Problematising the tropics

Published: Saturday 31 December 2005

-- The tropics and the travelling gaze; India, Landscape and Science by David Arnold Permanent Black Delhi 2005

In the late 17th century, the identification of the temperate regions in Northern hemisphere as the normal, and the tropics as the other -- climatically, geographically, and morally -- gave rise to an imaginative geography, which continues to shape the production and consumption of knowledge, even today. In recent times, historians have problematised this notion of the 'tropical'. Much attention has been devoted to the writings of celebrated naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The role of European scientific institutions and global networks in shaping the emergent fields of tropical botany, tropical medicine and tropical climatology has also been subjected to critical scrutiny. In the last couple of decades, Australian historian, Paul Carter's Road to Botany Bay has inspired historians to demonstrate that perceptions and practices imposed by West Europeans upon the landscapes and people of Asia, North America and Africa had significant impacts on local land-use policies, agricultural practices, and scientific and technological interventions.

Indian context In the Indian context, Richard Drayton's Nature's Government demonstrated how the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, uk shaped ideas of colonial administrators. The book under review takes a cue from these studies. But it also goes beyond. In The Tropics and the Travelling Gaze, David Arnold takes issues with Drayton for not recognising that geographical and botanical ideas that originated in the 'metropolis' acquired a dynamic force of their own within colonial territories such as India by the early decades of the 19th century. The book also demonstrates how science and sentiment coalesced to create the idea of the tropics. Accounts of travellers such as Bishop Reginald Heber and Sophia Goldsborne were combined with studies of naturalists such as Joseph Hooker and Francis Buchanan in the project. Moreover, these naturalists were keen travellers themselves. Arnold shows the seamless character of the two callings.

Practicals However, this is not just a book about ideas. Arnold shows the practical importance that Indian plant species held for European science. Not only did India reveal new species to botanists like Buchanan and Hooker, it also provided a laboratory for investigating plant characteristics and properties -- as in the work on plant structure carried out by William Griffth of the Madras Medical Service in the early 1840s -- and into their commercial uses -- and especially by J F Royle as superintendent of the Saharanpur botanic gardens and later as advisor on economic botany to the East India Company in London. India enabled Hooker to analyse the complex relationship between tropical and temperate, and to raise questions of keen interest to his friend Charles Darwin in his quest for 'the origin of species'. But this was a science founded on the interaction between itinerant metropolitan scientist and his perception of the Indian: there was very little here by way of Indian agency or scientific mediation.

India did not challenge the universality of Western science, either by presenting an alternative view of the natural world or by presenting challenges that could not readily reconciled with Western 'laws' and 'models.' Indeed, in being able to speak for the 'tropics' as well as for the 'temperate' world, Hooker exemplified the aspiring universality of 19th-century Western science and its practitioners.

Colonial science did draw upon indigenous tropes when it suited it, but that does not signify much trans-cultural engagement. Words such as 'jungle' were taken up and incorporated into the language of Anglo-Indian topography because they were a convenient way of referring to certain readily observable features and had a certain exoticism about them -- the kind that travel writers and medical topographers enjoyed in giving local colour and apparent authority to their work.

As always, Arnold's work is meticulously researched and lucidly written. But let's not forget that there is a growing body of work on indigenes challenging notions of tropical degeneracy. For example in Race, Place, and Medicine: The Idea of the Tropics in Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Medicine, J Peard studies the activism of the Tropicalista doctors, a group of physicians in 19th century Latin America, whose work challenged European theorists of tropical degeneracy. One hopes Arnold had engaged with works such as this.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.