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Q&A with Balzan Fellow Debjani Bhattacharyya


June 4, 2020

Assistant Professor of History Debjani Bhattacharyya, PhD
Debjani Bhattacharyya, PhD

Assistant Professor of History Debjani Bhattacharyya, PhD, has had a busy year. After completing a visiting fellowship at Princeton University’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies over the fall and winter, she received another visiting scholarship: This summer, she’ll be at the Institute of Asia and Africa Studies at the University of Humboldt, Berlin, conducting research for her newest book project.

In addition to the visiting scholarship, Bhattacharyya, a scholar of environmental, legal and economic crossroads in history, has been awarded the 2021 Balzan Fellowship for Global History from the Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies in Germany. The fellowship supports research as well as a lecture and publication. Read on to find out more about her plans for these awards!

Tell us about your plans for the visiting scholarship. What do you hope to gain from your time at the Institute of Asia and Africa Studies?

Of course, everything is up in the air with the travel restrictions from COVID-19. However, being a visiting scholar in July and August would afford me time to work on my second book project, “Oceanic Settlements: Colonial Law and Climate Science in the British Empire.” This book is a history of the colonial origins of climate science.

More than a quarter of the world’s trade, if not more, passed through the Bay of Bengal: cotton, tea, opium, saltpeter for gunpowder and indentured laborers, just to name a few. So, while most climate histories have worked with the archives of scientists, I turn to marine insurance and legal records dealing with shipwreck in the Indian Ocean.

From 1750 on, insurance cases for wrecks caused by cyclones in the Indian Ocean were fought by the East India Company, the British Admiralty, and insurance companies, including Lloyd’s of London in small marine courts in colonial port towns. Due to heightened El Niño effect, there was a spike in tropical cyclones. In its wake, these historical cyclones have left behind a wealth of insurance paperwork and legal cases, which allows me to document how closely the expanding global insurance industry worked in shaping climate science.

Thus, my book resituates the standard accounts of the origins of western meteorology to the littorals of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, and contributes to the growing field of colonial science studies to show how knowledge about the climate, natural worlds and economic risk were shaped by both legal cases and laboratory science. Being at the Institute of Asian and African studies will enable me to interact with colleagues who work on western Indian Ocean histories, as well as connect with environmental humanities scholars in Berlin. Incidentally, I began writing my first book in summer 2015 as a fellow at the Max-Plank Institute for Human Development in Berlin, where some of the early seeds of the project was planted.

What inspired this newest book project?

A couple of things inspired this project. When I was working on my previous book, I chanced upon legal cases from the eighteenth century debating whether geography can serve as an evidence in a law court. That piqued my interest and the more I read on, I realized how the legal debates defined some of the science of geology, weather and oceans. That made me realize also that much of the nineteenth century British and European weather science, geological and oceanographic research was taking place within the bounds of these law courts in far-flung colonies. I want to understand what this history means for climate science now.

Moreover, it is crucial to decolonize our methods of global history and histories of science. We have naturalized how the global south produces data (much like raw materials in colonial times) and the global north produces the science. A lot of scholars, particularly those working on Asia, Africa and Latin America, are increasingly challenging that framework of doing history.

What has the research process for the book looked like so far?

I have done research in multiple archives so far, but must visit many more. I began by consulting the Dutch colonial records in 2016-17 when I was a research fellow at the Institute of Asian Studies at Leiden University. The Dutch and the English were vying for power over the Bay of Bengal in the eighteenth century. I have done research in Calcutta and Delhi, poring through the Marine Court records, collecting almanacs and storm warnings. I have to go back to research some family archives of private merchant papers I have located in Bengal. I have also done research in the Lloyds archives in London and the East India Company archives in the British Library. The one thing I was struck by are the number of Philadelphia merchants underwriting, betting, speculating in Calcutta, including our very own Stephen Girard.

Your upcoming fellowship is part of the Balzan-FRIAS Project in Global History, which “aims at probing the international foundations of global history.” Can you describe the field of global history, and its significance?

I am very excited about the Balzan project in global history, as they are trying to investigate the disconnections — as global or transnational history tends to focus primarily on connections, which is very useful. Incidentally, the seminal essay defining the connected nature of global history also was produced out of the archives of the Indian Ocean.

As I tell my students at Drexel, there are three ways of doing global history. The first and the most common is to follow a commodity (cotton, sugar, opium), infrastructure or a global network of actors across the world as they travel and to investigate what connections those movements are creating. Such an approach challenges the regional silos of doing national histories and also allows us to grasp the global connections.

The second method is more comparative in approach; you could be looking at conditions of labor, housing rights, or something cultural like movie-going in multiple cities, or multiple continents at the same time. This often allows you to see and understand similarities and also explains dissimilarities. However, often these approaches have an aerial view of history, missing the granular stories, vernacular voices.

The third approach, where I have seen my work located, is grounded in a region’s contingent conditions, but those conditions are often produced by global forces. Instead of a view from above, it is a grounds-up approach. In a widely-acclaimed book on climate change, writer Amitav Ghosh said if we can find a solution for Asia, one of the most densely populated spaces in the world, we can find a solution anywhere. This is very true, but this statement itself has a long history that goes back to the eighteenth-century quest by merchants, insurers, scientists and lawyers to devise a solution to the vagaries of weather and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal — not only because it was one of the most populated parts of the world (which it was then), but also because the global shipping lines and now global manufacture, and therefore global GDP, is hostage to its climate.