Past Events

Plantation Failures, Famine Crops and Contesting Tropicality: Trials of the Calcutta Botanic Garden in the Early Nineteenth Century

Research Lunch – Deepthi Bathala

  • 10 March 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

In the late eighteenth century during a famine in British India, the Botanical Garden in Calcutta emerged as a response to the crisis. Envisioned as an institution of agricultural improvement, the garden sought to mobilise and introduce climatically suitable crops from various parts of the world for what was understood to be the tropical climate in India. In a quest to introduce famine crops such as wheat and potatoes from the Cape along with plantation crops like coffee, teak and mulberry, horticulture, along with plantation trials, were administered at the same time both within and outside the garden compound. This paper discusses the plantation and horticultural trials of the Botanic Garden and their subsequent failures in the early nineteenth century to argue that these experiments were integral to contesting the preconceived tropicality of India. These failures determined not only the agricultural landscape of the country but also dictated the siting of other botanical gardens through the production of new climate knowledge in relation to the plants that grew, thrived or failed. By using maps of the garden, rough sketches of early plantation grounds, correspondence letters between officials of the garden and the company, the paper illustrates how the officials and affiliates of the garden produced an imaginary climate for British India contesting the tropicality of India while at the same time transforming its landscape in the early nineteenth century.

Listing image caption: J.D Hooker and T.Thomson ,”The Physical Geography of India and the Botanical Provinces 1855” published in the “Flora Indica: Or Description of Indian Plants,”1855 ,India. Courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Deepthi Bathala in natural surroundings

    Deepthi Bathala is a PhD candidate in Architecture (History/Theory) at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include environmental histories of the built environment at the intersection of colonialism, climate knowledge and horticulture. Her research is being supported by the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art, London; Oak Spring Garden Foundation, Virginia; Society of Architectural Historians; and the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan. She has a MSArch in Architecture History and Theory from the University of Washington in Seattle, USA and BArch from the College of Engineering Trivandrum, Kerala University, India.