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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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

Climate & Colonialism: new paper in ‘WIREs Climate Change’

A postcard depicting the Royal Alfred Observatory, Mauritius, c. 1920. Source: Pinterest

Georgina Endfield and I have just published a review paper in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change on the topic of ‘climate & colonialism’. The paper seeks to take in a large volume of recent(and not-so-recent) research in two broad areas: the links between ideas about climate (such as tropical degeneracy) and ideologies of imperialism; and more recent work on how the practicalities of dealing with strange, troubling and unpredictable climates were woven into the everyday lives of colonial life and rule.


Writing this article was a nice opportunity to take stock of existing work on topics which seem to be increasingly popular among historians, historical geographers and others. Our recent themed issue of History of Meteorology was a response to this upsurge in interest in histories of climate, science and empire as well, but this paper offered the opportunity to review in a bit more depth this expanding body of work. Overall, we make the case that while the links between ideologies of climatic difference and ideologies of imperialism are well-known and (reasonably) well-studied, new work is pointing to the ways in which some of these ideas shaped the practices of dealing with colonial climates in day-to-day life (whether that be the lives of farmers, settlers, the colonised, government administrators or appointed meteorologists). It focuses to a large extent on Anglophone histories, partly due to our own linguistic capacities, but partly also because that’s where the field has been focused so far. This is starting to change though (see here for example, where I’ve tried to gathered together references on the history of met. and climatology from different national contexts), and we tried to cast as wide a net as possible. Hopefully it will prove a useful summary of an expanding field, for both aficionados and newcomers, and perhaps will spur yet more work in this fascinating area.


Recent years have seen a growth in scholarship on the intertwined histories of climate, science, and European imperialism. Scholarship has focused both on how the material realities of climate shaped colonial enterprises, and on how ideas about climate informed imperial ideologies. Historians have shown how European expansion was justified by its protagonists with theories of racial superiority, which were often closely tied to ideas of climatic determinism. Meanwhile, the colonial spaces establi shed by European powers offered novel laboratories” where ideas about acclimatization and climatic improvement could be tested on the ground. While historical scholarship has focused on how powerful ideas of climate informed imperial projects, emerging scholarship in environmental history, history of science, and historical geography focuses instead on the material and cognitive practices by which the climates of colonial spaces were made known and dealt with in fields such as forestry, agriculture, and human health. These heretofore rather disparate areas of historical research carry great contemporary relevance for studies of how climates and their changes have been understood, debated, and adapted to in the past.


Relocating Meteorology: themed issue of History of Meteorology

Front cover-page-001 (1)I’m delighted to announce the publication of a themed issue of the journal History of Meteorology edited by myself and Angelo Matteo Caglioti (EUI), on the topic of ‘Relocating Meteorology’.

The collection developed out of a conference session at the AAG annual meeting in 2015, and brings together a range of established and emerging voices in the field to ask the conjoined questions of how meteorological ideas and practices have travelled in the past, and of how we can re-consider the spatial, social and cultural coordinates of our histories of atmospheric science.

The thinking behind the issue was inspired broadly by recent ideas about the historical and cultural geographies of science (PDF), and by an observation that this ‘spatial turn’ had, with some notable exceptions, yet to fully establish itself within history of meteorology. For understandable reasons, current histories often focus on the achievements of the great theoretical pioneers, and are frequently bounded by the nationalised archives of the countries where support for meteorology has historically been the most generous. Building on these important foundations, we wanted to develop what we detected as a nascent move into other spaces – exploring meteorology at the historical ‘margins’ of the world system, taking renewed account of the many ‘dead ends’ in the development of meteorological knowledge, and broadening the cast of actors, technologies and practices which populate our histories. Our initial call for papers was met with a really enthusiastic response, and we ended up with a bumper crop of papers covering a range of time periods, spaces, and forms of knowledge.

Angelo and I have written a short introductory essay which outlines how we see the papers fitting together, and how they each contribute to the project of ‘relocating meteorology’. From meteorological bodies in 19th century Yellowstone, colonial ideas about the climatic redemption of subtropical drylands and German scientific nationalism, through to the interwar construction of ‘airspace’ and the post-war roll-out of computerised weather prediction, the papers show how the atmospheric sciences have been bound-up with various different projects of world-making.

