Imperial Weather project

Imperial Weather: Meteorology and the Making of 20th Century Colonialism

This project, which formally ran from November 2015 to November 2018 (but which continues on a number of fronts), investigated the intersections of science, empire and climate in order to understand how practices of predicting and observing the weather were shaped by the context of British colonialism.

cropped-africa-map-dark.png

Relationships between science and empire have been well documented in a burgeoning field concerned with the histories and geographies of colonial science. We know a great deal, for example, about how imperial mobility stimulated and shaped the emergence of disciplines like botany, anthropology, geography and cartography, and about how such fields functioned as ‘handmaidens’ of empire, facilitating the navigation and comprehension of new oceanic and terrestrial worlds .

But empires were not just about the horizontal projection of power. They also had a vertical dimension – an atmospheric politics – articulated through a concern for the effects of tropical climates on human health, race and productivity, or through engagement with the atmosphere as a realm of imperial connectivity and military power. This project asks how atmospheric knowledge was pursued, standardized, circulated and put to work across the British Empire as the science of meteorology underwent a transition from the ad hoc compilation of ‘amateur’ observations to an institutionalized and professionalized science of colonial government.

co-1069-8-6
‘Uncharted country between Eil dur Elan and J Serut’, c. 1919-20. National Archives, CO 1069/8/5

Focusing on the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the project explores the progressive institutionalisation of meteorology as a science of government both in the metropole and the colony. This era saw a marked transition in European and North American meteorology towards programmatic weather prediction, but the science more broadly, with its uncertainties, complexities and overlaps with popular ‘weather wisdom’, still occupied an ambiguous place in public and political life. For prominent European meteorologists, a global expansion and standardisation of meteorological vision was the only way to establish the field as a respectable scientific discipline and public service. Throughout the late nineteenth century the UK Meteorological Office gratefully received and to some extent supported the weather observations of missionaries, ‘gentleman scientists’, army officers and doctors in far-flung corners of the Empire. At the dawn of the twentieth century however, calls were made from various quarters for London to become the coordinating hub of a new imperial meteorology, able to process worldwide data, to oversee colonial meteorological services, and to marshal meteorological knowledge in the service of colonial development, the imperial ‘civilizing mission’, and in the pursuit of a truly global science of the atmosphere. Such a pursuit required new relationships between the Empire’s diverse climates and its disparate governmental bureaucracies.

cropped-co-1069-691-33-yemen-1959.jpg
Launching a weather balloon in Yemen, c. 1959. National Archives, CO 1069/691/33

Colonial governments were not all immediately sold on the idea of a dedicated weather service, but by the mid-twentieth century most of Britain’s colonies – and all the dominions – had a government meteorological service of some description. We currently know very little about what these services were like, how they were established, whose interests they served, and what they achieved.

Using these services as a starting point, this project investigated the practices of meteorology in colonial spaces, and the effects of these practices on wider forms of colonial life and government. Using colonial and imperial archives in the UK and abroad, the project aims to show how the atmosphere came to be understood as a global system not just through the late twentieth century rise of global computer models, but through earlier forms of imperial mobility and colonial knowledge-making, the geographies of which still shape our knowledge and understanding of global processes like climate change in consequential ways. This means striking up new conversations between the parts of history of science which deal with questions about observation, prediction and the place of science in wider cultures and politics, with perspectives from environmental history on how ideas about climate have informed different projects of human ‘development’ and domination, and with debates in cultural geography – informed by Luce Irigaray, Peter Sloterdijk and others – about how the question of ‘being-in-the-world’ is necessarily also a question of ‘being-in-the-air’.

Imperial and colonial meteorology – a reader.

Below, I’ve been compiling a list of useful sources, largely from the academic literature, on the history of meteorology in imperial and colonial contexts. Although my own research is focusing on British meteorology, I want use this page to draw together resources from a wider range of settings. In so doing, I hope this will become a useful resource not only for myself, but for other historians of colonial science.

There certainly isn’t much historiographical nuance to how I’ve grouped the sources, so please forgive any clumsiness. I’ve tried to focus on the history of ‘scientific’ practices pertaining to weather and climate, as opposed to the wider literature on climatic discourse, although of course the boundaries between those areas are far from clear-cut. I’ve grouped things according to the major European powers with significant continental empires, while recognising that a lot of the history, and the historiography, can’t easily be cut up that way. I’ve left out the Arctic and Antarctica for now, and have largely left out the US too, except for a few articles concerned with the reach of US meteorology overseas in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries.

I’m particularly keen to expand my knowledge of the historical literature on French, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish science (you’ll notice the Anglophonic skew…), so if you have suggestions for more things to include, in any language, please let me know!

Great Britain, (inc. colonies and dominions)

Adamson, P., 2003. Clement Lindley Wragge and the naming of weather disturbances. Weather, 58(9), pp.357–359.

Anderson, K., 2005. Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press – particularly chapter 6.

