The nineteenth century saw unprecedented attempts by European empires to impose global norms in science and geography. These continue to shape the world in pervasive ways. My research examines the new instruments and practices on which these universalising standards relied. By studying knowledge production in the Himalaya during my doctorate, and extending these questions to Central Asia and Mesopotamia in my current postdoctoral project, my work ultimately highlights the incomplete and uneven character of these globalising norms.
My scholarship is built on two other overarching commitments. Firstly, to recovering the roles of individuals not traditionally given centre stage in the histories of science, geography and the environment. These include the guides, porters and brokers on whom expeditions depended for labour and expertise, as well as the women and men whose lives in and across empires are often overshadowed in a historiography often still populated by biographical studies of major scientific savants. Secondly, I am committed to developing methodologies for using geographical features as sites and scales for histories which transcend traditional national and area studies framings. Scholars have especially examined oceans, islands and beaches. Mountains and deserts have, however, been less quickly co-opted into this trend, perhaps because of recent scholarly emphasis on movement and connection. By placing geography at the centre of analysis, both my current and future work thus seeks to explain the long-term consequences of the way arid and upland regions were marginalised – socially, politically, scientifically and environmentally – by imperial agents.
‘Himalaya’ section from the ‘Umrisse Der Pflanzengeographie [Outline of Plant Geography]’ produced in 1838, and later published in Heinrich Berghaus’s Physikalischer Atlas. This sort of vision of an ordered and orderly world allowed the Himalaya to be compared globally, but erases the laboriousness of scientific practice in the early nineteenth century, and silences the crucial roles of Himalayan peoples. Image: www.davidrumsey.com
The ‘Habitable Globe’: Science, Geography and Environment in the Indian Sub-Empire
My current project investigates imperial attempts to measure and define the limits of the so-called ‘habitable globe’ across Central Asia, Persia and Arabia in the nineteenth century. By examining a diverse range of historical actors in the context of the British Indian ‘sub-empire,’ this project draws together insights from global history, the history of science, historical geography and environmental humanities to consider how scientific attempts to define habitability remained incomplete, even as they shaped imperial imaginations and policies. More broadly, this research considers how ideas of habitability and uninhabitability can help us to think through the consequences for geopolitics and society at moments when the limits of the ‘habitable globe’ change. This project is funded by the Irish Research Council through a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship.
The Vertical Globe: Altitude and Science in the Exploration of the Himalaya, 1800-1850
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Himalaya were finally being recognised as the highest mountains on the globe. Simultaneously, they were becoming the insecure northern frontier of the East India Company’s burgeoning Indian empire. My dissertation examines the scientific, political and imaginative understandings of the Himalaya that emerged from this context. It traces two overlapping sets of arguments through the mountains. Firstly, it examines the laboriousness of scientific practice in the high spaces of the Himalaya, and the inherent dependency of European surveyors and naturalists on pre-existing networks of labour and expertise. Secondly, it details the role of global comparison in the rise of verticality as a framework for understanding both human and nonhuman worlds.
The dissertation consists of five thematic chapters, each of which deals with a different type of science: measurement, physiology, geology, botany, and biogeography. By addressing a range of interrelated sciences rather than focusing on only one, it becomes possible to explain how the mountains became both spaces and subjects of scientific practice. Methodologically, the five chapters do so by examining the practical aspects of doing science in remote and often topographically challenging locations. They concentrate especially on the moments that instruments, bodies and practices broke down, which are revealing of the social relationships that underpinned the knowledge they produced. A close focus is also maintained on everyday interactions between travellers and their guides (especially Bhotiya, Tartar, and Lepcha), which often highlight the limits of imperial mastery. Tracing the reconfiguration of these networks and practices ultimately reveals the many ways that the mountains were rendered as marginal spaces in this period in relation to lowland norms.
More broadly, my dissertation demonstrates the value of using geographical features as sites and scales for histories that transcend traditional national and area studies framings. By placing mountains at the centre of the analysis, it shows that travellers in the Himalaya were constantly measuring their experiences against expectations arising from the Alps and the Andes. It thus offers a methodology for examining the formation of what were inherently both sciences of the globe and global sciences in practice. At the same time, it shows that these global comparisons could be contradictory, often only adding to scientific and imperial uncertainties. Ultimately, my dissertation thus argues that we need to pay attention to disconnection as much as connection in the making of supposedly global categories in the nineteenth century.