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October 2009: James Beattie

James Beattie
Senior Lecturer, University of Waikato

1. How did you decide to become a historian? How did your undergraduate and graduate studies influence you as a historian?

I guess two things influenced my decision to become a historian: first, moving from New Zealand to England and second studying geography.

Being someone who’s moved from one country to another and back again, I’ve always been fascinated by the movement of ideas and people between different places. What’s always interested me is the way settlers physically and mentally recreate the places they move to in imitation of where they come from. They do this physically, through the plants and environmental changes they institute; and mentally, through the similarities they might see between landscapes in one place and landscapes in another. Environmental history investigates many of these processes.

My background in geography has also influenced the questions I ask as a historian. I started studying human geography at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and although I enjoyed it, I eventually continued in history. It was really only in my third and fourth years (New Zealand’s honours courses follow the Scottish model in being four years rather than three), with courses on Pacific environmental history and Indian environmental history that I realized I could pursue my double interests in history and geography, exploring ideas of space and changing environmental ideas over time.

The course on Indian environmental history actually was central to my development as a historian, coming to influence both the subjects and the topics I research. For one, it opened up my eyes to a whole set of fascinating intersections: between colonialism and science, between conservation and state-making, between environmental ideas and medicine. In my Honours thesis, I tested whether some of the same environmental ideas and processes evident in India – such as Richard Grove’s desiccationism, romanticism, etc. – were happening in early colonial New Zealand at the same time. And, I guess, I’ve been fascinated and inspired by Indian environmental history ever since.

My forthcoming book, for instance, Empire and Environmental Anxiety, 1800-1920 (Palgrave Macmillan) explores in greater depth across South Asia, Australia and New Zealand many of the questions raised in the course on Indian environmental history over a decade ago: what effect did imperial environmental change have on different landscapes, peoples, policies, and attitudes?; what were the relationships between health, environmental change, aesthetics and conservation?; were people, policies and plants exchanged from one place to another and if so why and to what impact?

2. Tell us about the History Department at the University Waikato.

We’re a small department – being around 7 staff – but we punch above our weight. We have a thriving graduate culture with Ph.D. students easily outnumbering staff members. That makes for a very exciting and stimulating workplace. The department’s teaching is innovative, both in its subject matter and methods (such as iwi history, biography, digital history, transnational and comparative history, postcolonial theory, politics and the press). For my own teaching areas, the department’s emphasis on regional and transnational studies, as well as interdisciplinarity and public history, accords well for teaching world history, science and empire, and garden and environmental history. It is, for instance, one of the few universities in New Zealand to teach public history, and will soon have one of the only courses in this part of the world on garden history.

3. How does living in New Zealand affect the way you understand British history or the history of the British Empire?

I guess in a sense I answered that question in my response to the first question: that moving from one place to another reinforced the importance of environmental exchanges.

4. You are quite active in Asian studies and environmental history in New Zealand. Tell us a little bit about some of your activities, particularly your role in the founding and running of ENNZ: Environment and Nature in New Zealand.

New Zealand environmental history keeps drawing me back, not least because it’s so well documented from the colonial period and there are so many other fascinating areas of study to pursue, but also because I often come upon landscape forms and I wonder why they are there. I’m truly fascinated by Asia – particularly colonial South Asia and imperial China – but I have no linguistic facility in either, and my early attempts have been somewhat woeful, so I guess I compensate for this by studying Asian-New Zealand-Australian interactions! I would dearly love in 10 years’ time or so to be able to read classical Chinese and access a small sample of the fascinating sources I have read in translation.

ENNZ: Environment and Nature in New Zealand grew out of a number of conversations I have had with colleagues who expressed frustration at the lack of a network to connect up people interested in environmental history and the environment. Its aim, then, was to provide a forum for anyone interested in the environment to exchange ideas. I should hasten to mention that ENNZ is open to anyone with an interest in environment, not just those working on the environmental history of New Zealand. So, for instance, we have scholars of Chinese garden history who are contributors.

What started as a newsletter is now a peer-reviewed on-line journal, but it also continues its role as a notice board and forum for upcoming events, and still accepts non-peer-reviewed articles: the aim is still to encourage anyone interested in environmental matters to contribute. The editorial collective includes those with backgrounds in environmental literature, garden history and environmental history. We have had, for instance, special editions on environmental literature and trans-Tasman environmental history. Anyone interested in contributing should contact me in the first instance: jbeattieatwaikatodotacdotnz  (jbeattieatwaikatdotacdotnz)  

5. What are you currently working on or have you worked on?

I have several book projects at different stages of completion. Currently I’m enjoying my first sabbatical from Waikato and I’m using some of it to undertake research at the British Library. I’m able to tie up loose ends for my book for Palgrave Macmillan on the environmental, aesthetic and health connections between South Asia and Australasia in the nineteenth century. I just returned from China where I collected more material for an illustrated book I’m editing on a rather beautiful Chinese Scholars’ Garden that has been built in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Four other book projects are only just starting. One is on garden plants and collecting in Australasia. This aims to be something different, exploring everything from the role of individual plant collectors and landscape change (including nurserymen, a group largely ignored), to cemetery design, mental health landscapes, the Asian plant trade and Australasian species overseas. The second is another really exciting project with Duncan Campbell from the Australian National University, and others. This examines the collection, trade patterns and meaning of Chinoiserie (both objects and plants) in New Zealand’s settler and Chinese population. It’s proved great fun so far, tracking down objects and collectors and generally working in a fascinating and completely new area! The third work is an edited book on views of nature in the nineteenth century, one which hopefully brings together my interests in Asian and European environmental history. And, finally, I am planning to edit a book updating Alfred Crosby’s ecological imperialism – it’s a work that’s had an amazing impact but it’s now almost 25 years old and some of its ideas need to be revisited.

