Richard H. Grove Sangwan, Vinita Damodaran, eds. Satpal. Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998. xx + 1036 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-563896-7.
Reviewed by John R. McNeill (Department of History, Georgetown University)
Published on H-Environment (April, 2000)
This hefty tome covers parts of the environmental history of south and southeast Asia from ancient times to the present. It stands as a worthy complement to the volume on China edited by Mark Elvin and Ts'ui-jung Liu [Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998)]. Both books are huge, sprawling compendia that include works by established and younger scholars, and both have as lead editors someone from Australian National University. There is a comparable book in the works on Africa too. The format is a useful one, although the results inevitably leave a few gaps and, equally inevitably, some of the chapters are better than others.
The scope of the book is enormous, but it has one major emphasis. As the editors note, this book is chiefly concerned with India, and within that, with Indian forests. It is especially focused on forest management in the British period, a field in which a great deal has been published during the past fifteen years. But the book includes several pieces devoted to other subjects too. There are six chapters on the pre-colonial era, three of which are on South Asia, two on southeast Asia, and one, by Donald Hughes, on ancient Greek knowledge of India. Another six chapters concern science and ideas of nature in the colonial era in India. The next six chapters deal with the ecological impacts of colonialism. Two of these take up southeast Asian themes, and the other four focus on India. One of them, rather out of context, concerns a coal mine in Bihar, mainly in the 1990s. The final thirteen chapters are on forests and forest management, mainly in India, but there are chapters on Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, and southeast Asia generally. It is, in general, impossible to impose crisp organization on an anthology of 31 chapters. But few readers (aside from dogged reviewers) will ever proceed from start to finish with books of more than 1,000 pages anyway, so the impact of the inconsistencies and skewed proportions is not high.
That said, I want to point out what is not in this book. Urban environmental history is absent. So is the pollution and industry side of environmental history, except for passing mentions. Nor does the Green Revolution, a major departure in Asian agriculture and environmental history, appear in the book. Aside from Hughes' chapter, there is little notice taken of south Asia's relations with other parts of the world until the era of British imperialism, and hence its biological exchanges with, for example, East Africa, do not figure. Finally, the precolonial era is very skimpily covered, so that the Mughal Empire, although mentioned, is never considered. The Mughal Empire in the early modern era was one of the four great powers on earth. Its expansion drove frontier processes in many parts of the subcontinent. Its public works included large irrigation projects. For many reasons its environmental history commands attention. But it is not included here, and, as far as I am aware, remains to be written. So, despite the size of this book, plenty of important subjects remain in South (and southeast) Asian environmental history.
Overall, the quality of work represented in this volume is impressive. Several of them are archivally based, using the vast record base compiled by British authorities in the 19th century. Most of them are empirical, anchored securely in data, although one essay, on hunting and colonialism in the Nilgiri Hills of South India, struck me as a flight of postmodern fancy: it argues that the purpose of game laws was to "strengthen [the] elusive boundaries between the self and the other." Another chapter, one that argues that the literary image of the Sunderbans (a huge coastal wetlands of the Ganges and Brahmaputra delta) as forbidding and obscure derives from a single essay written in 1875 by William Hunter, struck me as implausible (although entertaining). It made no effort to compare literary images before and after Hunter's essay was published, a seemingly obvious way to check on the validity of the argument. The essay on the coal mine in Bihar is not environmental history, but a defense of the Indian government decision to allow an Australian firm to open a strip mine (the mine had not yet opened when the piece was written, so it is hard to know whether the decision was prudent or not). These three I found not up to the standard set in the rest of the book.
The best essays (to choose four among several), were those of Janice Stargardt, M.D. Subash Chandran, Vinita Damodaran, and Piers Vitebsky. Stargardt's essay concerns the narrow neck of land of the Malay peninsula, now in Thailand, where the Satingpra civilization flourished especially in between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. This is the fruit of a long-term archeological project and is handsomely illustrated. It provides a thorough sense of the agriculture and trade of a society invisible except through archeology. Chandran's piece, one of several he has written in this vein, considers shifting cultivation and sacred groves. It is a well-researched argument to the effect that under prevailing precolonial conditions, shifting cultivation amounted to a sustainable strategy for the agricultural use of tropical forest ecosystems. Damodaran's contribution, on an 1897 famine in Bihar, is one of the clearest arguments I've seen of the connection between deforestation and vulnerability to famine. Forests served as the buffer for peasant populations, providing some sustenance in the event of crop failure. When forest land became cropland, this buffer vanished, and crop failure meant deadly famine. Vitebsky's essay, the last one in the book, is an elegant hypothesis about deforestation and the gradual decline of ancestor worship and concomitant rise of Baptist Christianity among the Sora, a population of about 450,000 divided between the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Vitebsky had worked among the Sora for many years as an anthropologist, and acquired a formidable knowledge of their religion. When he returned in 1992, that religion was apparently fading out, probably for reasons closely connected to deforestation.
There are many other fine essays in the book. It should be the first stop for anyone concerned with Indian forest history over the past two hundred years. It should be among the first stops for anyone seeking to learn about Asian environmental history.
As a landmark book, it should have been carefully produced. That it was not is probably a reflection of costs. The book needs several more maps than it has. Six of the chapters have maps adequate to the task, and two, those of Stargardt and Edward Haynes, are very well served by maps and other illustrations. In the remainder, however, readers often need a command of south Asian geography that few will have. To follow many of the chapters I needed an atlas at hand. The index is worse than useless: it is positively misleading. Its entry on malaria does not mention the pages where malaria is considered in greatest detail; its entry on sandalwood neglects the only part of the book devoted to sandalwood, while including casual mentions. Happily, the bibliography, 32 pages in length, is a very useful one, including several off-the-beaten-track publications that I am glad to know about.
Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
John R. McNeill. Review of Sangwan, Richard H. Grove; Damodaran, Vinita; Satpal, eds., Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.