Panel 1: PRODUCING AND EXTRACTING EXPERTISE
Phoebe Springstubb (MIT), “’To examine mountains with microscopes’: Gillespie of Torbanehill v. Russel and Son, Coal Masters, 1853”
Abstract: Over the course of a week in July 1853, Edinburgh’s Court of Sessions examined seventy-nine witnesses in the trial Gillespie of Torbanehill v. Russel and Son, Coal Masters, Blackbraes. Among them were geologists, miners, chemists, microscopists, practical engineers, and gas managers. At the heart of the trial was an as yet undetermined oil-rich substance, on view in the courtroom in forms ranging from lump specimens and color swatches, to precise drawings magnifying thin sections and distilled liquids pulled from the pockets of witnesses. “Was it coal?” the jurists asked each expert.
At stake in the trial’s contestation of the term coal were the patent rights to a substance of potentially immense commercial value for its use in a midcentury market for paraffin oil and wax as lamps and mass-produced candles. Yet while the procedural form of the trial was structured to establish the grounds for a non-arbitrary decision – incrementally collecting evidence of a “tractable” commodity – the testimonies offered moved simultaneously in the opposite direction. The “torbanehill mineral” was materially and linguistically deconstructed into chemical elements, microscopic fibers, and theological referents. The distillations of chemists sat uneasily with smell- and sound-based assessments by miners. A gas manager suggested the “whole coal” was manifest only at its incorporation into the future-oriented contract that brought it to market. This temporality was at odds with what geologist Hugh Miller saw as the mineral’s reconciliation of mosaic and carboniferous eras through an ancient protolanguage of fossils. My paper asks how the properties of oil rocks and coal, as materials seemingly defined by natural laws, were historically negotiated. Foregrounding the torbanehill mineral trial as one site of conflict over natural materials offers insight into the lineages of control, forms of work, and techniques which went into their manufacture as the raw materials of historical capitalism.
Michael Simpson (Brown), “’All the Drugs of Alexandria’: The Indigenous Influence on the Atlantic Medical Complex”
Abstract: This paper examines a plant of the western coast of the Atlantic that was integral to both sides of the ocean during the 17th and 18th centuries. Though Europeans depended on knowledge of Indigenous people to learn the medicinal benefits of the plant in question, they often failed to appropriately recognize its origins. This disavowal suggests a need to reframe the narrative of the Atlantic to reveal influences that have been silenced by traditional methods of the past. This paper focuses on sassafras (sassafras albidium), which Cartier first encountered in 1535. In the context of this paper, this plant helps to highlight English and French contact with Indigenous people of the regions. The intention here is to establish a baseline for disavowal by remaining focused on two empires and their particular interactions with Indigenous people, so that this methodology can then be applied and tested elsewhere. Though it is difficult to find Indigenous voices in traditional written sources, ethnohistorical methods are used to counteract silences. These methods reveal not only the influence of Indigenous people on the Atlantic medical complex, but also the dependence of both Europeans and Africans on these technologies. This paper contributes to the recent work within the historiography that pushes back on ideas of European unidirectional influence by turning the focus toward the Indigenous plant medicines. By beginning with a single plant, other instances of both dependence and disavowal are revealed when other plants are examined. Two other plants from the western Atlantic, cancer root (conopholis americana) and arrowroot (maranta arundinacea), display similar patterns, which suggests that disavowal was present throughout the western Atlantic. From there, we proceed on our path towards a more inclusive narrative of the creation of the modern Atlantic world, where the influence of Indigenous people is not so ‘unthinkable.’
Yuting Dong (Harvard): “The Production of Expertise in Colonial Manchuria in Japan’s Empire (1905-1945)”
Abstract: In this paper, I ask how the environment in colonial Manchuria under Japan’s occupation influenced, nurtured, and shaped the production of building expertise of Japanese civil engineers and architects. Specifically, this paper takes the manufacture of red brick as an example to analyze how the natural environment acted as an intrusive force in promoting Japanese imperial engineers and architects to interact with and to learn from the local (mostly Chinese) skilled workers, factory owners, and migrant laborers, in terms of how to produce and build with red brick. This paper shows how the natural environment has shaped and was shaped by colonial relations, especially the relationship between experts and labors who are hosts of vernacular expertise. Furthermore, this paper asks the relationship between labor, technological expertise, and environment in a colonial setting.
