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This is a book about land, as well as about India—as that region of almost continental proportions and immense physical diversity came to be known to the British and to other European travellers and observers in the first half of the nineteenth century. But it is also a book about the land, about the ways in which India’s material environment became increasingly subject to scientific scrutiny, much of it by itinerant naturalists and—centrally to this study—especially by botanists. Although there have been scholarly works that have previously discussed aspects of science and travel in colonial India, none has attempted, as this does, to see them as part of an interrelated process of observation and appropriation.
The Tropics and the Travelling Gaze is further, like Paul Carter’s fine study The Road to Botany Bay, an essay in “spatial history.” It is concerned with responses to an unfamiliar landscape, about the land as an object of colonial fear and desire, utility and aesthetics; it seeks to show how India, in passing under British control, was evaluated in ways that combined scenic delight and practical opportunity with a harsher appraisal of India as a land of death and disease, of desolation and deficiency. It is an attempt to understand how India, while recognized as having its own distinctive physical and cultural identity, was nevertheless annexed to ideas of landscape and nature that were external and alien to itself, which aligned it, in science as in sentiment, with other places and other times. This is not, then, an environmental history in the conventional sense of trying to describe the “real” world of nature, captured at a given moment in time. Rather, it seeks to examine how, at a time when the now pervasive term “environment” was never employed (at least in its present sense), nature and the human place within it were scientifically interrogated and systematically understood. Central to the argument of this book is the conviction that landscape and nature, far from being peripheral or merely decorative, were central to the colonizing process. This was an appropriation of India begun through words and images, “associations” and expectations, through science, travel and literary representation, that was, in its way, as fundamental to the colonial enterprise as any, more familiar, story of conquering armies, revenue systems and imperial bureaucracies.