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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Malaysia – notes from the archives

s I returned from my trip to Malaysia last week, complete with a suitcase full of print-outs from the archives and a head full of ideas about how the development of meteorology in British Malaya fits into the wider story I want to tell with this project.

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The reading room – arkib.gov.my

Most of my time in Malaysia was spent in the Arkib Negara (national archives), which holds a surprising amount of documentation relating to the establishment and operation of meteorological services in the Malaysian Peninsular. My expectations of what I might find in the archives had been lowered by people who’ve worked on other topics there, and who have often had quite a frustrating time. But with the help of Fiona Williamson, who’s also working on the history of meteorology in the region (see this paper for example), I was able to find my way to a few really useful collections.

As Fiona’s argued, there really wasn’t a whole lot of meteorology done in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1929, when the UK Meteorological Office and the Air Ministry were trying to accelerate the roll-out of a meteorological infrastructure to support imperial aviation, Malaya was described by the head of the Indian service as a “non-meteorological country”. It was considered the one ‘weak link’ in the meteorological chain which was to render the skies above the England-Australia air route safe for navigation. C.D. Stewart was therefore dispatched from the Met Office to coordinate a new service which would greatly expand existing observational efforts, while also hastening the circulation of data so that synoptic charts could be developed daily, and forecasts issued to aviators.

Who was meteorology for?

This moment in the late 1920s, with the rise of transcontinental aviation, saw new debates about what – and crucially who – meteorology was for. If expensive meteorological infrastructure was merely required to make the skies above Britain’s territories safe for planes flying overhead, was it really the business of those territorial governments to foot the bill? In East Africa, the roll-out of a regional British met service to facilitate flight on the Cape-Cairo routes was joined by promises of more local benefits, including new knowledge to apply to agriculture in climatically diverse colonies. In Malaya, there was very little talk of agricultural meteorology as a salve to colonial support for what was essentially and imperial project of inter-dominion aviation. That may have been to do with the combination of what was seen as an essentially ‘monotonous’ climate, and the firm establishment by then of agricultural monocultures. Things like rubber were being grown on large estates quite successfully by then, and there wasn’t much sense that meteorology had anything to offer the growers. Others who saw greater variation in the Malayan climate nonetheless saw the weather as essentially unpredictable, and held out little hope for reliable weather forecasts.

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Meteorology as infrastructure. From Watts, The equatorial convergence lines of the Malayan-East Indies area. Malayan Meteorological Service, 1949.

So meteorology developed in British Malaya as essentially a form of ‘infrastructural science‘ – a combination of applied theoretical knowledge and environmental observation, essentially operating invisibly, not for the purpose of producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to support the establishment of a much wider socio-technical infrastructure (international aviation). How to pay for such a science was a frequent sore point, with the states disagreeing over whether contributions to the overall budget should be allotted based on how many observation stations each state had, or according to how many flights landed in each territory. Singapore, for example, had few met stations but lots of landings, whereas the large rural states further north had a growing number of met stations, but weren’t exactly key stops on the emerging trunk air routes. This uncertainty about whether the air above Britain’s territories was a colonial or an imperial matter points to wider debates about the constitutional operation of Britain’s patchwork empire, about the relationship between colonial autonomy and joint imperial effort, and to different assumptions about the place of science in making such spaces governable. In the correspondence at this time, one can read lots of interesting efforts to convince others, including the rulers of the Unfederated Malay States, of how the expectation of ‘modern’, ‘civilised’ states was the production of reliable meteorological information, and the free provision of such information to anyone who might like to use it.

Who did the meteorology?

Unlike some of the other meteorological services I’ve been studying, it was possible in Malaysia to get a bit of insight into the staff who made it all happen, beyond the conventional European at the top. Within the Arkib Negara you can find service records of some of the staff who were recruited locally – their progression up salary scales, their performance in technical exams, and the fines and sanctions they were subject too when their observations weren’t deemed up to scratch. Often these were men who would spend some time at HQ in Singapore helping to compile, tabulate and compute the numbers, but for most of the time they were out in the countryside, running isolated meteorological stations in far flung corners of the territories. Tensions frequently arose around their working conditions – their accommodation, the long hours, access to schools for their children, their subjection to a disciplinary regime which was often seen as unsympathetic to the difficult conditions in which meteorological work was done. Being able to unearth some of this stuff has been really enlightening, as it enables me to say something about the everyday lived realities of meteorology in colonial settings – to go beyond the writings of the directors and the managers and the ideals of smoothly running systems of weather observation and computation, to get to the voices of the people putting in the hard, repetitive, often maddeningly dull work of making colonial skies legible and predictable.