Unfamiliar with the natural environment, both the climate and the geology, of Manchuria, Japanese colonial architects encountered difficulties in reproducing a “red brick civilization” in the newly acquired colony. In Manchuria, where it was colder, drier and windier, bricks baked in Japanese methods cracked easily and were too expansive to be widely used. Moreover, brick houses built in the Japanese way left less space for ventilation and became a threat for their residents. Residents tended to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning and tuberculosis in such houses. To overcome these difficulties, Japanese architects and engineers came to rely on the vernacular knowledge of Chinese brick producers and bricklayers. They not only outsourced most of the production of red brick to Chinese factory owners who had experience in brick baking but incorporated a new method—hollow laying—into the house construction. This paper shows how the “collaboration” of colonial experts and local laborers produced a red brick empire.
Panel 2: LANDSCAPES OF VIOLENCE, SPACES OF RESISTANCE
Robby Zeinstra (Princeton): “Bush War: Scoutcraft, Environmental Knowledge, and Ancestral Guidance in Zimbabwe: 1975-1980”
Abstract: Zimbabwe’s liberation war, dubbed “The Bush War,” was primarily a rural war, where control over space was the primary contestation. These landscapes were lived and worked landscapes, already controlled by peasant Zimbabweans, within and outside of established chiefdoms. This chapter will argue that piggybacking on pre-existing control over space, by farmers, herders, spirit mediums, cattle-looters, merchants, and members of land-based chieftaincies, was the primary mode of operation and means of success for ZANLA guerrillas. I interrogate what it meant to “control” space, both in intellectual manifestations of environmental knowledge, and in the physical interactions that Zimbabweans had with their landscapes. Using oral histories from a peasant community that participated in the liberation efforts in the 1970s, and Rhodesian recollections of the war period, I attempt to understand the environmental aspects of the war through the actors’ language, where the environment is described as nyika (also translated as territory or nation). Or, the environment, the vast space in between concentrations of capital (farms, factories, mines, and cities), is described as bush. Bushcraft and scoutcraft, which by the 1970s had become the well-defined fundamentals of counterinsurgency, defined the Rhodesian Army’s approach to navigating and intellectualizing the environment, and, conversely, the experiential knowledge of farmer/herder/hunter Zimbabweans, combined with nationalist and ancestral claims to environmental communication, defined peasants’ approach to navigating and intellectualizing the environment. Bushcraft and scoutcraft, described by Rhodesia’s first counterinsurgents, Baden-Powell and Burnham, are frequently referenced in Rhodesian memoirs and in the Rhodesia-centric mercenary publication, Soldier of Fortune. And, animal communication, supreme local knowledge, and ancestral guidance are frequently mentioned in the oral histories of peasant Zimbabweans. In this chapter, I argue that these intellectualizations of environmental interaction serve as more than explanations of environmental consciousness – they predicted the nature and outcome of the conflict.
Sam Hege (Rutgers): “’When Such Nauseating Odors Prevail’: Race and the Emergence of the World’s Cattle Feeding Capital, 1920-1971”
Abstract: In 1971, the United Black Coalition protested proposed zoning expansions that would allow Lewter Feedyards, one of the nation’s largest cattle feedlots, to expand their operations along the southeastern edge of Lubbock, Texas. For the coalition, however, this protest was part of a broader critique of unequal social and material resource distribution practices, stemming from the expansion of the Texas Panhandles’ cotton, oil, and cattle industries in the 1930s. As Lubbock’s demographics diversified in the postwar period, city leaders openly and actively promoted the creation of segregated neighborhoods designed to house migrants of color. These neighborhoods were precluded from the city’s water and sanitation systems and housed multiple landfills, agricultural processing facilities, and feedyards. While these developments have been obscured by scholarship that prioritizes white settlers’ histories in the Great Plains, the experiences and labor of black Lubbockites were vital to transforming the Panhandle into a central node in the industrial agricultural complex. In this paper, I argue that contestations over West Texas urban space index a new conceptual framework for making sense of West Texas ecology and economy. Black migrants navigated the increasing precarity of the West Texas industrial agricultural system by turning to city politics as an avenue to address the odors and toxins emanating from feedyards, cotton mills, landfills, as well as to remedy decomposing housing stock and limited access to water and sanitation infrastructures. While these claims were frequently met by dismissive “city fathers,” they also led to increased political representation, greenspace, and regulatory control over pollution. Climaxing in the 1971 zoning protests, residents of Southeast Lubbock exposed the underlying forces driving the emergence of the world’s cattle feeding capital and the material and social resources it depended upon.
