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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Sujit Sivasundaram

Science and imperialism is a field of the future: an excellent reason to write a thesis or essay on this subject. The archival sources for this field are marvellous and the historian who likes to tell stories may find a myriad of perspectives with ease. You will have many questions to contend with if you write on this subject. For example is science in essence western? How have non-western forms of knowledge been appropriated by western forms of science and technology? Does science always work on a model of geographical centres and peripheries?

Your sources may tell you that when travellers landed on shore with scientific instruments, they were seen by the local people to be devil worshippers, out to cast spells on them. How will you interpret such information? You may have to deal with the enormous trade in objects and natural historical specimens across oceans. How did naturalists in Europe relate to their colonial collectors? You may want to focus on the rhetoric surrounding a specific exploratory voyage, and how its scientific findings were received in Europe. Regardless of the route, you will have to assess why it is important for historians to consider non-western peoples and regions if they are to come to a proper understanding of the place of science in the modern world.

Selected bibliography

Note: The items in bold face below may serve as a sampling of the field for those who wish to judge whether they are interested enough to write an essay on this subject.

Regions and empires

Once you have chosen a particular encounter, the following works may give you a clearer idea of the region. I got most of these references from the lectures offered at the history faculty: which by the way can serve as good overviews.

  • Bayly, C.A., Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World (London, 1989)
  • Marshall P. J. (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1996)
  • Louis W. R. (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire (Oxford, 1999)
  • Bakewell, P. J. A History of Latin America: Empires and Sequels 1450–1930 (Oxford, 1997)
  • Bayly, C. (ed.), An Atlas of the British Empire (London, 1989)
  • Bayly, C., Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge, 1997)
  • Bethell L. (ed.), Cambridge History of Latin America (Cambridge, 1984)
  • Boxer C.R., Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415–1825 (London, 1977)
  • Boxer C.R., The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600–1800 (London, 1977)
  • Cain P.J. and Hopkins A.G., British Imperialism (London, 1993)
  • Cohen W.B., The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to Blacks, 1530–1880 (Indiana, 1980)
  • Furber H., Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient 1600–1800 (Minneapolis, 1976)
  • Gallagher J. and Robinson R., Africa and the Victorians (London, 1965)
  • Greenberg M., British Trade and the Opening of China (Cambridge, 1969)
  • Krausse A., Russia in Asia 1588–1899 (London, 1973)
  • Ilife J., Africans: The History of a Continent (Cambridge, 1995)
  • Marshall P.J., Problems of Empire: Britain and India 1757–1813 (London, 1998)
  • Miller R., Britain and Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London, 1993)
  • Geyer D., Russian Imperialism 1860–1914 (Leamington Spa, 1987)
  • Gongora M., Studies in Spanish Colonial History (Cambridge, 1975)
  • Nightingale P., Trade and Empire in Western India (Cambridge, 1970)
  • Oliver R., Cambridge History of Africa (Cambridge, 1977)
  • Sanderson G.N. and Oliver R. (eds.), Cambridge History of Africa (Cambridge, 1985)
  • Spear P., India (Ann Arbor, 1971)
  • Subrahmanyam S., Portuguese Empire in Asia 1500–1700: A Political and Economic History (London, 1993)
  • Tarling N. (ed.), Cambridge History of South East Asia (Cambridge, 1992)
  • Taylor J.G., The Social World of Batvia: Europeans and Eurasians in Dutch Asia (Madison, 1983)

The historiography of science and empire

Assuming that you want to look at the place of science in one particular episode, you will want to have some idea of the state of the historiography of the field.

  • Macleod R., 'Passages in Imperial Science: From Empire to Commonwealth' in Journal of World History, Vol. 4, 1993, pp.117-150
  • Alam A., 'Imperialism and Science' in Race and Class Vol. 19, 1978, pp.239-251
  • Basalla G., 'The Spread of Western Science' in Science, Vol.156, 1967, pp.611-622
  • Chambers D.W., 'Does Distance Tyrannize Science?' in Home R.W. and Kohlstedt S.G. (eds.) International Science and National Scientific Identity (Dodrecht, 1991)
  • Chambers D.W., 'Process in Colonial and National Science' in Reingold N. and Rothenberg M. (eds.) Scientific Colonialism (Washington, 1987)
  • Drayton R., 'Science and the European Empires' in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 23, 1995, pp.503-510
  • Fleming D., 'Science in Australia, Canada and the United States: Some Comparative Remarks' in Proceedings of the 10th International Congress of the History of Science Vol.18, 1962, pp.180-96
  • Inkster I., 'Scientific Enterprise and the Colonial Model, Observations on Australian Experience in Historical Context' in Social Studies of Science, Vol.15, 1985, pp.677-704
  • Kumar D., 'Patterns of Colonial Science in India' in Indian Journal for History of Science, Vol. 15, 1980, pp.105-119
  • Macleod R., 'On Visiting the “Moving Metropolis”: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science' in Reingold N and Rothenberg M (eds.) Scientific Colonialism (Washington, 1987)
  • Palladino P. and Worboys M., 'Science and Imperialism' in ISIS, Vol. 84, 1993 pp.91-102
  • Petitjean P., Jami C., and Moulin A.M. (eds.), Science and Empires: Historical Case Studies about Scientific Development and European Expansion (Netherlands, 1992)
  • Pyenson L., 'Cultural Imperialism and Exact Sciences revisited' in ISIS, Vol.84, 1993, pp.10-108
  • Pyenson L., 'Pure Learning and Political Economy: Science and European Expansion in the Age of Imperialism' in Visser R.P.W., Bos H.J.M., Palm L.C. and Snelders H. A. M. (eds.) New Trends in the History of Science (Amsterdam, 1989)
  • Reingold N. and Rothenberg M., Scientific Colonialism: A Cross Cultural Comparison (Washington, 1987)
  • Sangwan S., 'Indian Response to European Science and Technology 1757–1857' in British Journal for the History of Science Vol.21, 1988, pp.211-232
  • Sangawan S., 'The Strength of a Scientific Culture and 19th Century India: Interpreting Disorder in Colonial Science' in Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. 34, 1997, pp.217-250
  • Shils E., 'Centre and Periphery' in Polanyi M. (ed.) The Logic of Personal Knowledge: Essays Presented to Michael Polanyi (London, 1961)
  • Todd J., 'Science at the Periphery: An Interpretation of Australian Scientific and Technological Dependency and Development Prior to 1914' in Annals of Science, Vol. 50, 1993, pp.33-58
  • Wesseling H., 'Overseas History' in Burke P. (ed.) New Perspectives in Historical Writing (Cambridge, 1991)