Although a number of papers deal very directly with meteorology far away from its various metropoles, others situate the challenge of ‘relocating meteorology’ closer to its historical sites of power and progress. The American West, Brussels and the UK Met Office all figure in the collective analysis, albeit in ways which stress that as a historical process, ‘relocating’ meteorology was not always a straightforwardly spatial one. It also involved the negotiation of different forms of expertise and authority, the building of new public relationships and identities, and the careful positioning of putatively international projects within the frameworks of national science and politics which have so dominated the historical geographies of scientific knowledge-making.

Other papers deal with meteorological practices in places conventionally seen as ‘marginal’ or ‘peripheral’ in the history of science, and contribute to a broader project of seeing such places as centres of knowledge production in their own right, with impacts on how knowledge was made back in metropoles such as London, Berlin or Washington.

It was an incredibly rewarding project to a be a part of, and it’s great to see so many of the initial proposals come through as finished papers. Thanks again to all our wonderful contributors, to our reviewers who gave their time and expertise to help it all along, and of course to Jim Fleming who initially offered the space in the journal, and who has supported the project throughout.

The papers can be accessed here, and a PDF of the complete collection is available here.


New paper: montage and climate futures

I have a new paper out in the RGS-IBG’s relatively new open-access journal Geo: Geography & Environment, entitled ‘Picturing the future-conditional: montage and the global geographies of climate change‘. The paper will form part of a themed issue on global environmental imagery being convened by historian of science Sebastian Grevsmühl. The introductory essay by Sebastian is also available online, and others papers will be following soon.

John Heartfield, cover image for Upton Sinclair’s ‘After the Flood’, 1925

The paper is the outcome of a long-standing side project on how artists and designers have sought to represent the possible effects of global environmental change in very local settings, often through strategies of visual composition such as montage, collage and graphical manipulation. I’m interested in how such images play on ideas of place, and how the representation of spatial otherness functions as an analogue for futurity.

There are some interesting parallels with the main themes of my current project – i.e. how colonial actors sought to come to terms with climate – scientifically, but also politically and normatively. Imperial ideologies were shot-through with ideas of climatic determinism, of racial superiority shaped by climatic superiority, and many of the practices of colonialism were informed and directed by ‘imaginative geographies’ of climatic excess, danger and inhospitability. Regional climatologies, describing the stable characteristics of the climates of distant places, were also moral climatologies, to borrow David Livingstone’s term, speaking of stable orderings of people, place and environment.

An advert for Bile Beans, the “medically tested laxative” from Australia, c. 1900. Reproduced in Jackson, ‘A Very Short Introduction to the British Empire’.

The montaged climate futures which I examine in the paper work by disrupting some of these deep-seated notions of climatic otherness, and of related fears of the destabilisation of our moral climatologies. But this destabilisation narrative also has a long history, which can be read from the genealogy of the ruin in western European art. Fantasizing about the future ruins of one’s civilisation was rarely subversive; rather it played upon notions of the grand endurance of civilisation’s artefacts beyond the timescales of shifting human fortunes. To imagine ruination was to promise immortality.

Images of climate-changed futures often work by constructing a stable, happy order tensed on the verge of transformation, often of a catastrophic, ruinous nature. They don’t tend to engage with present-day instabilities, injustices and inequalities; rather, the present emerges as a curiously stable thing, only to be turned upside-down by a cast of climatic, biophysical and cultural Others. Again, there’s a long (and decidedly imperial) history to this kind of thinking.

From the series ‘Postcards from the Future’, Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones.

However, I argue in the paper that the historical radicalism of montage as a mode of artistic production offers the seed of more progressive, reflexive kinds of future-visioning. ‘Reflexive’ in the sense that montage makes clear the choices and cuts made by the artist. The decision of what to add in, and what to leave out, becomes part of the representation itself. There are some radical lessons in there not just for the visualisation of climate-changed futures, but for much broader modes of constructing futures, where the black-boxing of such choices can have significant epistemic and political consequences (see, for example, the ongoing controversy over the under-acknowledged inclusion of certain ‘climate engineering’ technologies in recent climate change scenarios).

More of the images on which I based my discussion can be found collected together here.


New paper: meteorology as an imperial science

BJ 5-19 193 croppedI have a new paper out in the Journal of Historical Geography entitled ‘For an empire of ‘all types of climate’: meteorology as an imperial science’. It can be found on the publisher’s website here, and a pre-publication version of the article can be downloaded here.

