The Authority of Science at the Edges of Empire

AHA Session 205
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 13
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Conference Room D (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Deborah Coen, Barnard College
Reading Imperial Skies: Climatology and the Limits of Colonial Planning
Philipp N. Lehmann, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Mad around the Edges: Psychiatric Enclaves in British India
Anouska Bhattacharyya, Harvard University
Sweetness and Control: Chemists in the Sugar Market
David Singerman, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis
Deborah Coen, Barnard College

Session Abstract

This panel examines ways in which the boundaries of European empires and of natural sciences were contiguous and mutually constitutive. It builds on much recent scholarship by historians and historians of science, who have shown how the transoceanic projection of imperial authority was as much an intellectual as military accomplishment. Empires’ expansion and governance depended on scientific work to establish universal laws and precise values. At the same time, however, disciplines of knowledge production, from astrophysics to natural history, depended on the human and material systems of empire, like transportation infrastructures, communications networks, and the ability to mobilize skilled and unskilled local labor. The universalizing scientific project was made possible only by the reach of imperial and industrial power.

Yet not only did these systems of producing geographic, scientific, and human knowledge rely on their imperial context, but the very frontiers of imperial authority were defined precisely by the fact that they were where scientific knowledge began to falter. Such interdependence is most visible in fields that, like cartography and surveying, were immediately connected to the extent of imperial power. An empire’s edge could usually be found in climate and terrain hostile to the accurate practice of making maps. But as scholars have also shown, what was true of those sciences overtly linked to empire was equally true of disciplines less obviously useful to states and commerce. This panel, therefore, looks for the other margins—whether on a geographical border, at a point where political and economic loyalties conflicted, or along the social boundaries where the state tried to compel the behavior of individuals—where a mighty empire’s authority appeared fraying and open to challenge.

Its four papers each explore a different geographic and intellectual space in search of the conjoined boundary of imperial and scientific power. Rebecca Woods uses the spectacular failures of refrigeration devices between Britain and the Antipodes to illustrate the precarious position of authority based on shaky technologies. Yet these stories of failed ventures and spoiled frozen meat, she shows, were buried by later narratives of technological and imperial progress. Philip Lehmann tracks how the nineteenth-century Austrian climatologist Eduard Brückner assembled data for his climate models from deserts, forests, and swamps. The use of climatic data helped to reinforce Europeans’ sense of hegemony over those liminal spaces. At the same time, however, that information undermined imperial authority, revealing the chaotic and poorly understood nature of colonial environments. Anouska Bhattacharyya argues that the British-constructed native asylums in India were hardly fortified outposts of imperial medical discipline. Rather, they were places where South Asians could enact their own ideas of mental health, and even provided a way for local people to move about the subcontinent. Finally, David Singerman explores the curious position of chemists in factories and plantations across the late-nineteenth-century sugar world. The reliability of their measurements was crucial to global trade, yet they had to work at the intersections of conflicting networks of scientific, economic, and political authority.

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