Panel 1: The Nature of Nations
“Fishing for Sovereignty: Nature and the International Order in the Newfoundland Cod Fisheries, 1713-1783”
Arianne Urus, New York University
In 1764 the British Admiralty appointed Captain James Cook to complete a geographic survey of Newfoundland. The island, prized by France and Britain for its cod fisheries, had been the object of imperial contestation since the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). The rivalry only intensified following the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Critical European peace treaties devoted articles to delimiting where fishermen from each nation’s ports could fish. But prior to Cook’s expedition, knowledge of this space’s geography among diplomats was thin. Throughout the eighteenth century diplomats struggled to articulate meaningful sovereign claims in Newfoundland’s maritime environment where the fish, people, and waves were always in motion. In practice, this meant that diplomats spent decades arguing if fishing rights in particular areas were concurrent or exclusive. Functional fisheries revolved around the principle of the commons at shore and at sea. But interimperial rivalry prompted diplomats to make claims to exclusive access rights, the relative fixity of which seemed at odds with the movement of fish. My paper reads Cook’s reports from his 1764-1767 expedition on the HMSNorthumberland and the HMS Grenville alongside reports of his contemporary explorers and French and British diplomatic correspondence to explore how nature and sovereignty interacted in this interimperial space. I interrogate how knowledge about nature enabled certain types of imperial claims, while the material properties of the maritime environment posed a particular set of challenges to proclamations of sovereignty. My paper considers how international order was born in nature in the period before the ascendency of territorial sovereignty.
“Decolonizing the Landscape: Nature, Nation, and the Legacies of Soviet Rule in Latvia”
Harry Merritt, Brown University
During the modern era, an idea of Heimat—a German term that refers to a sense of local rootedness—was constructed in Latvia from peasant traditions and the landscape. This idea was formed in opposition to the largely non-Latvian populations of the cities there and codified in Latvian literature and theater. After Latvia gained independence as a nation-state in 1918, the state implemented this vision through land reform, agricultural subsidies, and trade policy. Soviet annexation in 1940 brought with it an industrial, socialist, and scientific model that was diametrically opposed to the Latvian idea of a “nation of farmers” with a special relationship to nature. This paper examines how these different discourses challenged one another during the latter half of the twentieth century. In doing so, it explores how the Latvian independence movement emerged out of environmental activism in the 1970s and 1980s, following a model that has been termed “eco-nationalism” by Jane Dawson. Yet contrary to Dawson, this paper contends that “eco-nationalism,” along with Latvian rhetoric equating Soviet colonization with invasive species, is not limited to the period leading up to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Instead, its legacies continue to inform state policy and popular views in present day Latvia. Furthermore, the relationship between landscape and people established by Latvian nationalists is tied to broader contexts including the development of the modern state and the processes of colonization and decolonization, giving it a number of analogs in other countries ranging from Australia to Germany to Mexico.
“The Danube and the Dynasty: Natural Identities in the Habsburg Monarchy”
Robert Mevissen, Georgetown University
Habsburg historiography reflects the nationalist boundaries that arose after the First World War and reveals teleological biases in its narratives. Studying the Habsburg Monarchy through a socio-environmental lens, however, transcends traditional ethno-linguistic and political borders. Looking at the relationship between people and nature can help us revise conventional understandings about identities and loyalties. This paper looks the state’s representation of the Danube River in its encyclopedic publications “The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Image,” which it produced between 1885 and 1902, to see how the monarchy attempted to mitigate national tension and promote a supranational, “natural” source of identity among its multiethnic population. I argue that by studying the Danube’s depictions – images and descriptions – in this work, we can see the state’s efforts to craft a non-national narrative about the Monarchy to resonate with the millions of people who lived on the Danube and its many tributaries, which extended to all reaches of the empire. TheKronprinzenwerk emphasizes both the river’s natural beauty, as well as the social and economic benefits from its industrialization, appealing to both traditional and progressive elements in Habsburg society. The state believed that the changing place of the river in people’s lives and minds would not only serve an economic but a social function as well. It endeavored to elevate people’s natural identification with the river into a new source of loyalty to the dynasty, the state, and their fellow citizens.
Panel 2: The Struggle for Environmental Control
“God, Humans and Nature in Late Medieval Valencia.”
