In Memoriam: Richard Grove

Ruth Morgan

It is with great sadness that we reflect on the life and career of the environmental historian, Richard Grove, who passed on 25 June 2020, aged 64. A figure of global consequence, Richard had a particular connection with Australia, especially to the Australian National University, where he worked for several years and did some of his most significant work.

Richard Grove at ‘Ness’, Dymphna Clark’s property at Wapengo Inlet on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia
(Courtesy of Vinita Damodaran and Bill Grove)

Born in Cambridge to geographers A.T. ‘Dick’ and Jean Grove, Richard’s early work concentrated on Africa. During his doctoral studies at Cambridge University under the supervision of historical demographer Tony Wrigley, agrarian historian Joan Thirsk, and economic historian Barry Supple, he began to see India and the Caribbean as important sites in the colonial development of the environmental theories and practices that he would come to understand as early forms of environmentalism. Tracing these ideas through archives in Africa, India, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean islands, Richard was able to turn the conventional historiography on its head. The origins of environmentalism, he argued, lay not in the metropole, but rather in the anxieties arising in the colonial periphery about the climate impacts of deforestation during the eighteenth century.

While studying in Cambridge, Richard met and became a close friend of Tim Bonyhady, then a fellow doctoral student and now Professor of Environmental Law at ANU. They had many intellectual interests in common as Richard was a significant campaigner for protection of the English countryside—especially its ancient woodlands—and Tim was writing his doctorate on public rights in the countryside. Tim fondly recalls the ‘big adventures’ that they began sharing from the 1980s, as well as the crucial role that Richard’s academic work had in shaping his book The Colonial Earth (2000). For Tim, a postcard that Richard sent from the island of St Helena in 2005 is expressive of much about him: ‘Many rare things here. Archives good.’

In 1988 Richard first visited Australia to take part in a workshop at the ANU on historical perspectives on the challenges facing tropical forests in Asia, Australasia and Oceania, convened by John Dargavel at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. John recalls that the wonderful paper he shared there “set a standard we hadn’t seen before”. In it, Richard rehearsed the ideas developed in his Cambridge doctoral thesis that would later be published in his groundbreaking work, Green Imperialism.

Richard Grove’s groundbreaking work
Green Imperialism

Richard returned to the ANU in 1993 to take up a position in the Economic History Department of the Research School of Social Sciences. Both Tim Bonyhady and John Dargavel remember Richard agonising over Green Imperialism’ssubtitle, eventually settling on, “Colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600–1860”. In the book’s introduction and elsewhere, Richard acknowledged the influence of geographer Clarence Glacken, as well as the work of Bonyhady and historical geographers J.M. Powell and Michael Williams in Australia, and the French Institute in Pondicherry. First published in 1995 in an edition of just 960, it has been reprinted repeatedly and cited voluminously, transforming the field of environmental history.

At the Research School of Social Sciences, Grove continued to hone his imperial genealogy of the field of environmental history that decentered the wilderness-focused approach that dominated in the United States. Beyond ‘tropical island Edens’, he also examined the ‘origins of settler environmentalism’ in South Africa, which he published in Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Society (1997), co-edited by ANU environmental historians Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin.

The devastating 1997–98 El Niño led Richard to embark on a pioneering project to uncover the ‘millennial history of El Niño’, from its origins in the mid-Holocene to the end of the twentieth century. One of the first products of this research appeared in another collection co-edited by Griffiths and Robin, this time with historian of science Tim Sherratt, A Change in the Weather: Climate and Culture in Australia (2005). Richard built on this chapter, which focused on the El Niño conditions that shaped the foundation of New South Wales between 1788 and 1795, with ANU geoscientist Professor John Chappell in their co-edited volume, El Niño – History and Crisis (2000). In these works lay the seeds of the book that George Adamson would later help him to complete, El Niño in World History (2018).

An elusive figure on campus, Richard nevertheless found a wide circle in Canberra including Mark Elvin, Jack Golson and Peter Herbst, all older than Richard and among the ANU’s most distinguished figures. Always an activist, he joined Peter Herbst, Judith Wright and Val Plumwood in the fight to protect the Badja Forest, near Mongarlowe, attended Quaker meetings in the Canberra suburb of Turner, and pursued his passions for steam trains and landscape painting.

Richard was committed to globalising environmental history beyond North America. In the same year he published Green Imperialism, Richard launched the first issue of the journal Environment and History, which became the flagship journal of the European Society for Environmental History. In the editorial of this first issue, he explained the aim of this new journal, “to move the environmental history of the rest of the world closer to centre stage and to deliberately encourage the writing of environmental history in Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, the Pacific, and, not least, in Europe”. Twenty-five years later, the journal is thriving under the wing of editor Karen Jones and publisher Sarah Johnson of White Horse Press. He continued this mission to broaden the field of environmental history with his wife Vinita Damodaran, with whom he established the Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex in 2002.

Richard had only just commenced as the Australian Research Council Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the Australian National University, when he sustained serious head injuries in a car accident in late 2006 that left him unable to work. After some time, he was able to return home to the UK where, after a long period in medical institutions, he was able to live with his wife Vinita and their son, Edwin.

Both personally and professionally, Richard defied borders and boundaries, whether in terms of disciplines, institutions or geographies. In his work, he demonstrated the value of interdisciplinarity to environmental history, and the ways in which colonial archives could reveal the nature, extent and influence of global networks of environmental knowledge. Having read his robust criticism of library policies that permitted the disposal of rare materials, I suspect Richard would applaud the wave of digitisation that has made available reams of colonial-era documents to researchers around the world.

It was during a visit to the Centre in 2017 that I had the good fortune to learn more of Richard’s work and his legacy from my generous hosts, Vinita and Edwin. I deeply regret not having had the opportunity to meet Richard prior to his accident, but his legend looms large. To borrow from his friend, University of Melbourne political scientist Robyn Eckersley, he was “an absolute trailblazer”.

With sincere thanks to Tim Bonyhady, John Dargavel, and Robyn Eckersley for sharing their fond memories of Richard.

Associate Professor Ruth Morgan is an environmental historian and historian of science who has recently joined the School of History at the Australian National University.