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From the Annual Report of the Malayan Meteorological Service, 1949.

Meteorology at war

One of the threads I’m keen to follow through the Malayan story is the relationship between meteorology and the military. Of course the rise of civil aviation coincided with the further development of military flying, and the Malayan meteorological service always had a close relationship with the Royal Air Force. During the occupation of British Malaya by Japan in World War II, it seems that the observational infrastructure was kept ticking, even if most of the records from this period were apparently destroyed. Many of the observation staff worked 7-day weeks throughout the occupation, leading to some serious health problems and a backlog of leave allowances after the war which drastically undermined the ability of the service to meet all its obligations. The ambition to run a 24-hour forecast service had to be abandoned, as worn-out staff took long stretches of leave – often in India – to recuperate.

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MMS Annual Report, 1949

Forecasting activities at Kuala Lumpur aerodrome were particularly hard hit by the staff shortages, but the office there was seemingly still able to prepare a daily stream-line analysis for the RAF to inform its bombing campaigns against the communist insurgents as the Emergency took hold. Confident claims were made about how meteorology would facilitate efficient air strikes against the rebels in forested hills, although it seems I may have to do some more digging in UK-based archives to get at the details.

So there are lots of things to process and ideas to develop over the coming weeks and months, and a few follow-up visits to more local archives to be made in order to finesse a few points.

I should say thanks to all the staff at the Arkib Negara, who dealt incredibly patiently with my requests, and tolerated my dodgy Malay with great generosity!

New paper: ‘Modelling and the nation’

I’ve got a new paper out in Minerva, co-authored with Mike Hulme (KCL), on the establishment of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research at the UK Met Office. It’s available open-access by following the link below:

Modelling and the Nation: Institutionalising Climate Prediction in the UK, 1988–92

Abstract. How climate models came to gain and exercise epistemic authority has been a key concern of recent climate change historiography. Using newly released archival materials and recently conducted interviews with key actors, we reconstruct negotiations between UK climate scientists and policymakers which led to the opening of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in 1990. We historicize earlier arguments about the unique institutional culture of the Hadley Centre, and link this culture to broader characteristics of UK regulatory practice and environmental politics. A product of a particular time and place, the Hadley Centre was shaped not just by scientific ambition, but by a Conservative governmental preference for ‘sound science’ and high evidential standards in environmental policymaking. Civil servants sought a prediction programme which would appeal to such sensibilities, with transient and regional climate simulation techniques seemingly offering both scientific prestige and persuasive power. Beyond the national level, we also offer new insights into the early role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an evolving international political context in the shaping of scientific practices and institutions.

Although not strictly related to my Imperial Weather project, it was the research for this paper – specifically poking about in the Met Office archives – which led to my accidental discovery of the interwar Conferences of Empire Meteorologists, and thus my new interest in the history of colonial atmospheric science. It’s amazing how much our research directions are shaped by serendipity and chance encounters!

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Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Sir John Houghton at the opening of the Hadley Centre in 1990.

But the story we tell in this paper, about the institutionalisation of climate prediction and the re-shaping of UK environmental politics around a new concern with global climate change, could be considered something of a book-end to the story I want to tell about earlier British engagements with the ‘global’ atmosphere, as given shape and form by the colonial enterprise.

The paper is based on some governmental archive materials, released in 2013, which document the negotiations between climate scientists at the Met Office, officials at the Department of Environment, and Conservative politicians about the shape a new climate prediction centre should take, and what its priorities should be. We were also able to interview some of the key movers and shakers from the time about their experiences.

Others have skilfully documented how the Hadley Centre is uniquely close to policymakers, at least in contrast to comparable modelling centres around the world (see e.g. Simon Shackley in Changing the Atmosphere, or this earlier paper in Minerva). The task we set ourselves was simple – to explain how those close relationships came about, and what that can tell us about the broader nature of environmental politics and cultures of expert advice in the UK.

I should take this opportunity to thank those we interviewed for the project, whose insights greatly enriched our analysis, and to acknowledge the generous support of King’s College London for the conduct of the work.

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Michael Heseltine MP (Secretary of State for the Environment  1990-2) with Met Office scientists