This book is published as part of the supplementary series following on from the five
volume Oxford History of the British Empire (1998-99). Several works have so far
been published in this series and more are appearing all the time. All are very impressive
and collectively they are making this set of volumes as valuable as the original
publications. Writing the environmental history of the British Empire is clearly a hugely
ambitious project and the authors have risen to the challenge exceptionally well.
Clearly there is much here that relates to the four former 'dominions', the territories of
white settlement, as well as to India, but there is still more than enough content to interest
readers of the Overseas Pensioner. There are chapters on the hunting and conservation of
wildlife, on tsetse and trypanosomiasis in East and Central Africa, on imperial scientists
(including many whose ideas were formed in contact with Africa) and the sympathy many
had for 'indigenous knowledge', on the visual representations of nature, on resource
management, national parks and the growth of tourism, and much else.
If the book has an over-arching theme, it is that empire followed natural resources in
unpredictable ways. Indeed unpredictability is an undoubtedly central aspect of the
authors' thesis. Efforts at deterministic or totalising interpretations of the imperial effect
upon the environment of other continents are given short shrift. Farmers, merchants, and
imperial rulers encountered an astonishing range of different environments, and their
relationship with them was in many ways a thing of shreds and patches, of twists and
turns that were often unexpected, often contrary to intended outcomes. Although Beinart
and Hughes cover an impressively wide range, this reviewer would have liked to see
more on the environmental aspects of war and revolt, on gendered use of the
environment, on issues relating to climate and meteorology, and on environmental
change relating to riverine, lacustrine and coastal ecologies. But they clearly had to
specialise to keep the text within bounds.
Their conclusion is that if imperial ambitions were often (in environmental terms)
exploitative, rulers, scientists and others were also active in developing conservationist
practices. And they point out that post-imperial independent countries have often been
just as, if not more, exploitative and, more significantly, have sometimes been less active
in the fields of conservation and sustainable development. Thus the book avoids the often
simplistic attack upon colonial rule (particularly perpetrated by many American
historians) and takes a much more balanced approach. This is welcome and it is to be
hoped that it will influence many other historians of empire.