I’m heading off to the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers next week, where I’ll be presenting some preliminary work on the history of agricultural
meteorology in a session I’ve put together with Angelo Matteo Caglioti (Berkeley). The session, ‘Historical geographies of environmental knowledge: science, space and power‘, will bring together historical geographers and historians of science to consider the relationships between environmental know-how and political action across a range of contexts, from Italian colonial Africa to the US Midwest.
The title I put forward was ‘Weather, climate and the colonial imagination: Albert Walter’s agricultural meteorologies’, although I’m thinking now that I should change the post-colon part to ‘spatial histories of agricultural meteorology’, as I was to use the paper to try and develop some conceptual arguments about how to deal with the geographies of meteorological practice and its applications in contexts of colonial development schemes and the like. I’m going to play around with the notion of experimentation, which has been a concept and object of growing interest to geographers recently, using the empirical case of the British government’s notorious groundnut scheme to think about how the different ends of experimentation – authoritative knowledge, material transformation, commercial gain – interact and shape each other, and what this has meant historically for the relationships between scientific expertise and decision-making.
The paper will be informed by some recent archival work in Oxford, where I w
as able to closely study the work of Albert Walter, a government meteorologist in Mauritius (1897-1926) and then in British East Africa (1926-1948). He pioneered the study of the relationships between crops and weather, developing sophisticated statistical techniques to transform sparse data into seemingly robust arguments about causative relationships between means, extremes and agricultural yields. In the immediate post-war period he was appointed meteorological advisor to the groundnut scheme, and urged the scheme’s managers to reconsider some of their locational choices based on his analysis of climatic conditions. First he was ignored, and then dismissed, before the scheme failed rather unceremoniously following low rainfall, equipment failures and struggles with the local soils.
In a last ditch attempt to save the scheme, Walter’s successor at the East African Meteorological Department David Davies collaborated with the Overseas Food Corporation on a series of rainmaking experiments, with silver-iodide laden balloon bombs and flare guns launched at any passing cloud. While some apparent success was reported, the challenge of reliably attributing subsequent rain to human or natural causes proved insurmountable, and the efforts to finally make it rain on the groundnuts were quietly abandoned.
For me, this case is a great opportunity to play around with some ideas about the role of scientific advice in colonial decision-making, and about the historical geographies of experimentation in the borderlands of science, government and commerce. There’ll also be opportunities to think about how this relates to more recent debates, not least through a session I’ve co-organised with James Palmer (Oxford) – ‘Boundary spaces in environmental politics: contested geographies of knowledge and power‘.