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Research Seminars



Devika Shankar
Princeton University A Coast of Curiosities: Nature and Infrastructure at the Edge of British India 1860-1900


12 Mar 2019

4:30 p.m.
4.34 Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus



The story of Cochin's emergence as the last major port in British India in 1936 has come to be told, like most narratives of development, as a simple tale of technology's triumph over nature. But the controversial decision to open up Cochin's harbour through a grand development project was taken after more than half a century of prolonged and anxious discussions focused on the port's unique and anomalous environment. In the late 19th century, Cochin’s dependence on its natural environment increased following the discovery of a mudbank next to its harbour, which could miraculously calm choppy waters during the monsoons. Even as this mudbank allowed Cochin to emerge as an all weather port for the very first time, a simultaneous increase in coastal erosion began to threaten the port's very existence. How did these conflicting perceptions of Cochin's natural environment - at once both advantageous and menacing - critically affect its commercial fortunes? Through a focus on the hopes and fears generated by two very different environmental factors - the mudbank with its tranquilizing properties on the one hand, and the ever-encroaching sea on the other - this paper examines how changing perceptions of nature affected the conceptualization of the port's built environment in the last decades of the 19th century. In so doing, this paper interrogates the political and economic structures that have historically encouraged both colonial and post colonial states to respond to rising environmental uncertainties with large scale development projects.


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