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Forschungsstelle für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte

Research Projects

Climate and Colonialism

Debjani Bhattacharyya

Working Group Member

The Climate & Colonialism project funded by the Paul Mellon Center, Yale University works towards new and interdisciplinary understandings of visual and material culture produced around and in response to the interrelated and enduring histories of colonialism, capitalism and climate change. Bringing together a range of media – including painting, sculpture, video, performance, architecture and photography – and time periods – this project takes an intersectional approach in which overlapping systems of oppression are considered in dialogue with the past, present and future. The working group consists of a core set of collaborators who will support and contribute to developing different interdisciplinary strands of the research project over the next three years.



Climate Futures’ Past: Insurance, Law and Meteorology in the Indian Ocean World

Debjani Bhattacharyya

Recent research argues that twentieth-century corporate and fossil-fuel funded climate science has often been the source of climate change denialism. Yet historical records of the British Empire reveal that marine insurance companies were a vibrant source for rigorous weather science from the eighteenth century onward. This early meteorological science was geared towards weather-risk management of long-distance oceanic trade. Climate Futures’ Past argues that financial institutions and their expansion in the colony were critical to laying the groundwork for climate science. By examining the under researched history of British insurance companies operating out of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, this project investigates how early joint-stock companies funded and shaped knowledge production around weather risks.



Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta

Debjani Bhattacharyya

What happens when a distant colonial power tries to tame an unfamiliar terrain in the world's largest tidal delta? This history of dramatic ecological changes in the Bengal Delta from 1760 to 1920 involves land, water and humans, tracing the stories and struggles that link them together. Pushing beyond narratives of environmental decline, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta argues that 'property-thinking', a governing tool critical in making land and water discrete categories of bureaucratic and legal management, was at the heart of colonial urbanization and the technologies behind the draining of Calcutta. The story of ecological change is narrated alongside emergent practices of land speculation and transformation in colonial law. Bhattacharyya demonstrates how this history continues to shape our built environments with devastating consequences, as shown in the Bay of Bengal's receding coastline.

Select Interviews and Blog discussions about Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta
 XQ’s Conversation no. XV, Chapati Mystery
 Through the Rear View Mirror, Legal History Blog
 Center for Advanced Studies in India Podcast
 Public Seminar Book Talk
 Appraising Risk Podcast
 New Books Network, Indian Ocean World



The Creatures of the Anthropocene. A Bioconstitutional History of Neobiota in Switzerland

Camille Schneiter

In the current times of environmental crisis and mass extinction dubbed the ‘Anthropocene’ many non-human actants inhabit environments outside of their ‘natural range’ often as a result of human activity. These creatures are called neobiota. For the most part, neobiota are regarded as ‘invasive’ threats to local biodiversity by science, law, media, and environmentalists. I argue that this widespread assumption is historically connected to an understanding of natural history as artificially accelerated vis-à-vis its assumed ‘original’ trajectory. Thus, I pose the research question how the view and treatment of ‘nature’ as having an ‘original’ historical trajectory was maintained by the Swiss institutions of law and science. Applying the conceptual lens of ‘bioconstitutionalism’ allows me to dismantle how scientific understandings of life and legal demarcations of the right for environmental protection mutually produced the modern sense of ‘original natural order’ and, consequently, the view of neobiota as a threat to it. With this analysis, I aim to demonstrate that hierarchies between native and non-native non-human actants are historically contingent rather than natural facts. I am realising my project through thick descriptions of three Swiss case studies of different approaches to neobiota acting as counterpoints to each other: First, the exclusion of neobiota from the project to restore the Sihlwald to a ‘virgin forest’; second, the proactive introduction of neobiota adapted to future climates by the Swiss state; third, the legal persecution of newly evolved wolf-dog hybrids as neobiota. My results will outline both the history of contemporary Swiss bioconstitutionalism and the challenges neobiota posed to it leading to fissures in the current status quo. This provides the opportunity to evaluate what could happen when legal and scientific efforts would shift from preventing extinctions by holding on to ‘original Swiss nature’ to ending them by rehabilitating the creatures of the Anthropocene.



Situating Land: A History of Coal in Hyderabad State, c. 1871-1973

Ashoka Vardhan Manchala 

The rise of coal production and continuing coal investments across the world appear as anachronisms in the 21st century, seen alongside the ascendance of financial power of oil, and the turn towards renewable energy. In coal production regions where such a disjunct plays out, coal makes itself available as a specific political and moral resource in addition to being an economic resource. These cannot be explained either as national histories of industrialisation or histories of energy transitions. 

To solve this puzzle, I situate coal-bearing lands as an integral frame to study histories of coal, energy, and fossil fuels. I study coal-bearing lands in south-central India, specifically the Godavari valley coal-fields in Telangana region. This was once part of the semi-sovereign state of Hyderabad, which later changed political forms within the Indian Union under the states of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana successively. As part of the only coal company in India continued to be co-owned by Union and State governments, and the largest industry in the largest “princely” state in South Asia since the early 20th century, Hyderabad’s coal-bearing lands offer an important vantage point to understand histories of fossil fuel societies.  

I approach coal-bearing lands in three ways. Firstly, I am interested in locating the “juridical split” between surface rights and subsoil rights, and the function of underground terrain in eastern Telangana. Secondly, I try to understand how changes in tenancy systems in coal-bearing lands specifically shape political identities in Hyderabad state, while also disabling other identities. Thirdly, I try to answer whether semi-sovereignty can be a framework to understand the changing location of coal in this region, particularly through the political events of decolonisation in the 1940s and the nationalisation of coal in India in the 1970s. 



River Cities Network

Debjani Bhattacharyya

The River Cities Network (RCN) is a multi-sited global initiative to pursue action research on the interrelationship between cities and their rivers and waterways. In the RCN context, we are interested in free-flowing or engineered rivers, creeks, canals and/or networks of these as part of a river system in urban or peri-urban areas. The “river-city nexus” is our shorthand for the mutual relationship between these water bodies, their ecosystems, and the human settlements that surround them.  




Debjani Bhattacharyya

Narrative Science Project (International Collaborator)