Bodhisattva Kar – Frontier, Collected: Nathaniel Wallich in the North-Eastern Frontier of British India

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Event Date: 6 December 2011
Flett Lecture Theatre
Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD


Wallich and Indian Natural History:
Collection Dispersal and the Cultivation of Knowledge


Bodhisattva Kar (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam)
Frontier, Collected: Nathaniel Wallich in the North-Eastern Frontier of British India

Abstract: This paper wishes to explore the tensions between the logic of scientific collection, the art of making a frontier and the culture of recording experiences through a critical reconsideration of Nathaniel Wallichís famous travels across the north-eastern frontier of British India in the early eighteen thirties. At one level, this is an effort to complicate the easy collapse of science into colonialism, exploration into extraction, and experience into textual surface. At another, this paper also raises the question of limits and travels. How the commercial mandate of the Tea Committee circumscribed Wallichís botanical investigations, how the imperative of state making was in turn constrained by the conflicting findings of Wallich and his colleagues in the Scientific Deputation, and how the physical experience of travelling in the frontier unsettled the limits of the textual archive that grew out of it: these are some of the questions that this paper addresses. I would like to particularly focus on Wallichís pursuits of tea and rubber, the two commodities which eventually became the main exports from British Assam. In taking an issue with the standard approach to histories of colonial collections that routinely underplays the constitutive experience of travel in the production of scientific archives, my paper tries to raise a set of wider questions about the ethics and politics ofapproaching the archive that Wallich has left us. My sources consist of government documents, Tea Committee papers, Wallichís journals and scientific essays.





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