Ecological Networks and Transfers across the Indian Ocean in the Age of Empire

In today’s blog, Ulrike Kirchberger introduces the Special Issue of Global Environment (13.1, Spring 2020) that she recently edited, on ‘Ecological Networks and Transfers across the Indian Ocean in the Age of Empire’. 

The Indian Ocean has always been a space of ecological exchange. People, plants and animals crossed it and transformed the natural environments of Africa, Asia and Australia over long periods of time. In the nineteenth century, when European colonial powers expanded their influence, these exchanges increased. Humans and nonhumans moved across the ocean to an unprecedented degree. The introduction of the steamship and the telegraph facilitated and accelerated these migrations. Colonists shipped cattle, horses and sheep between the three continents. Australian eucalypts and acacias were acclimatised in Africa and Asia. Camels were brought from the Middle East to Australia, and ‘exotic’ birds were exported from Asia to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The transfer of ecological knowledge and data between the European experts in colonial Asia, Africa and Australia also intensified during these decades.

However, the ecological exchanges that the European colonists initiated for economic, scientific and aesthetic reasons often had consequences that they had not intended or expected. Some of the introduced species spread excessively, others died in their new environments or grew so slowly that they could not be used for breeding. The Australian acacias were accompanied by insects that caused damage in the citrus plantations of the countries of arrival. Transfers also failed when cyclones and other tropical storms hit the ships during the transoceanic journey and destroyed the deliveries of seeds, roots and live plants and animals.


Bauhinia Hookeri
Bauhinia Hookeriin the AgriHorticultural Society of India, Kolkata. The BauhiniaHookeriwas named by the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, Ferdinand von Mueller, in 1859. Its origins were located in Northern Australia and Queensland. Photograph: Ulrike Kirchberger.

The special issue deals with the research problems associated with this emerging field of environmental history. It assembles a selection of texts that were presented at a workshop at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich in September 2018. They examine the ecological transfers across the Indian Ocean from different disciplinary and methodological perspectives and analyse networks in different regions of the Indian Ocean.

The articles investigate different spatial constellations. David Arnold and Ruth Morgan concentrate on the ecological exchanges between South Asia and the Australian colonies. Vipul Singh, in his article on the Andaman Islands, shows that islands were important centres of ecological transfer across the Indian Ocean. James Beattie uncovers species transfers that took place between South Asia and New Zealand in the middle of the nineteenth century. Whereas most of the articles focus on the age of empire, Gwyn Campbell, in his article, develops a long-term perspective and examines human-environment interaction in the Indian Ocean World from 300 BCE to 1750. In this way, he questions anthropocentric paradigms about humans being the catalyst of historical change. Haripriya Rangan examines patterns of ecological change in the Ethiopian highlands during the macro-epoch of the Holocene.

However, the special issue doesn’t only present different space/time-dimensions, it also examines the relations between different human and non-human participants involved in the ecological networks across the Indian Ocean. It shows that the human participants, who shared the common cause of ‘improving’ non-European natural environments by the transoceanic ecological transfers, were a socially and ethnically heterogeneous group of people. David Arnold deals with the foresters and botanists who transferred Australian trees to South Asia. Ruth Morgan concentrates on the experts who developed meteorology as a science to predict weather and climate changes and, by doing so, to manage natural disaster, drought and famine in British India and the Australian colonies. Vipul Singh examines the role of South Asians and the indigenous societies in the ecological transfers on the Andaman Islands. James Beattie uncovers a group of wealthy pensioners of the East India Company who choose New Zealand as a place to retire and introduced a cornucopia of plants and animals from South Asia to New Zealand. Lisa Jenny Krieg, in her article, concentrates on the nonhuman participants in the transfers. She analyses the migrations of the Phelsuma day gecko in the Western Indian Ocean. By applying concepts from animal studies and multispecies ethnography, she shows how the geckos escaped human control and defined their own migratory paths.

The special issue ends with an interview conducted by Christof Mauch with Haripriya Rangan. It addresses central methodological problems. Rangan urges historians to overcome the limited perspectives offered by the colonial records and to engage more with the results of natural sciences when they deal with species transfer and ecological change in the Indian Ocean arena.

Examining the transfers across the Indian Ocean adds new dimensions to current research on ecological imperialism. The issue shows that the transfers across the Indian Ocean in the age of empire were frequent and copious and that ecological imperialism was not a one-way process of transferring European biota from the imperial core to the colonial periphery. The acclimatisation of species from Asia created ‘neo-Eurasias’ rather than ‘neo-Europes’ in the settler colonies of Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The aim to ‘civilise’ colonial environments according to the visions of European expansionism was confronted with the unexpected dynamics the nonhuman participants unfolded in the course of the transfers and with the unpredictabilities of tropical weather and climate. Hierarchies shifted and the European eco-engineers often turned into helpless bystanders who struggled to keep control over the transfers they had initiated. By dealing with these complexities and ambiguities the special issue sheds new light on processes of ecological change in the age of empire.



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