Beattie, J., 2014. Science, religion, and drought: rainmaking experiments and prayers in North Otago, 1889-1911. In J. Beattie, E. O’Gorman, & M. Henry, eds. Climate, Science, and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 137–155.

Cushman, G.T., 2013. The imperial politics of hurricane prediction: from Calcutta and Havana to Manila and Galveston, 1839-1900. In M. Lawrence, E. Bsumek, & D. Kinkela, eds. Nation-States and the Global Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 137–162.

Davis, M., 2001. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, London: Verso – particularly chapter 7.

Douglas, K., 2007. “Under such sunny skies”: Understanding weather in colonial Australia, 1860-1901, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Melbourne.

Douglas, K., 2014. “For the sake of a little grass”: a comparative history of settler science and environmental limits in South Australia. In J. Beattie, E. O’Gorman, & M. Henry, eds. Climate, Science, and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 99–118.

Endfield, G.H. & Nash, D.J., 2002. Drought, desiccation and discourse: missionary correspondence and nineteenth-century climate change in central southern Africa. The Geographical Journal, 168(1), pp.33–47.

Fenby, C., 2015. “Seven Lean Years, Seven Fat Years”: Climate Theory in Australia, 1820–1830. History of Meteorology, 7, pp.25–38.

Foxhall, K., 2010. Interpreting the Tropical Atlantic Climate: Diaries from the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Australian Voyage. Weather, Climate, and Society, 2, pp.91–102.

Grove, R.H., 1998. The East India Company, the Raj and the El Nino: The Critical Role Played by Colonial Scientists in Establishing the Mechanisms of Global Climate Teleconnections 1770-1930. In R. H. Grove, V. Damodaran, & S. Sangwan, eds. Nature & The Orient. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 301–323.

Henry, M., 2014. Australasian airspace: meteorology, and the practical geopolitics of Australasian airspace, 1935-1940. In J. Beattie, E. O’Gorman, & M. Henry, eds. Climate, Science, and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 233–250.

Henry, M., 2015. “Inspired divination”: mapping the boundaries of meteorological credibility in New Zealand, 1920–1939. Journal of Historical Geography, 50, pp.66–75.

Henry, M., 2017. Assembling meteorology: balloons, leaking gas, and colonial relations in the making of new atmospheres. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, in press.

Holland, P., Wood, V. & Dixon, P., 2009. Learning About the Weather in Early Colonial New Zealand. Weather and Climate, 29, pp.3–23.

Kenworthy, J.M., 2013. Albert Walter, O.B.E (1877-1972) Meteorologist in the Colonial Service Part I : His early life and work in Mauritius. Royal Meteorological Society, Reading.

Kenworthy, J.M., 2014. Albert Walter, O.B.E (1877-1972): Meteorologist in the colonial service, part II. Royal Meteorological Society, Reading.

Kenworthy, J.M. & Walker, J.M. eds., 1997. Colonial Observatories and Observations: Meteorology and Geophysics. Dept. of Geography, Durham, Occasional Publications No. 31.

Livingston, K.T. & Home, R.W., 1994. Science and technology in the story of Australian Federation: the case of meteorology, 1876-1908. Historical Records of Australian Science, 10(2), pp.109–127.

Lorrey, A.M. & Chappell, P.R., 2015. The “Dirty Weather” diaries of Reverend Richard Davis: insights about early Colonial-era meteorology and climate variability for Northern New Zealand, 1839–1851. Climate of the Past Discussions, 11(4), pp.3799–3851.

MacKeown, P.K., 2010. Early China coast meteorology: the role of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press.

Mahony, M., 2016. For an empire of “all types of climate”: meteorology as an imperial science. Journal of Historical Geography, 51, pp.29–39.

Meinig, D.W., 1961. Goyder’s Line of Rainfall: The Role of a Geographical Concept in South Australian Land Policy and Agricultural Settlement. Agricultural History, 35(4), pp.207–214.

Morgan,. H ed., 2001. Federation and Meteorology. Online resource, Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre

Naylor, S., 2015. Weather instruments all at sea: meteorology and the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century. In: MacDonald, F. and Withers, C. W.J.(eds.) Geography, Technology and Instruments of Exploration. Routledge: Farnham, pp. 77-96.

O’Brien, C., 2014. Deliberate Confusions. History of Meteorology, 6, pp.17–34.

O’Brien, C., 2014. Imported understandings: Calendars, weather, and climate in tropical Australia, 1870s-1940s. In J. Beattie, E. O’Gorman, & M. Henry, eds. Climate, Science, and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 195–212.

O’Gorman, E., 2014. “Soothsaying” or “Science”? H.C. Russell, Meteorology, and Environmental Knowledge of Rivers in Colonial Australia. In J. Beattie, E. O’Gorman, & M. Henry, eds. Climate, Science, and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 177–194.

O’Gorman, E., Beattie, J. & Henry, M., 2016. Histories of climate, science, and colonization in Australia and New Zealand, 1800-1945. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 7(6), pp.893–909.

