Empire, Science and the Environment

Module code: 904V1B
Level 7 (Masters)
30 credits in spring semester
Teaching method: Seminar
Assessment modes: Essay

This module focuses on the impact of European scientific ideas on environments and people in a globalising world. We use botany as a specific area of specialisation.

From the 18th century, at the botanic gardens in Kew, Chelsea and Edinburgh, men trained in the empirical processes of observation, comparison and evaluation. They gathered comprehensive collections of native and exotic plants for microscopic examination. Botanists in particular believed that their technical skills would allow them to rectify imbalance of resource access by transferring certain natural productions from one region to another, and acclimatising them in new environments. Botany and power intertwined as nations endeavoured to guard their precious treasures.

The race to harvest the resources of the tropics was part of this part of this story. This had mixed implications for regions such as India and Africa in the 19th century. Environmental transformations followed in the wake of botanical exploration. Plantation economies such as tea, coffee and rubber, along with forest reserves, had a negative impact on many societies and communities. Resistance to forest reservations by indigenous communities followed.

As indigenous and tribal knowledge became downgraded, the maximising cultures of capitalism were also restrained by early colonial environmentalism. This built on scientific ideas of dessication, drying up and fears of famine.

The relationship between Science, Environment and Empire was ambiguous and you will explore it in this innovative module. You'll study how historians have addressed questions such as:

  • the utility of science to the practice and maintenance of empire
  • the diffusion of knowledge
  • the mutual influences of the metropole and the 'periphery'
  • the role of umbrella organisations such as botanical gardens, the Royal Society, British Association, and so on.

Module learning outcomes

  • Display a broad knowledge of the approaches to environmental history, the history of science and of empire, with particular reference to the 'British World' since the scientific revolution.
  • Display a specialised knowledge of major developments in the scientific, social and environmental history of the British Empire and the interaction of various zones and regions within it over time.
  • Display oral and written skills of clarity, rigour, precision and concision in the presentation and criticism of arguments and positions.
  • Display the ability to engage in reasoning of an abstract, theoretical and conceptual nature, and to understand and deploy appropriate technical terminology.