Conference Review: ‘Nature, Empire and Power’, University of Waikato, Hamilton, 9-10 December

Ruth Morgan

In December 2010, scholars of environmental history, history of science, geography, and literature convened at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, to explore the themes of nature, science, and power in the British Empire. The papers and conversations held during the two-day symposium revealed myriad of ways in which people have historically made sense of place and the impact of place on people in settler societies.

The enormous area that the Australasian and Pacific regions cover was highlighted through a study of the island groups of Hawai’i and Aoetearoa’, in which David Young explored the role of the natural environment in shaping cultural practices. He suggested that the migration of peoples from eastern Polynesia to the two archipelagos, where the climate and resource abundance significantly diverged, might account for some of the subsequent differences in their mythology and language, customs, and use of water.  These relationships with water, he argued, were disrupted and irrevocably altered with the European colonisation of these islands.

It is difficult to overstate the scale of the transformations that colonisation, mass migration and the spread of Western ideas wrought upon other cultures and ‘natural’ environments, particularly from the eighteenth century. As Joseph Lawson explained, the influence of Western agronomy extended even to the newly conquered territories of northern and western China during the Qing dynasty. Symposium convenor James Beattie related how, in the nineteenth century, Chinese from Guangdong moved moved backwards and forwards from their home to New Zealand, establishing networks of environmental exchange and imposing their belief-systems on New Zealand’s environment. Whether they were of Chinese or European-descent, the colonists of New Zealand brought with them a host of beliefs that informed their perceptions of the Antipodean environment and the ways their presence shaped it. In her study of colonial literature, Kirstine Moffatt unravelled the range of different responses of Europeans to the New Zealand environment and its Māori inhabitants. For the Māori of the South Island, European contact led to intermarriage and the advent of missionary activity. Although colonisation brought an end to many traditional practices, Michael Stevens explained that it sustained and strengthened the tītī (muttonbird)harvest, which continues to this day. These findings, which offer similarities with the Australian experience, provide insights into the ways that colonists attempted to make sense of their surrounds and indigenous peoples, and the ways that indigenous peoples responded to colonisation.

Colonial efforts to understand Australasian climates were important in making sense of place and vital to the success of the agrarian enterprise. But the unfamiliar seasons of the colonies stalled the application of agricultural and pastoral practices based on British experiences. The development of an understanding of the New South Wales (NSW) climate at the turn of the nineteenth century was shaped, Claire Fenby argued, by the tension between the colonists’ hopes and the realities they faced. The extremes of drought and floods, the hallmarks of Australia’s extremely variable climate, pushed the settlers to establish reliable water supplies and to explore the plains beyond the Blue Mountains. The capricious climate and its effects on river systems, water supplies and settlements continued to drive colonial efforts to understand the weather. Scientists also had to contend with growing demands to predict the weather and to determine the extent to which colonisation had affected the climate. Emily O’Gorman and Stephen Legg examined the complicated nature of these inquiries in colonial NSW, Victoria, and South Australia as early meteorologists and other ‘experts’ jostled in the press for the authority to dominate scientific discourses on the climate, river flows, and forestry.

These colonial climate knowledges became increasingly professionalised in the twentieth century through the institutionalisation of the meteorological and climatological sciences. Settler understandings of weather and climate were transformed by the creation of extensive networks of observation and data collection, and the use of scientific interpretation and standardised training. Nevertheless, it retained this Western lens of inquiry at the expense of indigenous knowledges. Furthermore, as Chris O’Brien argued, this ongoing application of European meteorological science to the study of Antipodean climates might be inappropriate for depicting the physical realities in question. In tropical Australia at least, western calendrical time imposes a sense of order that misrepresents and impedes understandings of the climatic conditions of the top end. Elsewhere, such as in southwestern Australia, changes in the climate sciences since European colonisation have led to the re-interpretation of regional climatic characteristics and, as a result, to the sustainable limits of land-use and settlement.

Changes to the climate sciences have also been shaped by wider political and economic contexts. Matt Henry provided an insight into the implications of the geopolitical rivalries between the United States and the United Kingdom for the development of meteorological networks in the South Pacific on the eve of the Second World War.  Cooperation between states has also played a significant role in enabling better understanding of regional climates and in developing common approaches to sustainability problems, such as energy use and anthropogenic climate change. Such a regional approach, as Tai Wei Lim and Stephen Nagy explained, is particularly important for areas like the South Pacific. Here, the vast differences of wealth and scientific expertise between countries demand the sharing of resources and knowledge to adapt to, and possibly mitigate, the challenges of environmental change. Perhaps, as David Young suggested, countries in Australasia and the Pacific regions could learn lessons from their first peoples about adaptation to a changing world.

But instead, many scientists, military officials, and ‘visionaries’ have long advocated technological interventions to change the atmosphere and climate for the supposed benefit of humankind. The most recent incarnation of such interventions is the idea of geoengineering. Keynote speaker James R. Fleming (Colby College, USA) outlined just some of these schemes in an overview of his recently published monograph, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (Columbia University Press, 2010). Fleming’s research has uncovered numerous episodes in American history of the desire to change weather conditions, for purposes such as agricultural benefit or military control. But Fleming also found that there were concerned observers who counselled caution. In his paper, he argued that historians have an important role in the current debates about environmental change, by providing a humanities perspective on the issues that continue to challenge policymakers and scientists.

Given the echoes of place-making, science and imperialism throughout the symposium papers, it was fitting that participants enjoyed a tour of the Hamilton Gardens. The Gardens’ Director Dr Peter Sergel revealed the maze-like grounds of the unique botanic gardens and lovingly explained the stories behind some of the showcased landscapes. These gardens were remarkable recreations of far-flung places, from Muromachi Japan to 1950s California, and from the Indian Char Bagh garden to nineteenth century England. Dr Sergel also showed the participants the foundations of the Fantasy Collection and the recently completed Te Parapara Garden.

As the sun dipped below the horizon on the last day of the symposium, the participants unwound over fish and chips, and a friendly match of cross-Tasman backyard cricket. And enthusiasm for future research collaborations continued long after the symposium’s First XI had retired.