The British Empire Library

Environment And Empire

by William Beinart and Lotte Hughes

Courtesy of OSPA

John M MacKenzie (University of Aberdeen)
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.

British Empire Book
William Beinart and Lotte Hughes
Oxford University Press
978 0 19 926031 7


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