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Environment and Empire

Review by: Brett Bennett University of Texas at Austin

Environment and Empire, William Beinart and Lotte Hughes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 320 pages

In the 1970s, the environmental historiography of the British Empire was miniscule. What a difference thirty-plus years makes: today, the environmental historiography of the British Empire and Commonwealth is immense, diverse, and well-established as one of the most important and fastest growing areas of research. But until the publication of William Beinart and Lotte Hughes’ Environment and Empire, the most recent addition to the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series, there has been no single assessment of the various themes of the environmental historiography of the British Empire. The book does not attempt to merely list publications of distinction, it offers compelling arguments about the salient themes and problems that historians—environmental or not—who study the British Empire need to come to grips with.

There can be no complete survey of such a vast field, but Beinart and Hughes amply cover a multitude of geographies, chronologies, and themes. Traditional “environmental” subjects, such as forestry, irrigation, sheep herding, and the dispersion of diseases and crops, take center stage in the book. But readers tired of the traditional themes of trees and tall grass will also find discussions of resistance to conservation programs and a close study of the urban environment as an invigorating aside. To tie unity to the book and chapters, the authors trace the growth of “commodity frontiers” and “commodity chains,” the environmental, socio-economic and political connections that were forged by the expanding, capitalist British imperial system. The concept of commodity frontiers is indebted to Keith Hancock’s discussion of frontiers in his famous Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs, a book that environmental historians of the empire have until now largely overlooked.

Environmental causation also is a central theme in the book. Historians of the past often overlooked or over-represented the agency of the terrestrial environment. The authors argue that the environment rarely prevented the incursion of imperialism in its entirety, but it often constrained the reach of empire until further scientific or technological innovations made it possible for more efficient imperial control. The Atlantic plantation economy is an apt and oft cited example: generally historians assume that the climate of West Africa precluded the possibility of plantations, the prevailing Atlantic currents and winds predestined the triangle of slaves, sugar, rum, and industrial goods, and Native Americans died owing to a lack of immunity to notoriously deadly diseases such as smallpox. Yet this is not entirely as it may seem. The first successful plantations started off the coast of Africa, and then they were moved to the Caribbean because the West African states were too powerful to be fully colonized. Sugar only gained widespread popularity because of the increase of expendable income of Britons during the eighteenth century. Native Americans were hit not only by disease and technology, but also by the fact that Africans brought with them the lesser known but equally deadly diseases and parasites including hookworm, falciparum malaria, yaws, and yellow fever. Global economics, politics, demographics, and the environment all played varying and important causative roles in the development of the plantation economy of the Atlantic.

Readers will find delightful historical tidbits that many historians fail to mention. Why did British soldiers and post-men dye their Australian wool red? It was the cheapest dye to make. Why did Beavers become so sought after a commodity in the seventeenth century? The Huguenots, who immigrated to London in the sixteenth century, made the finest beaver hats and beaver hats became all the rage in London. The book is replete with more interesting and enjoyable examples of environmental history tidbits. More importantly than cute asides (which are nonetheless refreshing), the book is written clearly and, at times, filled with excellent prose.

There is not a more balanced perspective on environmental issues within British imperial historiography than this book. This in itself might be the book’s most impressive achievement. Many historians of the environment have been too easy to allow the discounting of everything imperial because of the deeply embedded anti-colonialism in our modern mindset. Nothing in life is purely good or purely bad, and this applies to imperialism as well as democracy. Beinart and Hughes subject canals, hunting laws, and forestry to the lens of balanced analysis and come up with a more nuanced perspective than has previously been offered except by a few bold environmental historians.

Yet no book is perfect, and there are a few omissions worth revealing. Most surprisingly, they fail to take a truly empire-wide perspective. By now there are numerous works that examine the environmental history of the British Empire, especially forestry, from a global perspective. On a more pedantic note, the author’ s extend Sir Albert Howard to a long analysis but never cite the only article on the subject (which is surprisingly similar to their views) by Gregory Barton in the Journal of Agricultural History. But considering the immense amount of research and distillation that the author’s achieve, these are minor considerations in the grand scheme of critiques.

If you are a British imperial historian, or someone who works in an area of the former British Empire, you must read this book. Today, environmental history is as important as political, economic, social, and cultural history. Besides, few books are as clearly written, have as broad of a scope, and are as successful in imparting the views of past scholars while also articulating their own vision of historical fact and theory. Most importantly, perhaps, not only will you learn from this book, you will also enjoy it.

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