Fernando Amador (Stony Brook): “An Absentful Landscape: Migratory and Environmental Transformations in Rural Mexico”
Abstract: This presentation explores how the town of Temacapulín, Mexico became an “absentful” place. Located near a river and thermal springs in Los Altos de Jalisco, Temacapulín has experienced a large number of outmigration since the Bracero Program. Yet, within the last sixty years, the town has also developed an aqua-tourist industry, expanded its infrastructure, and improved its political and economic standing. I examine these seemingly contradictory developments by exploring the relationship between the local identity and landscape, specifically how migrants shaped the town’s history as well as natural and built environment. During the mid-twentieth century, a new self-applied identity emerged: hijos ausentes (“absent children”: migrants connected to Temacapulín). My research considers how hijos ausentes made Temacapulín an absentful place: a town whose population exists within and beyond its physical boundaries. I argue that this identity and attachment between the hijos ausentes and Temacapulín developed from their relationship with the natural and built landscape—the thermal water, river, church, and town square. Absent children remained committed to their town because of the experiences they had in that space. They played in the thermal water and river, danced in the town square, and hiked up the hills. Furthermore, hijos ausentes began to change the landscape by expanding the infrastructure and townscape from outside its physical boundaries. They financed and constructed an aquatic-tourism industry, new homes, an alter in honor of the town saint, El Cristo de La Peñita (The Christ on the Cliff), and additional public infrastructure. Thus, uncovering the history of migrants and Temacapulín forces us to look at the natural and built environments to understand how absent children shaped and were shaped by the landscape.
Panel 3: VALUING AND MANAGING RESOURCES
James Parker (Northeastern): “Who Deserves the River? The Ewaso Ng’iro and Competing Claims to Water Rights in Late-Colonial Kenya”
Abstract: In Arid and Semi-Arid Landscapes like the northern regions of Kenya, water resources are critical to everyday survival. However these water resources are, and have been, distributed inequitably, leaving tribal groups parched while resources are given over to those promising agricultural productivity.
The Ewaso Ng’iro river represents one such instance. Focusing on the period between 1934 and 1963, this paper looks at the debates and tensions between the Ewaso Ng’iro’s main stakeholders: pastoral Kenyan communities and European settlers. Under the late colonial state, European settlers diverted the headwaters of the river into heavily irrigated agricultural plots, promising enormous production that would boost the state’s finances. Accordingly, these settlers received 50% of all the river’s flow to help with the growth of tea, cotton, and other cashcrops. Hundreds of miles downstream, native pastoral communities watched their stock die as the river’s waters failed to reach the valuable watering holes around the Lorian Swamp in Wajir. Indigenous communities instead had to rely on the insufficient number boreholes provided by the state.
The paper shows how indigenous groups weaponized the sympathies of state actors to try and scale back European irrigation projects to allow the river to flow to its full extent, legitimately claiming that its disappearance represented a threat to their survival. Conversely, settler lobbies complained that indigenous communities did not need the water due to their nomadic ways, and that irrigation was the most profitable use of resources. The paper thus demonstrates how the waters of northern Kenya were politicized according to ideas of proper usage and production, to the detriment of societies who relied upon the Ewaso’s flow for their very survival. While African lobbying failed, the debate highlights the priorities of colonial water development policies, and the definitions of belonging and need that they rested upon.