Abigail Agresta, Yale University
The late medieval city of Valencia owed its prosperity to human control of the surrounding landscape, particularly the network of Islamic-era canals that irrigated the horta around the city and powered the mills within it. According to the city council, it was the work and ingenuity of man, under the benevolent eye of God, that improved nature and brought prosperity to the city. However, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw no shortage of droughts, floods, plagues, and other moments when this productive relationship between humans, God and nature broke down. This paper examines those moments of environmental crisis, focusing particularly on the council’s effort to explain and repair the city’s relationship with God. Religious responses to natural disaster have often been assumed to be the obvious reaction of pre-modern people to the inexplicable workings of the natural world. This paper shows, however, that religious response to natural disaster had to be created. Use of religious processions, prayer and alms to mitigate natural disaster remained sporadic in Valencia through the fourteenth century, and the city council did not develop a consistent religious response until well into the fifteenth. The rituals the council chose to use, moreover, were designed to emphasize the Christian character of the city, at a time when Valencia was violently ridding itself of its Muslim and Jewish populations.
“ ‘Overcoming Nature by Nature’: Biological Exchange in Hawaiʻi’s Sugarcane Plantations”
Larry Kessler, Temple University
In the mid-nineteenth century, Hawaiian sugarcane planters became pioneers in the field of biological pest control, importing animals to hunt the invasive crop pests that had migrated to the islands. This began with little attention to the relationship between pest, predator, and the Hawaiian environment. Yet by the late nineteenth century, biological control became an official government policy and a more sophisticated process. Hawaiian entomologists studied the pests they sought to eradicate, and hunted throughout the sugarcane-growing world for targeted biological control agents. As scientific knowledge and lab technology improved, planters grew increasingly successful at pitting alien animals against each other in Hawaiian cane fields.
This essay examines how biological control transformed Hawaiian ecology and influenced understandings of the role of sugarcane planting in the Hawaiian environment. Biological control was so effective in Hawaiʻi that it was the sole means of pest control there, and a crucial aspect of the plantation system’s organic machine. Yet biological control did more than simply blur the line between industry and nature in Hawaiʻi’s agroecology—it also introduced new challenges to Hawaiʻi’s native biota and established unpredictable networks of biological exchange between Hawaiʻi and foreign lands. Biological control also helped planters to cultivate an image of Hawaiʻi as an Edenic, naturally productive land, and an image of themselves as responsible stewards of that land.
“Baghdad to Basra and Back: An Environmental History of Steam in Late Ottoman Iraq”
Camille Cole, Yale University
The Euphrates and Tigris Steam Navigation Company began running steamships on the Tigris River in 1862. Throughout their fifty years of operation in Iraq, the Company was forced to compromise in numerous ways with the environment, people, and rulers of the country. This paper will argue that the ecology of the Tigris was the most important factor in determining the shape and impacts of the steam-shipping enterprise in Iraq. The riverine and marsh environments also helped enable social and political challenges to steamships in their seasonal, as well as more irregular, variation. The ecology of Iraq helped sustain the existence of a “pre-steam” economy and system of transport, though it evolved alongside and sometimes in tandem with the new economy of steam.
Histories of technology and environment are rarely considered in conjunction with one another. Histories of technology, moreover, are often restricted to invention and progress, sidelining histories of use, experimentation, and compromise. By examining the steamship within a specific environmental context, this paper seeks a more grounded history of technology. We must not take for granted the social or economic role of a technology like steam shipping. Rather, we must consider who used it, where, and how. In Iraq, the particular and evolving environment of the Tigris was crucial in shaping both the possibilities of steamships, and the kinds of social and economic responses which emerged to them.
Panel 3: Animals and the Commons
“Producing a Global Rainforest: The Transnational Circulation of Sumatran Wildlife, 1900-1940”
Matthew Minarchek, Cornell University
This essay historicizes contemporary discourse on the conservation of the Sumatran rainforest in Aceh, Indonesia through an examination of colonial expansion and the opening of northern Sumatra’s forests in the early twentieth century. There are two questions that frame this essay: 1) How did Aceh’s southern forests, not accessed by Europeans until 1903, become a center of conservation and exploitation by 1920? 2) How were indigenous territories transformed into a ground zero for the transnational environmental movement? In the early twentieth century, the forests of southern Aceh had become a hub of scientific research and exploration, intimately linked to, engaged by, and co-productive of Dutch colonial institutions, global environmentalism, international economies, and ecological change. Foreign researchers trekked through the forests with local guides to learn about the flora and fauna, while wildlife traders collaborated with indigenous people to trap valuable animals to transport to zoos, museums, and circuses around the globe. The presence of tropical species in zoos and the public sphere in Europe and America shaped Western perceptions of colonial nature and people, played a major role in the growing global environmental movement, and influenced colonial conservation and land policy in Sumatra and throughout the Dutch East Indies. I argue that much of the current debate and conflict surrounding the conservation of Sumatra’s forests and the famous species inhabiting those spaces is a result of the transnational circulation of fauna from the Dutch East Indies to Europe and America in the early twentieth century.
