Environmental History in East Africa and the Indian Ocean World

AHA Session 18
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Executive Room (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby)
Jane Hooper, George Mason University
Pedro A. Machado, Indiana University

Session Abstract

This panel brings together four papers to generate conversation and debate about a nascent geo-thematic field, the environmental history of East Africa and the Indian Ocean World. Environmental historians of Africa have for some time demonstrated how agriculture, disease and technologies such as dams have shaped human relationships with the natural world, while historians of the Indian Ocean have shown us the ways in which transnational commodity chains, labor systems and cultural forms have linked communities and diasporas, as well as engendered the formation of a multi-layered and ever shifting oceanic geography. However, while these two fields have emerged simultaneously during the past two decades, they have rarely been in conversation with one another. This panel will bring these two areas of research together.

While the papers temporally range from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and geographically from Lake Victoria in East Africa’s interior out to the small, isolated Indian Ocean island of Amsterdam, they share the goal of elucidating the environmental histories of the maritime world, understood broadly to include oceans, lakes, shorelines and other water-based ecologies, in contrast to much of the Africanist historiography on the environment that focuses on land. The panel combines two papers centered on continental East Africa that address the history of fishing, an understudied theme in African history, with two on the thus far minimally covered environmental history of Indian Ocean islands.

In his paper, John Doyle-Raso examines how scientific knowledge and fisheries infrastructures were both globally and locally created in late twentieth-century Lake Victoria through the exigencies of development, capital and ecological change. Devin Smart’s paper is similarly interested in the creation of fisheries bureaucracy, but his focus is on how the British colonial state used a “modernization” model first forged in the colonial context of Hong Kong to commercialize and compartmentalize Kenya’s coastal political economy of fishing that had previously been structured through patron-client, debt-based dependencies. Jane Hooper’s study considers how American crew members on commercial vessels read Indian Ocean landscapes during their time on shore leave in Madagascar, Mauritius and the island of Amsterdam, and also suggests how these images and their circulation served to naturalize Western presence and domination in the region. Finally, Robert Rouphail's paper examines how a 1940s collapse of Indian Ocean rice networks caused in part by cyclonic damage generated debates about how nutrition, food, and disease informed questions of citizenship and diaspora in the island-colony of Mauritius.

This panel seeks to contribute to classic debates within historiography, such as those concerning the history of science, the state, capitalism, development, leisure and citizenship, but while also considering how the questions of environmental history and the geographical category of East Africa and the Indian Ocean World might help to reframe them. With two environmental history papers positioned on continental East Africa, and two others on the islands of the Indian Ocean, this panel will bring together themes and geographical spaces too often studied in isolation.

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