Some themes in the cultural history of empire for historians of science

See also Jim Secord's lecture list for his course 'Science and Imperialism'.

  • Adas M., Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology and Ideologies of Western Dominance (New York, 1989)
  • Crosby A., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge, 1986)
  • Miller P. and Reill P.H. (eds.), Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature (Cambridge, 1996)
  • Said E., Orientalism (London, 1995)

Popular culture, elite culture and empire

  • Hyam R., Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester, 1992)
  • Hyam R., Britain's Imperial Century (Basingstoke, 1993)
  • Mackenzie J.M. (ed), Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, 1986)
  • Prakash G., Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, 1999)
  • Riffenburgh B., The Myth of the Explorer: The Press Sensationalism and Geographical Discovery (Oxford, 1994)
  • Said E., Culture and Imperialism (London, 1993)

Exchange and collecting

  • Drayton R.H.,Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the 'Improvement' of the World (Yale, 2000)
  • Kuklick H., The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885–1945 (Cambridge, 1991)
  • Sheets-Pyenson S., Cathedrals of Science: The Development of Colonial Natural History Museums During the Late Nineteenth Century (Kingston, 1988)
  • Strathern M., The Gender of the Gift (Berkley, 1999)
  • Thomas N., Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge, 1991)

Nature and empire

  • Arnold R., The Problem of Nature: Environment, Culture and European Expansion (Oxford, 1996)
  • Griffiths T. and Robin L. (eds.), Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies (Edinburgh, 1997)
  • Grove R., Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge, 1995)
  • Guha R. and Gadgil M., 'State Forestry and Social Conflict in British India' in Past and Present, Vol. 123, 1989, pp.141-177
  • Mackenzie J.M., The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism (Manchester, 1998)
  • Mackenzie J.M., (ed.), Imperialism and the Natural World (Manchester, 1990)

Mapping peripheries

  • Burnett D.G., Masters of all they Surveyed: Exploration, Geography and a British El Dorado (Chicago, 2000)
  • Cosgroves D. and Daniels S. (eds.), The Iconography of Landscape (Cambridge, 1998)
  • Crinson, M., Empire Building: Orientalism and Victorian Architecture (London, 1996)
  • Edney M.H., Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765–1843 (London, 1997)
  • Headrick D., Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1981)
  • Livingstone D., Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise (Oxford, 1992)
  • Ross R. and Telkamp G. (eds), Colonial Cities (Boston, 1985)
  • Ryan J., Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualisation of the British Empire (London, 1997)

Imperial medicine

  • Anderson W., 'Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution,' in Critical Inquiry Vol. 21, 1995, pp. 640-69
  • Arnold D. (ed.), Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Society (Manchester,1989)
  • MacLeod R. and Lewis M. (eds.), Disease, Medicine and Empire (London, 1988)
  • Vaughan M., Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Cambridge, 1991)

The imperial scientist and naturalist explorer

  • Bravo M., 'Precision and Curiosity in Scientific Travel' in Elsner J. and Rubies J. (eds.) Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel (London, 1998)
  • Clifford J., Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (London, 1997)
  • Duncan J. and Gregory D. (ed.), Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing (London, 1999)
  • Nicholson M., 'Alexander von Humboldt, Humboldtian Science and the Origins of the Study of Vegetation' in History of Science, Vol. 25, 1987, pp.167-194
  • Pratt M.L., Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London, 1992)
  • Secord J., 'King of Siluria: Roderick Murchison and the Imperial Theme in Nineteenth Century British Geology' in Victorian Studies Vol. 25,1982, pp.413-443
  • Smith B., European Vision and the South Pacific (London, 1998)
  • Stafford, R.A., Scientist of Empire: Sir Roderick Murchison, Scientific Exploration and Victorian Imperialism (Cambridge, 1989)

Website bibliographies

Donna Haraway's reading lists for her course 'Science, Technology, and Medicine: Global Knowledges?'.

Finding a topic

I recommend that you spend a day browsing through the Royal Commonwealth Society Collections in the University Library (Official Publications Room). The catalogue for this collection is arranged in terms of region and biography, so you need to have some starting point. But a few hours spent in the collections will be invaluable in finding a story that is interesting and accessible. The University Library's North Wing Floor 1 houses many reprints of travel journals. It is my experience that travel journals are vital sources for the field. If you use one travel journal as your starting point I think you can't go too far wrong.