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Reviewed by:
  • Cultivating the Colonies: Colonial States and Their Environmental Legacies ed. by Christina Folke Ax et al.
  • Alison Bashford
Christina Folke Ax, Niels Brimnes, Niklas Thode Jensen, and Karen Oslund, eds. Cultivating the Colonies: Colonial States and Their Environmental Legacies. Ohio University Research in International Studies, Global and Comparative Studies Series, no. 12. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011. xiv + 337 pp. $29.95 (978-0-89680-282-7).

This is a book for historians of colonial government and for environmental historians. But there is clearly enough crossover among the state, the environment, and health to engage and perhaps stretch medical historians too.

With a colonial historian’s hat on, one of the delights of this collection’s eleven chapters is the reach beyond familiar and much-studied sites. Instead of the more typical Anglophone dominance, here we have German Africa, Indochina, the Russian north, Mozambique, and the rich mix in Christopher Morris’s chapter of Louisiana, Guangzhou, Pondicherry, and Senegal. Morris has successfully brought together these multiple “wetland colonies,” river deltas under French rule.

I suspect this idiosyncratic collection of places—along with colonial India, Oxford, and the British settler colonies—has a provenance with the collection of four editors, located in Iceland, Denmark, Italy, and the United States and brought together by the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. If this was the first book to bring “environment,” “government,” and “colonialism” together, the selection would make little sense. But since this is an addition to a long-established field (the editors appropriately dedicate the book to Richard Grove), readers can consume and appreciate the diversity quite easily, and make the relevant links themselves. It is refreshing, if eclectic. With an environmental historian’s hat on, I would say there is much here to celebrate.

What lies within Cultivating the Colonies for historians of medicine? Andrew Wear will be well known to readers of this journal, and this chapter signals his recent shift from early modern medicine to a study of environment, health, and settler colonialism. Wear pursues the connection among people, place, health, and climate, explored in a recent issue of this journal and elsewhere. This is an early modern topic if ever there was one, and naturally Wear brings his very considerable expertise to the problem. But this was equally, of course, a colonial complex, with a rather larger preexisting historiography than Wear here signals. [End Page 202] He is correct to see Hippocratic ideas span the centuries of British colonialism from the seventeenth to the twentieth, although this does rather elide distinctions of place and time: Virginia and Van Diemen’s Land can be brought together into a single frame, but this needs a very sure hand and a deep knowledge of their differences and particularities before drawing the connections. That said, other authors within this volume could have done much more to introduce Wear’s colonial state–health framework into their chapters. This might have integrated the whole rather better.

The other specifically medical chapter is by Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, equally well known to modern historians of health. Her chapter details indigenous medical practitioners’ response to plague at the turn of the twentieth century, in urban Punjab. This global plague episode has been scrutinized many ways. Sivaramakrishnan concludes here that there was no “popular” indigenous response to plague or its management: certainly there was no plainly oppositional “indigenous” response to state management. It is an excellent study of urban space, curiously located in a collection linked, if anything, by rural considerations, by “cultivation” and soil-based environments (“Getting Our Hands Dirty” is the editorial introduction).

As a whole, this is a collection of essays about nature, government, and colonialism. What was the impact of colonial rule for “nature”? The book is about perceptions of the environment, and how this translated or materialized into management of the environment (and in some instances into conversation or preservation). In exploring this broad topic, the studies collectively sidestep histories of agrarian political economy, including of colonial states. This is the kind of link between colonial government and the environment that economic historians would automatically make, and rightly so, but that environmental historians are increasingly viewing as critical as well...


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