Soaking Ecologies: Swamps, Law, and the East India Company in Bengal

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 9:30 AM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Debjani Bhattacharyya, Drexel University
The depth of the water in the tidal rivers of the Bengal delta was in seasonal flux, a fact which thwarted attempts at cadastral surveys, produced inaccurate navigational charts, and raised questions about the nature of hydrological instrumentation. This failed infrastructural venture to connect Calcutta to the delta brings to light the entangled relation between law, environment and colonial hydraulic science. Swamps and land-water admixture which make up a vast expanse of the Bengal Delta where East India Company settlement took root in the eighteenth century threatened to became spaces of jurisdictional vacuum within the Company’s emerging legal architecture of occupation. Through a case study of an unsuccessful project of harbor construction in the Sagar Islands of the Bay of Bengal, which ended up as a thirty-year legal case beginning at the Mayor’s court in Calcutta and settled in the metropolitian courts of London (1770-1803), this paper will show how these amphibious zones shaped the development of knowledge around hydraulics, tide measurement and the nature of instrumentations of approximation to arrive at understandings and management of the tidal swamp. The legal debate proceeded primarily along three lines: 1) the question of whether geography can serve as effective legal evidence 2) ecological variability and the limits of hydrographical instruments 3) human integrity in an inscrutable and mobile landscape. The controversy surrounding the harbor precipitated river and land surveys from 1790 to 1820, resulting in the formation of new geographical and hydraulic categories in the service of the colonial legal architecurte in the Bengal delta. Approximation of geographical knowledge about tides, water-depth and swamps in spaces perceived as ecologically indeterminate, became critical in embedding “emergency” provisions within colonial law.
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