Obituary: Richard Hugh Grove (1955–2020)

By Professor John Mackenzie. This obituary will also be published in Environment and History 26.4 (Autumn 2020)

Richard Grove, the founder and first editor of  Environment and History, has sadly died at the age of 64. Richard was a historian of ideas/geographer/environmentalist/all combined with many other scholarly interests.  His life story was in many ways one of triumph and tragedy. He established himself very quickly as an environmental historian of considerable distinction and spread his net over a remarkably diverse set of areas of the world, but his disabling car crash in Australia in 2006 tragically frustrated his very considerable potential.  Nevertheless, he leaves a remarkable corpus of work which in some ways changed the course of the discipline and has received more citations than almost any other scholar in the field.

His book Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, based upon his Ph.D. thesis and published in 1995, was a landmark work. The title, as Richard always enjoyed pointing out, was consciously provocative. In the postcolonial era, Imperialism was very much reframed as something truly violent and nasty. So how could it possibly be ‘Green’ which had such different and positive resonances? The answer lay in Richard’s marrying of botanical, medical and climatological ideas with early concerns about the environment. He demonstrated that ‘tropical island edens’ could so easily become environmental dystopias particularly through the removal of tree cover and the consequent effects upon rainfall. Desiccation theory, he demonstrated, had a long history. Islands were convenient laboratories, spatially restricted and cut off from the land masses by the oceans. Botanists had long been interested in them, as of course had evolutionary theorists, but Richard carried the observational value of islands back into the seventeenth century and connected the progression of ideas to the Scottish Enlightenment (particularly its surgeon botanists), its connections with thinking in Europe, and ultimately to the development of forestry practices in India. The latter were promoted by the fact that the Indian imperial administration was free of the restraints of white settler ambitions (which affected the situation in South Africa, for example) and was able to develop state forestry policies long before they were thought of in Britain itself.

Richard’s ideas spanned Caribbean islands, St. Helena in the South Atlantic, and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, but he became even more geographically promiscuous. In 1987, he had already coedited Conservation in Africa (to which I was privileged to be a contributor) and his global concerns continued to be expressed in work on Zimbabwe, his Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History (1997) and, importantly, his co-editing of and contribution to the monumental volume Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia (1998) with his wife Vinita Damodaran and Satpal Sangwan. It is useful to detail the impressive sections of this book since they indicate the full range of Richard’s own interests. They embraced ‘The Pre-Colonial Period’, ‘The Colonial State and the Construction of Nature’, ‘The Colonial Scientific Community and its Environmental Agendas’, ‘The Ecological Demands and Transforming Impact of Colonialism’, ‘Forest Management’, and the ‘Damaging Impacts of Colonial Forest Management and Indigenous Societies’. His next major achievement was to develop his pioneering work (with J. Chappell) on the El Nino phenomenon: El Nino, History and Crisis: Studies from the Asia-Pacific Region of 2000, which concentrated on Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. To these must be added a number of articles, some of which specifically connected historical work to modern environmental issues. His range was perfectly illustrated in his contribution to a work I edited, Imperialism and the Natural World (1990): ‘Colonial conservation, ecological hegemony and popular resistance: towards a global synthesis’. We also discussed our joint interests in his article on ‘Scottish missionaries, evangelical discourses and the origins of conservation thinking in South Africa, 1820-1900’.


His scholarly distinction was well illustrated by the posts he held in Cambridge, Yale, Sussex and the Australian National University. He founded the Centre for the Study of World Environmental History at Sussex in 2002 and almost immediately organised a landmark (and well-attended) conference on ‘Environmental History and Forestry of the British Empire and Commonwealth’ in 2003.  In 2011, Vinita Damodaran, Deepak Kumar and Rohan D’Souza published a festschrift in his honour with the very appropriate title The British Empire and the Natural World: Environmental Encounters in South Asia.

His reputation in India was well represented by the obituary in the Indian Express on 1 July 2020, in which the distinguished environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan described Richard as ‘A pioneer in global environmental history [who] made a major contribution to studying the roots of new environmental concern and linking it to the colonial era and to early scientific debates’.

But what of Richard the man? His enthusiasm was boundless, as was his eagerness to develop new fields and connect with as many other scholars as possible.  Ideas and projects erupted from him in a spectacular form, but the lava flows were, like those in nature, rather unpredictable, even chaotic. It must be said that Green Imperialism would have benefited from some careful copyediting, even if its flaws do not detract from its major importance. It is somehow symptomatic that one of Richard’s own favourite stories was the manner in which he smuggled his thesis, twice as long as it should have been, past his Cambridge examiners.  This reflects the manner in which he was a law unto himself; like many figures whose personalities border on genius, he was impatient with the niceties of rules and editorial detail. Much more of an inspirer and a fountain of ideas (to change the metaphor), he was not a natural editor. His period with Environment and History became a difficult one for the publisher and I was drafted in to try to pull things together. Yet it was typical that he had the original idea and displayed his real talent as founder, originator, and inspirer. Honesty and balance simply serve to reflect what an outstanding scholar he was.

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The work he might have produced after 2006 will remain a great gap in the environmental literature, but what he left  marks a tremendous corpus and a great turning point.

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