If it takes breadth of imagination and a grasp of geography to grapple with the enormity of the scale and consequences of the British Empire, the authors of The British Empire and the Natural World do it for their readers in one extended 91-word sentence. I reproduce here part of it: ‘If totalled as a single bloc from territories gained, held, controlled and lost over the course of almost four centuries, the flag of the British empire could be unfurled and drawn in the fashion of a near uninterrupted arc across the globe’. The essays contained in this volume are inaugurated with the declaration that the scale of investigation of the British empire’s environmental intervention and impact can be nothing less than global. The authors’ arguments are persuasive. Their introduction to the book is a sweeping gist of the ongoing evolution of environmental history, especially when one is burrowing into the history of landscapes that bear the footprints of British imperial ambition.
Earlier scholars have contended that far from reducing colonies to mere receivers of ideas transmitted from the metropole, the British empire displayed an inherent tension between thoughts and impulses that arose at both ends and travelled in opposite directions, frequently intersecting mid-way. At the same time, the empire sought to establish an ‘ecological regime’ across its colonies in the way plantations were raised, irrigation networks chiselled out, or game-parks erected for restricted hunting and conservation.
Having inherited such a legacy from previous explorers of the terrain, the authors place their own work within the comparative and interdisciplinary approaches that mark more recent environmental history writing. The eleven essays of their book, each representing an ‘environmental encounter’, traverse nine distinct geographical regions in South Asia. Although centred on the local or regional, the issues discussed evoke resonance with the global character of ecological change in the British imperium.
The anthology is arranged in five parts, and opens with a set of essays that emphasize the manner in which landscapes and people entered the imagination of the colonists. The two interesting essays here offer insights into the imagery that led to the colonial ordering of diversity—natural as well as cultural. How imaginations influenced the utilitarian extraction of natural resources is the next theme in the volume. The harness of natural resources in the service of empire is accomplished not only by domesticating rivers for irrigation or clearing ‘jungle’ to raise plantations and grow ‘useful’ forest, but also by imparting engineering skills imbued with ‘a special professional pride’ befitting (as Christopher Hill remarks in his essay) ‘rulers rather than scholars’. The third section of the book focuses on the impacts of environmental intervention. The two essays here show how attempts at flood control as well as agriculture-oriented hydraulic projects had to be negotiated through unforeseen challenges thrown up by the local contexts. The fourth section further reflects on the negotiated nature of ecological attitudes as well as impacts by paying close attention to the interplay between administrative intent and local response. The essays here argue that local ‘cultures reshape[d] the empire’. The final section, which examines forest management in Nepal and the princely state of Hyderabad, displays the sway of the empire on territories that lay beyond its administrative control but nevertheless within its sphere of ecological (and political) influence.
As a compendium with a nuanced reading of the history of colonial South Asia, the volume is accessible as much to the dilettante as to the scholar. The most vital contribution of the book however, may be the relevance it holds for issues that are of immense contemporary interest. One of these is the ambitious and controversial proposal to interlink the major Indian rivers, whose purported benefits include a major expansion of irrigation, drinking water supply, power generation and water transport. The three essays on major hydraulic projects in colonial India in this volume make it apparent that the proposal needs to be subjected to considerable critical scrutiny. As Peter Schmitthenner states in his essay, the relative success of irrigation projects on the river deltas of the Godavari and Cauvery in south India may be attributed to the fact that they fit well into the local environmental and cultural landscapes. On the other hand, the failure of flood control in northern Bihar, and the local conflicts that were unleashed, lays bare the severe limitations of engineering skill motivated by considerations of revenue and nature control alone.
A second contribution of the book is to raise the question of environmental imagery, which continues to be relevant to the present context, especially in the way we perceive people identified as adivasis or ‘tribals’ in India. Both Aparna Vaidik’s discussion of the Andaman Islands in the colonial imagination, and Daniel Rycroft’s interrogation of the colonial construction of tribal identity in Bengal’s Rajmahal Hills, provide useful points of departure to interrogate the continued depiction of tribals as laggards in the teleology of human evolution. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands were portrayed by a section of the Indian media as ‘junglee’ or savages. In general, there seems to be a heightened degree of paternalism that characterizes popular perception and state policy towards India’s tribes in the present context. The two essays in the first section of the book offer a useful handle to introspect and ask if the hierarchies established by the political ideology of representations in colonial India are not present in the environmental intervention—dams, power projects, mining leases and the like, of the postcolonial Indian state.
The book has some shortcomings. Only three of the eleven essays come with maps. The essays would have done well with cross-referencing. The book lacks an index. A major shortcoming is the significant number of typos and also editing errors. In terms of content, environmental encounters of a more urban character are missing in the book. However, this is more a gap in scholarship on South Asian environmental history that needs to be addressed. Again, only one of the eleven essays deals explicitly with a South Asian region that is not a part of Independent India. Although nation-states admittedly do not make for a very promising scale of analysis as pointed out by the authors, prospective environmental historians may still usefully turn their attention to landscapes in Burma, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan given the paucity of literature on these countries (a fact that may be partially true of Pakistan and Bangladesh as well). Among the essays, the cliched sense in which the word ‘tribal’ is used at a couple of places in the essay entitled ‘Collaboration and Conflict’ is troubling, more so given that an earlier essay discusses the construction of ‘tribal’ identity as a product of the colonial imagination. Lastly, the volume would have profited from a more explicit tying together of the essays to the book’s central theme, possibly in the form of a chapter of reflections at the end.
Even so, there is no doubt that the anthology at hand makes for a compelling read, and deserves to be widely read and discussed for its relevance to present-day issues. The book is a fitting tribute to the towering Richard Grove, to whom it is dedicated, as well as the late Bela Malik, whom the authors have handsomely acknowledged.