Wenjiao Cai (Harvard): “Unlikely Resources: Mudflats and the Making of the Chosŏn-Qing Borderlands”
Abstract: Dark and desolate in appearance, mudflats are seldom considered spaces of natural abundance. Between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, the vast mudflats that stretched along the sea border between the Chosŏn kingdom and the Qing empire provided a variety of resources essential to the growth of borderland communities. People on both sides of the divide benefited from the natural wealth of mudflats through fishing, reed harvesting, salt extraction, and farming. But the physical contours of the mudflats were also in a state of constant flux, frustrating efforts to establish property rights and assert territorial claims. Subject to tides, winds, and other natural forces beyond human control, the shifting landscape provoked contestations over land ownership and territorial boundaries, most notably in the late-nineteenth-century diplomatic disputes over the border island of Hwanggŭmp’yŏng (Ch. Huangjinping). Drawing on understudied maps, litigation records, and government reports, this paper examines the central role that mudflat environs played in the making of the Chosŏn-Qing borderlands. I show how communities along the border transformed the mudflats into sources of economic growth and state power, and how, in turn, the changeable nature of the mudflats shaped modes of production, property relations, and cross-border interactions. While environmental histories of the early modern period have largely focused on the exploitation of well-categorized plant, animal, and mineral resources—such as pines, whales, and iron—this paper broadens that discussion by highlighting human dependence on the more elusive and protean substance of mud and its socioeconomic and geopolitical implications for the Sino-Korean border region.
Anil Askin (Brown): “’They Are Not Worth Eating’: Breed, Logistics, and Infrastructure of Merino Sheep in the Ottoman Empire, 1800-1850”
Abstract: Kept as a state secret in the Spanish empire, merino sheep partook in global empire building in the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Scholars working on the global biography of merino sheep studied South Africa, New England, Australasia, Western Europe, and the Western Mediterranean. In this paper, I put the efforts of the Ottoman empire to import and crossbreed merino sheep in the Balkans and the Western Anatolia in the early 1830s into a dialogue with the literature on sheep and empire building. I note that the Ottoman interest in merino breeding intersected with the period of steep rise of wool prices (1827-1835) in international markets as well as the aftermath of the abolishment of Janissary corps. By focusing on granular details from the Ottoman imperial archives, first, I document and argue that the Ottoman chapter in the global merino history reveals underexplored regional connections bringing Russian, Spanish and Ottoman empires into a dialogue with each other. My archival findings clarify that Ottoman bureaucrats, merchants, and consuls were driving forces in the functioning of capitalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. Second, I argue that the importation of merino sheep made ongoing bureaucratic correspondences on domestic and foreign breeds, veterinary care, sustainability of wool supply, and aesthetics of fez production visible. Third, I argue that introduction of merino sheep raised imperial concerns about instituting animal care on which the entire project relied, and these concerns repurposed already-existing infrastructure of sheep provisioning for Istanbul more flexible in several Balkan provinces.
Arina Mikhalevskaya (Yale): “The Heavenly Horses of Xinjiang: Towards an Environmental History of Chinese Borderlands”
Abstract: This paper examines the ways China’s last dynasty, the Great Qing (1644 1911), manipulated exotic natural objects and produced discourses on the natural environment of the western frontier, in what is today Xinjiang province, to facilitate political, economic, and rhetorical incorporation of Xinjiang into the Qing empire. I argue that the Qing dynasty’s unprecedented military expansion into Xinjiang in the eighteenth century was both stimulated and resulted in the increased political concern with exotica in the Qing court. The first part of my project focuses on the traffic in unusual beasts and birds associated with the western borderlands and the uses of these animal wonders in domestic politics and diplomatic relations. What I refer to as the “politics of wonder” in the Qing court, namely a court culture that placed a premium on collection, documentation, and exhibition of natural oddities, articulated a perceived transformation of the natural world in the New Frontier, or Xinjiang, under the benevolent influence of the imperial rule. The Qing court viewed the collection and ordering of knowledge about the empire as symbolically similar to exercising control over it. Not unlike their counterparts in early modern Europe, Qing dynasty literati drew an analogy between intellectual comprehension of nature and practical management of people and territory. Emperors, ministers, and frontier commanders all engaged in the study of animals, particularly rare or previously unknown species from the newly-conquered western frontier. What resulted from their efforts were animal classifications that did not draw a clear-cut distinction between exotic, rare, or otherwise unusual species—and fantastic beasts from Chinese classical texts which had no counterparts in the real world. The second part of my paper examines these strange creatures on the fringes of nature and empire as a lens into the intersection of imperial expansion, politics, and knowledge production during the Qing.
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