Centre for World Environmental History

The East India Company and the Natural World

This project, funded by the British Academy, is an interdisciplinary one crossing the boundaries of social science, humanities and the history of science.

It aimed to understand the historical past of the increasingly severe environmental changes facing the world today and identified some key research areas such as The East India Company and botanic gardens, deforestation and conservation, the history of irrigation and the mapping of the environmental history of eastern India.

The East India Company botanic gardens served as foci for activity in all branches of the natural sciences. The research on this area was conducted primarily by Professor Harrison who has concentrated on aspects of the history of botany under the East India Company, with particular reference to the Calcutta Botanical Gardens and its two most famous Directors, William Roxburgh and Nathaniel Wallich. The first part of the work concentrated mainly on Wallich and on the Calcutta Garden's connections with the broader world of naturalists, not only within in the British Empire, but more generally within Europe. Research on this topic was conducted at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, the British Library, and the University of Wales, Bangor, among other places. This work formed the basis of the paper given by Professor Harrison at the conference in Delhi and, a little later, at a conference on the British Empire at the British Academy. He is currently conducting further research in British archives in order to turn this paper into an article. At the same time, he began research at the National Archives in New Delhi on William Roxburgh's period as Director of the Calcutta gardens. In due course, once the research has been completed, this will contribute to another article which looks at the connections between Roxburgh's moral vision of nature, his work at the gardens, and his involvement in schemes for agricultural improvement in India.

The work on the history of irrigation in Eastern India focused in the first year on the Great Hydraulic Transition: The Making and Un-making of the Bengal Delta in British India. The study by Dr D'souza aimed at exploring and documenting a hitherto untapped vein of historical source material that exists on the colonial encounter with eastern India's complex and varied hydrology. Starting from the early decades of the nineteenth century to well into the final decades of British rule, the Bengal delta was witness to a number of engineering and administrative actions with regard to 'improving', 'harnessing' , 'controlling' and 'commandeering' the regions many complex hydraulic endowments. In the first year of the Award grant Dr D'souza collected and processed the extant documents and papers relevant to the study from the Central Water Commission Library (R.K.Puram, New Delhi), National Archives of India (New Delhi), Teen Murti (New Delhi). He also had exploration done at Roorkee University Library (Uttar Pradesh), Institution of Engineers (Hyderabad) and National Library (Calcutta) and the Orissa State Archives (Bhubaneswar). He has been finishing a paper on the early years of the British East India Company's hydraulic encounters in the Bengal delta. Notably he is examining more closely the incredibly survey of Mr. James Fergusson carried out on the Lower Ganges and Brahmaputra in 1835. This apparently was the only survey of its kind carried out after the famous explorations of James Rennell in 1780-90. Added to this he is also looking at the writings of Leveson Vernon-Harcourt on the 'Hugli', Major F.C. Hirst on the Nadia rivers and several others such as William Willcocks and C. Addams Williams. Clearly, much like the early foresters in the Indian sub-continent, Company administrators and military engineers compiled a rich and illuminating documentation of the eastern deltas and their rivers. It is perhaps the case that much of the knowledge and theories thus generated, provided the foundations for the late nineteenth and early twentieth century gargantuan irrigation and large dam projects in India and maybe the world over.

The mapping of the environmental history of Eastern India from gazetteers was conducted by Dr Damodaran and her research assistants. They concentrated on districts in south Bihar and Orissa. To date, we have concentrated on forest cover and village settlements by examining settlement reports and official gazetteers to contruct detailed environmental histories such as that for Singhbhum and Kalahandi districts. In Kalahandi research shows that British rule caused rapid destruction of forests and displacement of the Kondh tribals causing rise in famine vulnerability. In Chotanagpur similarly Damodaran examines kinds of indigenous strategies for coping with local food shortages that were gradually destroyed by capitalist encroachment and colonial state policy in the nineteenth century. We have also considered the most under-researched area of resource use and management in rural India, that of 'wild resources'. These resources were of critical importance to the tribal people, not only for their economic and nutritional value but also for the cultural and aesthetic values encompassed within hunting, fishing and gathering activities and with the natural world in general.

Top image: 'Oopum' (Gossypium arboreum var. obtusifolium) (left) - the native cotton of South India, which the East India Company, through the efforts of Robert Wight, was trying to replace with (right) 'New Orleans' (Gossypium hirsutum).
© Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh