Migrations, Crossings, Unintended Destinations: Ecological Transfers across the Indian Ocean, 1850–1920

Conference Report (11–12 October 2018, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich, Germany)

By Ulrike Kirchberger

(*Featured Image: “If someday…” by Abhijit Kar Gupta, CC-BY 2.0 via flickr. )

In the age of empire, thousands of species of plants and animals were transferred between Australia, Asia, and Africa. European settlers transported cattle, horses, and sheep between South Africa, Asia, and Australia. Camels were exported from Northern India to the Australian colonies. Australian eucalypts and acacias were planted in South Asia and South Africa. Exotic birds from South Asia were taken to Australia and South Africa. These species were transferred deliberately by European colonists for economic, scientific, and aesthetic reasons. Other species migrated between the continents without human intention. Although some of these transfers and migrations have received much attention, the white settler colonies and the Indian Ocean world are still treated separately by many environmental historians. Therefore, the workshop “Migrations, Crossings, Unintended Destinations: Ecological Transfers across the Indian Ocean, 1850–1920” brought together leading experts from Australia, New Zealand, India, the USA, and Europe to discuss how to write an integrated environmental history of species transfer across the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean Area. Image from United States Library of Congress’s Geography & Map Division

In the introduction, Ulrike Kirchberger (University of Kassel, Germany) outlined the key issues connected with this approach: Can species transfers across the Indian Ocean be defined as belonging to a coherent spatial unit? How do participants involved in the transfers relate to each other? How were species transfers initiated by Europeans connected with transfers organized by Asians, Africans, and Australian aborigines, and which forms of cooperation and conflict occurred between different ethnic groups? The workshop aimed to experiment with animal studies and multispecies approaches; nonhuman participants in transfers, such as plants and animals, were regarded as actors that unfolded their own dynamics. Europeans who introduced species to “improve” colonial environments often lost control because plants and animals developed in unexpected ways. To problematize the dimension of “the unintended” was therefore defined as another important goal of the workshop.

These issues were subsequently addressed in six panels. The first one, which was chaired by Christof Mauch (RCC Munich, Germany), dealt with transfers in different imperial contexts. Nuno Grancho (Lisbon University Institute, Portugal) examined transfers initiated by Portuguese officials, missionaries, and merchants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, analyzing processes of knowledge and species transfer and trans-imperial exchanges. He investigated how knowledge production in the contact zones of the Indian Ocean world was translated in the famous natural histories written at the time, demonstrating the frequency and density of ecological transfers in the so-called “early modern” period, and highlighting the continuities of species transfer from the early centuries of European colonialism to the nineteenth century.

Brett Bennett (Western Sydney University, Australia) turned to the British empire and examined the role introduced species played in the context of national identity formation in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Defining local, national, and international scales, he demonstrated how politics and imaginaries of botanical origin shifted and worked. He used examples that suggested how such ideas underlined perceptions of closeness between the white settler societies in South Africa and Australia as “Sisters of the South.”

Great Glasshouse
Rock Art of the Nyungar from Western Australia, on display at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, UK. Photo by Elliott Brown, CC-BY 2.0 via flickr.


In the second panel chaired by Ulrike Kirchberger, Anna Haebich (Curtin University, Australia) analyzed botanical knowledge systems and practices of the Nyungar people of west Australia, showing how their ecosystem was destroyed by the species transfers of the European colonizers. She concentrated on the German botanist Ludwig Preiss who collected botanical specimens in West Australia and connected the botanical world of the Nyungar to the global knowledge networks of colonial science.




James Beattie (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) focused on a group of former East India Company employees who settled in New Zealand for their retirement. When they changed locations, they often introduced plants and animals from India to New Zealand and tried to acclimatize them on their estates. These “biota barons” used the money they had made in India to create landscapes which would fulfill their economic interests, suit their lifestyle, and remind them of India.

The significance of islands was addressed in the next panel, which was chaired by Roland Wenzlhuemer (LMU Munich, Germany). Gwyn Campbell (McGill University, Canada) examined species transfers centered around Madagascar. He referred to the Monsoon exchange between Asia and Africa and to transfers initiated by French and British expansionists in the second half of the nineteenth century. Imperial powers established cash crops and introduced domesticated animals, and Europeans dispatched specimens of Madagascar’s unique flora and fauna to the Indian Ocean world and beyond.

Vipul Singh (University of Delhi, India) concentrated on the Andaman Islands. He argued that, as a flagpost to secure Britain’s imperial possessions around the Indian Ocean, these islands were of strategic interest for Britain throughout the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the British used the islands for deported convicts. British authorities cleared forests to establish European-style agriculture, destroying the natural environment. The native population was marginalized and suffered from novel diseases brought by the British.

Andamanese dancing. Photo dates from between 1897 and 1899. Image is in the public domain.

The fourth panel was chaired by Milinda Banerjee (Presidency University Kolkata, India/LMU Munich, Germany). The first speaker, Ruth Morgan (Monash University, Australia), analyzed the transfer of meteorological information between Australia and India. In arid regions of British India and the Australian colonies, recurring drought was a major problem for imperial rulers. Therefore, they cultivated the science of weather forecasting as a means of mitigating natural disaster and keeping control over the imperial project. The paper addressed the temporal dimension of ecological transfers.

Haripriya Rangan (University of Melbourne, Australia)  examined the history of landscape transformation in the Ethiopian highlands from 8,000 BCE until the present. She criticized environmental histories of the Indian Ocean region as following the periodization of colonial expansion as found in colonial archives. She suggested instead bringing together paleoclimatic, biogeographic, geomorphological, archaeological, and archival data. She revisited existing interpretations of climate change, land instability, migration, and demographic shifts.

In the next panel, chaired by Heather Goodall (University of Technology Sydney, Australia), the participants first discussed the paper of David Arnold (University of Warwick, UK) in his absence. It dealt with the introduction of trees from Australia to South India in the second half of the nineteenth century. Arnold defined these decades as “India’s Australian period” because networks between the two continents were intense. He analyzed the ideas and discourses associated with the transfers and the impact they had on the South Indian environment and society.

Acacia tree growing on a verge in Cape verde. Photo by Xandu via wikimedia commons (image is in the public domain).

Simon Pooley (Birkbeck College, University of London, UK) investigated the introduction of plants to the Western Cape of South Africa. He dealt with the same species as David Arnold when he described the ways the Cape was transformed by the introduction of Australian eucalypts and acacias. He examined the socio-economic impact of the transfers, the resulting new forms of forest management, and changes in the fire ecology of the Cape as a consequence of the newly introduced species.

The workshop then proceeded to the last panel, chaired by Ursula Münster (RCC Munich, Germany). It looked at the migration and transfer of animals and zoological knowledge from different disciplinary perspectives. Thomas F. McDow (Ohio State University, US) examined the scholarly networks of A. S. G. Jayakar, one of the most important collectors of zoological specimen for the British Museum. McDow analyzed Jayakar’s role as a cultural go-between who was connected to both imperial science in London and a network of Arabian informants who helped him acquire specimens from remote regions not accessible to Europeans.

Lisa Jenny Krieg (University of Bonn, Germany) dealt with the circulation of the Phelsuma day gecko in the Western Indian Ocean world. Her paper was based on an animal studies/multispecies approach which highlighted that the animals involved in zoological transfers often developed their own migratory paths. The geckos, transferred from the Indian Ocean world to different places on earth by European scientists in the late nineteenth century, soon escaped human control. Krieg also analyzed the value transformations of the geckos as they moved between places and cultural contexts.

A gold dust day gecko of the genus Phelsuma. Photo by Brocken Inaglory, CC-BY 3.0 via wikimedia commons.

In his thought-provoking final comment, Christof Mauch (RCC Munich, Germany) developed perspectives for future research. He noted that historians dealing with transfers of species and ecological knowledge across the Indian Ocean are too often bound by the conventions of history of science and suggested that more attention should be devoted to the agency of the natural environment. Historians should not only examine the agency of the plants and animals that were transferred across the Indian Ocean, but include other ecological categories and sites which influenced the transfers, such as, for example, the agency of the sea and of the winds. He encouraged the participants to look more at “environments in-between” and argued that hybrid ecological spaces such as the shores, ports, and shipwrecks should play a more prominent role in research on transoceanic species transfers. In this way, research on species transfer could move beyond established approaches, such as network analysis, and come to a more differentiated picture of spatiality and coherence of Indian Ocean transfers. These and other points he made were taken up in the final discussion. The participants exchanged arguments about interdisciplinary approaches, about the usefulness of regarding the Indian Ocean region as a coherent space, as well as other aspects of the topic.


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