Fuel for Empire: Australian Trees in Southern India, 1850s to 1890s Ruth Morgan

Ruth Morgan

1Monash University, Clayton, Australia,

The focus of this paper is the Nilgiri plateau, a highland that bridges the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats in southern India. The British hill station of Ootacamund had been established there in the 1830s and became a fashionable health resort, situated high above the humid plains. The location became so popular as a summer resort that the Madras government moved its summer capital there from 1861. Prior to its British ‘discovery’, indigenous peoples inhabited the area, but the expansion of plantation agriculture and reservation of forests across the plateau slowly dispossessed them of their lands during the nineteenth century. This paper examines the rise and fall of the Tasmanian blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) and Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) in the Nilgiris. Elsewhere, eucalypts had become renowned for their supposed anti-malarial properties, but the Nilgiris were already a sanitary enclave for Europeans. Instead, the planting of these Australian trees there became part of a wider government effort to increase the availability of fuel wood and to tax the use of indigenous forests. By the end of the century, however, these Australian trees, which had reshaped the ecology, social structure, and aesthetics of the landscape on the Nilgiri plateau, had fallen out of favour as a plantation species. This paper draws on the insights of new materialism and energy history to shed new light on the forest histories of colonial India, and the environmental exchanges between British India and the Australian colonies during the long nineteenth century.


Ruth Morgan is a Senior Research Fellow in the History Program at Monash University, Australia. She has published widely on the climate and water histories of Australia and the British Empire, including her award-winning book, Running Out? Water in Western Australia (2015). Her current project, on environmental exchanges between British India and the Australian colonies, has been generously supported by the Australian Research Council and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. She is also a co-investigator on the ARC Discovery Project, “Water and the Making of Urban Australia,” and a Lead Author on the Water chapter in Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment Report 6.
Web: https://research.monash.edu/en/persons/ruth-morgan
Email: ruth.morgan@monash.edu


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