Mauritius – notes from the archives

I’ve just returned from a few weeks in Mauritius, where I was lucky enough to spend some time both exploring the archives and exploring the island, to follow-up on and deepen my engagement with the island’s meteorological history.

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The Black River Gorges National Park. Although the only National Park on the island, it sits in a long tradition of (battles over) forest conservation, often with the aim of protecting the island’s climate.

I started working on the history of meteorology in Mauritius by following Albert Walter, founding director of the British East African Meteorological Service, back to the place where he cut his teeth. Walter left behind rich personal archives, and the history of organised weather observation on the island, which really begins in 1851 with the founding of the Meteorological Society of Mauritius, is equally well documented through a trail of publications which can be largely accessed in the UK.

I have a paper coming out soon in the British Journal for the History of Science which traces some of this history, based largely on archival materials available locally. My aim in Mauritius was to flesh out some key points of that history (for a potted history of Mauritian meteorology, see here).

The story which I narrate in my paper goes something like this: in 1851 a Met. Society was formed with the aim of formalising observation on the island, and promoting the use of ship log books to compile observations on tropical cyclones. Charles Meldrum took the lead on the latter, developing new theoretical insights on cyclone formation and behaviour which pushed forward ‘cyclonology’ while also helping mariners navigate tropical seas more safely. By the late 19th century however, ships were no longer calling at Mauritius so regularly to deposit their observations. Attention turned instead to further refining techniques of ‘single station forecasting’, whereby the rules being laid down by Meldrum and others could be used to observe and predict cyclone behaviour using just the instruments at one observatory. Mauritius wasn’t connected to anywhere by telegraph which could warn it of impending storms – the meteorologists were on their own. They therefore had new responsibilities to their paymasters in the colonial government, and rules were carefully set down about how meteorologists should go about making predictions and sending warnings when a storm was approaching. So from seeking to standardise meteorological practice across the wide Indian Ocean, the meteorologists themselves became subject to the regulation of the observatory by the government. I hitch this story to various broader conversations in history of science, most especially concerning the role of colonial ‘peripheries’ as sites for the production of original and authoritative knowledge, and about the links between science and colonial power.

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The original harbourside observatory in Port Louis, now remembered by a plaque at the Caudan Waterfront complex.

I went to Mauritius wanting to explore more this relationship of responsibility between meteorologist and government, particularly in a colonial context where a British governmental class was superimposed on a largely Francophone economic elite, and a growing population of Indian labourers and smallholders. French and Anglophone meteorologists were split during the 19th century on consequential points of cyclone theory, and I wondered how this played out in multicultural and multilingual Mauritius.

I therefore started at the National Library, which boasts rich holdings of historic newspapers, which I hoped would tell me more about the cultural politics of weather prediction. Sadly though, coverage of the particular periods and events I was interested in (particularly the big cyclones between 1892 and 1902) was a bit scanty, with the newspapers fragile and damaged (perhaps because so many others had been thumbing through them to research these consequential events, or perhaps because the storms themselves had damaged archival holdings..?)

I was therefore incredibly grateful to Jacques Pougnet and Edley Michaud, both of the re-booted Meteorological Society, for helping me fill in some of the gaps with materials they have amassed over the years during their own investigations into the island’s meteorological history.

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Historical instruments and observations at Edley Michaud’s Quatre Bornes weather station, which still supplies observations to the Met. Service

Heading to the National Archives, located in a re-purposed factory on an industrial estate outside the capital Port Louis, I was delighted to find a big tranche of correspondence which I hadn’t known to exist. The periods 1850-1880 and 1900-1910 were well covered, allowing me to dig deeper into both the genesis and contested evolution of organised meteorology.

 

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The National Archives, Coromandel

The earlier materials helped me learn more about Henri Bousquet, a mysterious figure who was for a few years around 1850 the official government observer, but who had a difficult relationship with the Met. Society and with the government. His idiosyncratic approach to weather observation won him few friends and even fewer admirers, but after he was turfed out of the observatory he valiantly continued his own researches into cyclonology. In the 1860s he tried to get his work published in Paris but no publishing house would take it on. Exasperated at this latest rejection, he destroyed his manuscripts. This rather tragic personal history has made him hard to trace in the archives, but finding a bunch of his correspondence has helped me to flesh out exactly what the crux of the disagreements were.

The later materials have helped me trace the evolving relationship between the government and the meteorologists at the Royal Alfred Observatory, including Albert Walter. Those relationships of responsibility, trust and accountability are thrown into relief both by newspaper coverage of missed cyclones, and in governmental investigations into the Observatory’s work and whether it was worth the public money.

RAOI hope too to be able to develop some ideas around the history of thinking about climate and health on the island, revisiting some of Charles Meldrum’s work on the topic, and how ideas about climatic change – whose genesis Richard Grove traced so well in Green Imperialism – intersected in the late 19th century with concerns about immigration and health on the island.

Sentinelle - climaterical changeThis might take longer to work up into publishable research, but I hope that my forthcoming Anthropocene module for our Geography undergraduates, which I’ll be writing over the coming months, will provide space to reflect a little on Mauritius as a microcosm of Anthropocene thought and practice. It’s all there – a proto-environmentalism around forest and climate protection, a racialised biopolitics of population, and a sense, around 1880, that it was too late for humans to retreat from their re-working of nature, so human mastery should be embraced instead and island nature carefully designed to sustain a plantation economy (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). With Donna Haraway recently calling for us to reconsider the Anthropocene as the Plantationocene, Mauritius is an ideal site for thought.

I’m incredibly grateful for all the help I received during my visit, from the wonderful librarians and archivists, my hosts Audrey and Robert, the guy who chased me down the street when I left my bank card in an ATM, and innumerable others. I should say another special thanks again to Jacques Pougnet, Edley Michaud, Renganaden Virasami and Rory Walshe, whose generous advice, help and expertise has helped me enormously in piecing together this history.

 

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A ideal site for thought, in more ways than one…
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