William Beinart and Lotte Hughes, Environment and Empire. The Oxford History of the British Empire: Companion Series. Oxford University Press, 2007. 395 pp., ISBN 978019956251.

Charles Dawson

In 2006, New Zealand conservation department staff and volunteers needed to restore native plants on the inaccessible cliff faces of Mana Island. Their solution was termed a ‘seed bomb’: clusters of various species of packed native seeds were launched from the cliff tops, scattering seeds on the tiny ledges below. The impressive book under review acts as a kind of seeding agent for the discipline of environmental history, dispersing a generous range of scholarship to a wide audience. And it is likely the book will find that audience: it is accessible and of relevance to students of history, geography and environmental studies, and the general reader. Scores of topics are addressed, new avenues for research suggested, and leads for further reading detailed. Readers and teachers looking for a book that introduces — and develops — environmental history in a British imperial context will be well-served by Environment and Empire.

Beinart and Hughes acknowledge at the outset that dealing with ‘the British Empire’ as a topic is problematic for environmental historians who often glean the most insights from a trans-national or ecosystems-based approach. The authors are direct about the impossibility of forging a simplistic synthesis of the material at hand. This does not mean certain general lines of inquiry are not isolated and subsequently developed: the themes explored are environmental causation, and impacts, conservationism and Indigenous societies and local knowledges.

The book’s short title compresses vast conceptual reach; Beinart and Hughes do justice to this scope (an achievement in its own right), in part because they acknowledge early on they have to ‘work in generalities’ and have made omissions for reasons of space (4). They have decided to narrow their focus to make the subject both manageable and ‘grounded’ in events, sites and particular scholarly developments. To this end, the book moves

from a series of topical case-studies in its first half to a wider conceptual and thematic coverage in later chapters, to, as they put it, ‘provide hooks for comparison and discussion’ (viii). The topics trace seams of extraction, commodification, subjugation and failure using a large number of secondary sources. The authors’ decision to open the book with regionally-based case studies lends weight to the later thematic chapters. A reader working through the book will arrive at the thematic overviews with a strong sense of the myriad ways imperial power shaped, was knocked back by, or ’devoured’ the environment: indeed, as the authors’ themselves note, ‘it is remarkable how much space and labour it took to fuel European consumption’ (2).

Case-study chapters include investigations into disease (plague, tsetse and trypanosomiasis), the enduring influence of colonial and local forestry practices in India, oil in Kuwait, rubber in Malaysia (and concomitant indigenous survival and continuities), pastoralism in Australia and irrigation in Egypt and India. Thematic chapters include ones on the imperial traveller (which queries Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes [78]), empire and the visual representation of nature, imperial science, the colonial (and, importantly, the post-imperial) city, resistance to conservation, the rise of national parks and the resurgence of indigenous resistance — all backed up by a thirty page bibliography.

This “biblio-diversity” is one of the book’s strengths. The ways the authors choose to handle such a range is effective. An encyclopedic mode would have sacrificed narrative strength and conceptual development for coverage: Environment and Empire is rewarding precisely because of the stories and trends it places side-by-side. So the reader moves from environmental aspects of the slave trade and Caribbean plantations (the first case-study, and a worthy reminder of the commodity-fuelled basis of British imperial power) to the fur trade in Canada (where the scale and impact of colonisation were mitigated for a time through climatic extremes, low settler populations and the Hudson Bay Company’s own desire to retain trading power). These case-studies draw on data such as the scale of sugar production and average English consumption in the period 1660-1800 (a leap from 2 to 24 pounds annually per person over the period) and the concomitant effect on the slave trade (11-12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas in the period from 1450 to 1850, with millions more to

North Africa and the Middle East). An environmental focus on the slave trade allows Beinart and Hughes to consider the impact and spread of diseases such as malaria and the economic impact of African resistance to yellow fever. The case-study chapters manage to synthesise the scholarship in the topic area and still present powerful assessments of the situation: ‘The Caribbean’, notes the authors, ‘was not vacant. It was made so by the cultural and biological hurricane of colonizers and their diseases’ (34). For the New Zealand student of history (or indeed the student of New Zealand history) who has not studied the slave trade, let alone commodity histories, the case-studies are compelling.