Pui-yin Ho, 2003. Weathering the Storm: Hong Kong Observatory and Social Development, Hong Kong University Press (see here)

Sen Sarma, A.K., 1997. Henry Piddington (1797-1858): A bicentennial tribute. Weather, 52(6), pp.187–193.

Sikka, D.R., 2011. The role of the India Meteorological Department. In U. Das Gupta, ed. Science and Modern India: An Institutional History, c. 1784-1947. New Delhi: Pearson Longman, pp. 381–426.

Taylor, G.I., 1962. Walker, Gilbert, Thomas, 1868-1958. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 8 (November), pp.166–174.

Williamson, F., 2015. Weathering the empire: meteorological research in the early British straits settlements. The British Journal for the History of Science, 48(3), pp.475–492.

Germany

Lehmann, P.N., 2016. Infinite Power to Change the World: Hydroelectricity and Engineered Climate Change in the Atlantropa Project. American Historical Review, 121(1), pp.70–100.

Austria-Hungary

Coen, D.R., 2006. Scaling down: the “Austrian” climate between Empire and Republic. In J. R. Fleming, V. Janković, & D. R. Coen, eds. Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Weather and Climate. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications/USA, pp. 115–140.

Coen, D.R., 2011. Imperial Climatographies from Tyrol to Turkestan. Osiris, 26(1), pp.45–65.

Coen, D.R., 2016. Seeing planetary change, down to the smallest wildflower. In J. Graham, ed. Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary. Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, pp. 34–39.

France

Duvergé P., Le service météorologique colonial. La Météorologie. 1995, numéro spécial Histoire [link currently broken]

Locher, F., 2007. L’émergence d’une techno-science de l’environnement océanique : le cas du programme français de cartographie des vents en mer, 1860-1914. Nuncius: Annali di Storia della Scienza, 22(2), pp.49–68.

Locher, F., 2007. The observatory, the land-based ship and the crusades: earth sciences in European context, 1830-50. British Journal for the History of Science, 40(147), pp.491–504.

Locher, F., 2015. Changement climatique et colonisation. Amériques et Océan Indien, XVIIIe-XIXe siècle, in Kapil Raj, Otto Sibum eds., Histoire des sciences modernes, tome 2 (1770-1914), Paris, Seuil, pp. 434-450

McClellan III, J.E., 2010. Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue and the Old Regime, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press – particularly chapter 10

Italy

Portugal

Raposo, P. M. P. (2015). Time, Weather and Empires: The Campos Rodrigues Observatory in Lourenço Marques, Mozambique (1905–1930). Annals of Science, 72, 279–305.

Spain

Anduaga, A., 2014. Spanish Jesuits in the Philippines: Geophysical Research and Synergies between Science, Education and Trade, 1865–1898. Annals of Science, 71(4), pp.497–521.

Cushman, G.T., 2013. The imperial politics of hurricane prediction: from Calcutta and Havana to Manila and Galveston, 1839-1900. In M. Lawrence, E. Bsumek, & D. Kinkela, eds. Nation-States and the Global Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 137–162.

Udías, A., 1996. Jesuits’ contribution to meteorology. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 77(10), pp.2307–2315.

Japan

Zaiki, M., & Tsukahara, T. (2007). Meteorology on the Southern Frontier of Japan’s Empire: Ogasawara Kazuo at Taihoku Imperial University. East Asian Science, Technology and Society, 1(2), 183–203.

The Americas

Cushman, G.T., 2004. Enclave Vision: Foreign networks in Peru and the internationalization of El Niño research during the 1920s. Proceedings of the International Commission on History of Meteorology, 1, pp.65–74.

Cushman, G.T., 2005. Bergen South: The Americanization of the Meteorology Profession in Latin America during World War II. In S. Emeis & C. Ludecke, eds. From Beaufort to Bjerknes and Beyond: Critical Perspectives on Observing, Analyzing, and Predicting Weather and Climate. Augsburg: Rauner, pp. 197–213.

Cushman, G.T., 2006. The Struggle over Airways in the Americas, 1919-1945: Atmospheric science, aviation technology, and neocolonialism. In J. R. Fleming, V. Janković, & D. R. Coen, eds. Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Weather and Climate. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, pp. 175–222.

Cushman, G.T., 2013. The imperial politics of hurricane prediction: from Calcutta and Havana to Manila and Galveston, 1839-1900. In M. Lawrence, E. Bsumek, & D. Kinkela, eds. Nation-States and the Global Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 137–162.

Endfield, G.H., 2008. Climate and Society in Colonial Mexico: A Study in Vulnerability, Wiley.

Miller, C.A., 2001. Scientific Internationalism in American Foreign Policy: The Case of Meteorology, 1947-1958. In C. A. Miller & P. N. Edwards, eds. Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 167–217.

Pietruska, J.L., 2016. Hurricanes, Crops, and Capital: the Meteorological Infrastructure of American Empire in the West Indies. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 15(4), pp.418–445.

Schwartz, S.B., 2015. Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina, Princeton University Press