Added to that I’m trying to finish off a number of articles and chapters: East India Company settlers in New Zealand and landscape change; colonial meteorology; Japanese-New Zealand health connections, object exchange and garden ideas; an early colonial arboretum; the notion of wasteland, wilderness and cultivation; an overview of themes in New Zealand environmental and garden history. Definitely enough to keep me busy!

6. You study the history of science, medicine, and the environment. This is an interesting mix. Usually historians seem to focus on one, or perhaps two of these sub-fields, but you focus on all three. How does this methodological diversity inform your understanding of each individual sub-field as well as the whole of modern history?

I might also add colonial landscape art!

It certainly makes for a challenging, but I think also an immensely rewarding, study. Whereas a decade ago I could quite easily keep up with literature across a number of sub-disciplines, now that’s impossible: frustrating certainly but also a sign of the healthiness of the scholarship. I suppose I read the other material from the perspective of an environmental historian interested in ideas and art. I also find scholars immensely generous and patient of someone wanting to expand his horizons!

And, more than that, examining these intersections makes good, historical sense. Much of the nineteenth century did not exhibit the specialization or compartmentalization of knowledge that is now part of the world we live in. Here’s an example of why examining the intersections are absolutely crucial. Some time ago now I was interested in a medical doctor whose work was not limited to medical matters. He also wrote on forest conservation, women’s education, botanical gardens, lichenology, colonial development, public health, and so on. To understand his intersecting interests adequately, it’s therefore necessary to take a broader, interdisciplinary approach.

Similarly, examining a colonial landscape artist has meant considering not just his art but his writing on public health, conservation, gardens and so on: it makes for a more rounded and fuller picture of an individual I think, and a clearer understanding of how the thoughts and interests of certain groups of society in the past functioned.

7. What methods and perspectives do you think beginning historians or historians freshly jumping into empire studies or the history of New Zealand should think about?

Well, I think they should try and think about the connections between different places, how and why people and objects moved around the world and remade different areas in the process. I firmly think a focus on individuals is also important. After all, biography is the way most people get into history and it’s immensely popular. Plus it gives you a real sense of the humanity of the past. Of course, that’s not always easy to do – as subaltern scholars or women’s historians remind us – but I still think it’s an immensely rewarding area of study.

I would strongly encourage budding young historians of New Zealand to integrate better the role of Maori and non-Europeans as agents of environmental change. Theoretical developments in the historical profession over the last 30 years or so have been immensely helpful in reminding us of the impact of colonialism on environments and peoples, of signposting the asymmetries of power, but in the process such perspectives have sometimes elided over difference and exception. They have sometimes been guilty of presenting settler-indigenous relations as a kind of cartoon history, with Maori and European views divided neatly across race boundaries – even to the extent of sailing away on theoretical flights of fancy that ignore historical evidence. It’s time to leave those histories behind, to build on and challenge them by presenting some of the complexities of the past and in doing so fulfil our role as historians. So, Chinese speaking historians, start to consider the environmental changes that Chinese migrants inaugurated in New Zealand and the extent to which experiences here differed from elsewhere. So, Maori speaking historians, why not think more about the complex role of Maori in engaging with introduced species and in effecting environmental change from the colonial period?

8. Point us to the future: judging from your own intellectual trajectory and experiences as a historian, what future trends do you predict for historians, academia, or the world in general?

Historians are notoriously loathe to attempt even to predict the future, leaving that to their colleagues in the social sciences, but here are some suggestions of future areas for environmental historians to study.

First, I believe that environmental history has become established academically. This was brought home to me at the recent (August, 2009) World Congress of Environmental History, which saw a staggering 560 or so papers delivered. As much as anything else, interest in and acceptance of environmental history has much to do with our present concerns about climate change, pollution, overpopulation, and so on.

Second, I would predict far more studies critically examining methodology, particularly given that much environmental history has grown out of the west or so-called first world. While simply a reflection of the development of environmental concerns there, it does create interesting issues if a western perspective is considered the norm. I would therefore like to see many more studies challenging the Eurocentric notions that underpin environmental history and its methodology. I think particularly of Asia and Africa here, and the great contribution scholars of these areas can make to methodological debates. More studies need to integrate environmental histories from these regions. These will help to challenge prevailing orthodoxies – and I speak here of myself – and lack of knowledge of such regions among students and lecturers. Can we with any authority talk of a worldwide early modern period? Can we legitimately apply western architectural terms to describe Chinese gardens? With a first year world history course that focuses strongly on ecological change, I have shaped it chronologically around imperial China. Why not do the same for other regions?

Third, I think that greater attention in environmental history will be placed on studying human interaction with ocean environments. This promises to connect areas which previously have not been strongly studied in connection. The Pacific Ocean world, I think, will become a stronger focus of study much in the same way that the Atlantic or Indian Ocean worlds have. There are many great precedents for study of the Pacific too: Oskar Spate springs to mind, as do the fantastic studies by Ian Tyrrell and more latterly Paul D’Arcy.

I look forward to witnessing future developments in environmental history.

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