Environment and Empire demonstrates environmental history’s capacity to cross national and disciplinary boundaries, tracing the ways natural environments both form and alter commodity frontiers (57). Beinart and Hughes focus on British imperial spaces, to fit into the overarching Companion series. They begin by conceptualising the British Empire as a ‘commodity frontier’ (a term they have some qualms about, but that still carries the kind of spatial, environmental and socio-economic concerns they address). Such frontiers are ‘the results of expanding European commercial activity productive enterprises, and sometimes settlement, which targeted raw materials and land in overseas territories’ (2). Environment and Empire (rightly) complicates any singular notion of Empire by, for example, recounting the work of Sir William Willcocks, an influential irrigation engineer who worked in Egypt, India and the Middle East who refused to accept or propagate a purely imperial engagement with local knowledges and riverscapes.

As with the Oxford Environmental Histories of New Zealand, Environment and Empire relishes plurality and the subtleties and contradictions inherent in such an approach.[1] In its acceptance of diverse realities and theories, Environment and Empire also makes a strong case for complexity and in a sense calls for an end to discourses of polarisation and blame:

…commodity frontiers and their diverse impacts are major themes, especially in the first half of the book. But we want to explore a less unilinear analysis, and to introduce countervailing tendencies. All human survival necessitates disturbance of nature; population increase has required, and been intricately related to, intensification of production and trade. To judge all change as degradation is not, conceptually, very useful. We need a concept of degradation, but also a more neutral set of terms to examine the complexity of environmental transformations. (14)

This call for a more neutral set of terms is bold. Borne in part from the book’s engagement with the ‘political ecologies’ of the present, Beinart and Hughes champion considered reflection and multiplicity (20). They suggest a mode that might take the discipline to a new level.[2] In doing so, perhaps they may wish to forestall the ‘bipolar mode’ which, Diana Wylie argues, marked scholarship on the history of disease, in which, for a time, Empire was either simply praised or condemned.[3] Beinart and Hughes issue a challenge to the environmental historians, perhaps aiming to bind Wylie’s divergent paths of quantitative analysis and theory. In their own weave of case study and theory Environment and Empire offers some very promising leads.

Beinart and Hughes are at the ‘centre’ of a mode of inquiry and site of power. Yet to an extent they share Paul Star’s concerns about the marginalisation of environmental history, those moments where seed clusters of new research might land on inhospitable terrain.[4] Beinart and Hughes regard the discipline as in need of support. Although the main Oxford British Empire series has, belatedly, opened up space to admit fuller ‘companion’

environmental and colonial histories, Environment and Empire argues the issues like environmental causation ‘have hardly penetrated into mainstream historiography of empire, if the volumes of the Oxford History of the British Empire are an indication’ (9)

Beinart and Hughes both specialize in African history, and to an extent the volume attends to Africa and India, rather than Hong Kong, the Pacific, or (thematically) opiates, horticulture, or marine life and spaces. It is nevertheless fascinating (and gratifying) to read their account of the Maori resurgence and renaissance within the context of the foreshore debate. A mis-spelling of Lake Rotorua in a photo caption, and an account of the renaming of New Zealand to Aotearoa-New Zealand (which may imply this is a legislated renaming) shows how a compendium volume has to skim over certain details to simply keep things moving (295, 342). But the authors’ excitement regarding the Maori renaissance also helps one see afresh how much relative gain Maori have made; the book’s wide range highlights that pace, while noting gains are often contingent upon climate, disease and control over physical resources and terrain.

Environment and Empire showcases a confident discipline on the rise. In this considered and wide-ranging work, Beinart and Hughes help take environmental history to a new audience, while consolidating and re-gifting over two decades of diverse inquiry.


[1] Despite Tom Brooking being acknowledged for his assistance, the Oxford Environmental Histories of New Zealand is absent from the Select Bibliography, which if nothing else denies the non-New Zealand reader a quick lead to that important (and currently out of print) work.

[2] In this they echo the recent scholarship on historiography which, according to the editor-in-chief of the Oxford series, has benefited from the balm of time: ‘Though the subject remains ideologically charged, the passions aroused by British imperialism have so lessened that we are now better placed than ever before to see the course of Empire steady and to see it whole’ Wm. Roger Louis. ‘Foreword.’ Historiography. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. V. (Oxford, 1999), p. vii.

[3] Diana Wylie, ‘Disease, Diet, and Gender: Late Twentieth-Century Perspectives on Empire’ in Historiography. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. V. (Oxford, 1999), p 279.

[4] Paul Star, ‘Environmental History and New Zealand History’, ENNZ: Environment and Nature in New Zealand (April 2009). (http://www.environmentalhistory-au-nz.org/newzealand/journal/2009/april/star.php).