The paper is the main output of the RGS-IBG funded project which I conducted at King’s College London, and essentially lays the groundwork for the research I’ll be doing at Nottingham. It focuses on a series of conferences held periodically from 1919 onwards, generally titled the Conferences of Empire Meteorologists. These events, and the document trails they left behind, offer a useful synoptic view of how the sciences of meteorology and climatology were evolving alongside the shifting priorities and practices of British imperialism. They also offer the opportunity to develop a richer understanding of the role of conferences themselves in convening, coordinating, and contesting imperial scientific practices – something which resonates with the work my colleagues Steve Legg, Jake Hodder and Mike Heffernan are doing here at Nottingham on conferences and interwar internationalism.

In the paper I follow the story of these conferences chronologically, beginning in 1919 with efforts on the part of British meteorologists to integrate the science into processes of post-war national and imperial reconstruction. Meteorologists from the Dominions – rather than the wider colonial empire – gathered at the Royal Society to discuss what the increasing militarization of the atmosphere meant for their science, and to figure out ways of better coordinating the activities of what were, in most cases, very young meteorological services.

In 1929 the empire meteorologists gathered again – this time with the colonies represented too – and it’s clear that by this time the ‘imperial significance’ of the science had been recognised not just by the meteorologists themselves, but by their patrons and paymasters in government. Ministerial receptions and official dinners were laid on by the Air Ministry, visits were organised to inspect Britain’s ‘elaborate’ meteorological infrastructure, and regular press releases were fed to the print media as the public and political significance of the atmospheric sciences became ever clearer.

room plan - countries
Seating the Empire. National Archives BJ5/19

The rise of civilian and military aviation was the key factor, and much of the 1929 conference was dedicated to working out what sort of meteorological knowledges and techniques were required to facilitate the safe traversal of Britain’s colonial empire by new fleets of trans-continental aeroplanes and, it was hoped, airships.

airship routes 1929
A cartography of imperial expectation. From Conference of Empire Meteorologists, 1929, HMSO

All was not always rosy in the empire meteorological club, and the conferences provide an opportunity to understand the tensions which existed between metropolitan and colonial weather men. Figures like British East Africa’s Albert Walter stridently insisted that meteorological techniques could not be transplanted wholesale from London to the colonies, but needed adaptation both to local climates and to local scientific capacities. In the 1929 and 1935 conferences, we can see how collectively the imperial meteorologists began to position themselves as spokespeople for a global climatic diversity which they saw as being largely overlooked by the International Meteorological Organisation – a body which at the time was dominated by European and North American weather services. I therefore argue that the evolution of meteorological internationalism in this period cannot be understood without reference to the infrastructures and practices of imperial meteorology, and that empire is an important way in which the science became ‘global’, both in its subject matter and in its practices.

This idea of the British Empire’s unique climatic diversity also fed into desires to find much more instrumental applications of meteorology, with the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) for example sponsoring a section of the 1929 conference dedicated to agricultural meteorology. For the EMB, the Empire’s climatic diversity was not just an epistemic resource but an economic one too, and plans were hatched for meteorological knowledge to be better integrated with agricultural research in order to stimulate a more vibrant imperial agricultural economy.

Highways of Empire - Max Gill

However, the meteorologists were not wholly convinced of the value or practicality of such applied work, and much bickering ensued about, for example, the meaning and significance of concepts like ‘micro-climate’ to the work of professional meteorologists. Understanding agricultural meteorology as a contested ‘trading zone‘ between different disciplines is something I want to pursue further, with Albert Walter’s rather tortured involvement in the ill-fated postwar ‘groundnut scheme’ offering a good case study of the trouble that could ensue when different forms of expertise clashed amid desperate attempts to stimulate flagging colonial economies.

In the postwar and Cold War periods imperial forms of scientific cooperation increasingly gave way to new forms of scientific globalism, most notably in this context in the rise of the World Meteorological Organisation [pdf]. In the interwar period the Empire conferences had always been held before major international meteorology meetings, as if to coordinate the ‘imperial position’. Now though they started to be held after WMO meetings and they took on an increasingly informal tone. However, one interesting strand that I want to follow up on is the role of the Commonwealth in the circulation of ideas about anthropogenic climate change in the 1970s and 1980s. Climate change became a key topic for the Conferences of Commonwealth Meteorologists, as they became known, and there’s an interesting question about the role of the Commonwealth -with its high number of small island states – in the development of particular notions of collective vulnerability and of collective political identities.

So, lots to follow up on, and I hope that my new project will be able to go beyond the documentary traces of metropolitan coordination to explore more fully the histories and geographies of colonial meteorology, and its imbrications with different forms of colonial government and culture.