ecological
Footprints” with chapters by Rao and
Praveen Singh) are particularly concerned
with understanding how south Asian
colonial territories were transformed
into sites for the production of raw mate-
rials and commodities to serve a rapidly
industrialising imperial metropole. As
Grove establishes in his seminal study
Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion,
Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of
Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (Studies
in Environment and History), an imperi-
al impetus to respond to and protect the
environment from unsustainable forms of
human exploitation simultaneously led to
the emergence of scientific regulation and
conservancy practices. In addition to the
essays in Parts II and III, those in Part I
(“Environmental Imaginations and Em-
pire” by Vaidik and Rycroft) and in Part V
(“The Long Ecological Shadows of the
Empire” by Donovan and Thaha) ad-
dress the novel global impulse for scien-
tific management of the environment.
Several contributors also suggest the
value of contextualising these British
june 7, 2014 vol xlIX no 23 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
imperial developments in south Asia
within an even longer temporal scale.
Grove himself is notable for working
with the full temporal sweep of the British
empire, including the early modern period
when formal territorial rule was not yet
established in the subcontinent. In a
s imilar spirit, Vaidik embeds her study of
the British imperial inter actions with
the Andaman islands within a deep his-
tory of how the many trading communi-
ties of the Indian Ocean rim engaged
with these and other islands. Schmit-
thenner, likewise, places the British irri-
gation projects in the context of pre-
colonial riverine irrigation works along
the Cauvery and Godavari rivers, while
Sen studies the Ho tribe’s long pre-
colonial history of shaping Jharkhand’s
forest through processes of “ruralisa-
tion” and “peasantisation”. Donovan
similarly notes that well before the
emergence of the British India, human
activity had profoundly shaped Nepal’s
forested landscape. Taken together,
these essays suggest the importance of
thinking about the British empire as a
transformative period in south Asia’s
environmental history, but one that can
only be fully appreciated in relation
to prior environmental practices and
patterns of change.
Lastly, all of the contributors work to
reappraise the colonial power dynamics
responsible for generating the enormous
“ecological footprint” of the British empire.
Collectively they question conventional
models of oppositional relations between
coloniser and colonised, and highlight
instead the complexity of the social
p ower relations at work in global imperial
networks. Yet, substantial points of dif-
ference mark their interpretations. Those
contributing to Parts I and II (Vaidik,
Rycroft, Hill, Sutton and Sharma) are
primarily interested in understanding
how the British agency shaped novel
environmental changes and ecological
management practices. As the volume
turns from forests and jungles to agrari-
an spaces in Parts III and IV (Rao, Singh,
Schmitthenner and Sen), different social
power dynamics – characterised by com-
plex negotiations among and between
the British and local social groups –
instead come to the fore. Notably, the
two contributors to Part V (Donovan and
Thaha), who examine the influence of
the British Indian actors on those of
neighbouring states, offer a rarely con-
sidered dimension to considerations of
imperial social power and agency.
Scales of Environmental History
This book is an important piece of scholar-
ship which ably honours Richard Grove
and illustrates the vitality of his approach.
It ultimately offers a compelling model
for how historians can escape metho-
dological nationalism and work to glo-
balise south Asian environmental history.
Simultaneously, it suggests the important
possibility of thinking about south Asia
(and other colonised areas) as central
driving forces, rather than marginal sub-
ordinated peripheries, in modern global
environmental histories. For many rea-
sons, it should be widely read and taught.
Lauren Mins ky ( is with
New York University, Abu Dhabi.
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