Centre for World Environmental History

Botanical and Meteorological History of The Indian Ocean World

The Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex, in collaboration with the British Library, the Library and Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, The Library and archives of the Natural History Museum, the U.K. Met office is developing a major research project on the records of natural history and in particular on the records of imperial botany and meteorology .

The project

This project which forms part of the Global Transformations research theme at the university responds to recent initiatives by the AHRC, particularly the support for research into South Asian Records of Climate Change.

The heart of the Centre’s current projects are two related projects, one project focuses on “Kew and India”. The project addresses a series of questions on the specific contribution of Kew in shaping the categories of natural knowledge and the capacity of communities to know and engage with the environment from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.  The second project aims at mapping the historic climate archive for the Indian Ocean World and to model particular climate events over a the last 500 years and even longer over a 2000 year period. Part of the larger project will compile a database of the paleoclimatic proxy archives (preferably continuous) that offer quantitative reconstructions of key climatic parameters for the Indian Ocean basin. Datasets will be filtered according to an agreed set of criteria that will likely include chronological control and errors, resolution of the time series, and geographical location of the archive. This is in collaboration with the Indian Ocean World Centre in Mcgill University in Canada.

The research agenda is inspired by the work of Richard Grove. Grove’s hypothesis was that the information-gathering institutions of modern forms of empire captured and made visible global patterns of environmental and climate change. He also argued that the politics of empire had significant environmental consequences. Empires not only recorded the data of natural history, the institutions of empire shaped the natural world. The goal of our research will be to sponsor research that analyses and explains this interaction of human societies with their environments.

The archive of imperial natural history is extraordinarily diverse. It ranges from landscape features, including remains of imperial institutions, through collections of natural objects, such as herbaria, and immense quantities of paper records. The archive offers a treasure trove of observations, such as climate and weather data, that are of immediate use to a variety of disciplines. This aspect of the archive opens up exciting avenues for collaborative work for historians. It is an immensely intellectually challenging archive however. To use it properly historians must be aware of the conditions of its production. The cross-cultural nature of so much of the archive demands particular attention. It is also a technically challenging archive. The techniques through which the objects in economic botany collections, land-use patterns and correspondence networks can be made to speak to one another are only slowly emerging. As well as developing techniques of analysis scholars have to address the need to make these kinds of records as publically accessible as possible. This is a particularly important feature of a project that is international by its very nature.

The Centre has held several workshops in U.K. and India to discuss the problems and possibilities of this research from May 2011-May 2014.

Researchers on this related project include; Vinita Damodaran, Jim Endersby, Anna Winterbottom, James Hamilton, George Adamson, David Nash, Dominic Kniveton and Mick Frogley

School Project on the Botanical and Meteorological History of The Indian Ocean

Pigment Brochure
Exhibition on the Botanical Heritage of India 1500-2000 AD
and School visits to the Botanic Garden and the Indian Museum


  •  Met office
  • Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew), London
  • The British Library (BL), London
  • The Natural History Museum (NHM), London
  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
  • Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Gardens, Kolkata
  • Indian Museum
  • National Archives of India

Botany in British India - project outcomes [PDF 120.22KB]

British Library and University of Sussex [PDF 104.32KB]

Transkribus proposal [PDF 83.54KB]


Including minutes from the Steering and Technical committees


History and science meet   - from the Untold Lives Blog