“Common-Pool Resources and Competing Visions of the Public Good in Pre-Industrial New England”
Erik Reardon, University of Maine
At the turn of the nineteenth century, America stood on the brink of a profound transformation. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, few could have guessed the radical ways in which the foundations of early-American society would be inexorably altered. Large-scale textile manufacturing in New England, based upon the wildly successful Waltham-Lowell system, harnessed the raw energy of the region’s most powerful waters. While this certainly had far-reaching consequences for the nation as a whole, those who directly experienced these changes first-hand are often neglected. The ways in which rural New England communities sought to defend sustainable river fisheries from the destructive potential of industrial manufacturing highlights the importance of river fish within New England’s socio-economic landscape. This paper argues that rivers and streams persisted as common-pool resources long after Malthusian pressures undermined the prospect for lands held in common. In this context, two episodes stand out within this narrative in which rural communities resisted large-scale, industrial dam proposals for Pawtucket Falls in present day Lowell, Massachusetts. During this period, industrial interests did not possess the political influence that would come to define the contemporary economic landscape. In the absence of a sophisticated industrial lobbying mechanism, rural folk crafted a compelling argument that traditional use of New England’s watersheds represented a public good worthy of protection.
“Conspiracy on the Open Range: Detectives, Cattle, and Warfare in Wyoming, 1883-1892”
Luke Willert, Harvard University
In the spring of 1883, John M. Finkbone of the Turtle Detective Agency boarded a Union-Pacific sleeper car in Chicago, bound for nascent Rawlins, Wyoming. There, while undercover at hotels, saloons, horse races, and poker tables, the detective gathered evidence against a gang of suspected thieves. From telegraphed dispatches, encoded correspondence, and partisan newspapers, this paper reconstructs the work of cattle investigation and criminal procedure in the late nineteenth-century West. The Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association - then the world’s largest such corporation and the territory’s political rulership - employed a small army of inspectors, detectives, informants, and assassins in a costly effort for complete surveillance of public lands double the size of the United Kingdom. Inciting rumors of universal depredation, ranchers ultimately invaded northern Wyoming with plans to exterminate all adversarial settlers. Their fears and anxieties reflected the industry’s environmental limitations as much as any real outlaws: overgrazed ranges, meddlesome fencing, severe winters, wandering calves, and the specious promises of railroad boosters. Transplanting tactics across Texas cattle trails, the ranchers asserted the freedom to monopolize and defend a limitless range of land and labor.
“Mother Camels, a Mother’s Camel, and Other Dromedary Stories from the Greater Syrian Jezireh, 1858-1939”
Samuel Dolbee, New York University
This paper examines the shifting meanings of camels in the late 19th and early 20th century Jezireh, the area located between the banks of the upper Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Divided between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey today, the region played host to a number of encounters during Ottoman rule and its aftermath that brought together these dromedaries and various actors, including the matriarch of an Arab tribe, the Kurdish chief of a state-sponsored paramilitary, Chechen refugees, and an Armenian orphan. In addition to exploring the meanings of camels in these diverse contexts, the paper also considers camels outside of a human vantage (and whether a camel’s eye view of history is possible or desirable). Based on French, Ottoman Turkish, and Arabic sources, the paper contextualizes these dromedary stories within a political economy shifting from hoof-based transhumance to rubber-based transhumance in the interwar period. While considering the camel as both an object upon whom humans projected meaning and as actors adjusting to technological changes, this paper takes seriously what Brett Walker calls “Hmong storytelling” in Toxic Archipelago to explore how new approaches to narrative in environmental history might shed light on relationships between humans and animals that would otherwise be invisible.