Member of the Week: Debjani Bhattacharyya

Debjani Bhattacharyya, PhD

Professor and Chair for the History of the Anthropocene

Department of History, University of Zürich

Twitter: @itihaashtag

 Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently working on a project tentatively titled “Climate Futures’ Past: Law and Weather Science in the Indian Ocean World.” Ranging from the eighteenth century to the middle decades of the nineteenth century, this project examines how the marine insurance industry’s risk calculations shaped weather knowledge, colonial weather science, and predictions of climate futures in derivatives markets. It really began as a question I began to ponder as I was finishing my first book Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta. I explored a property dispute case where the court was debating about what was the status of geographical sciences as evidence in the law courts. That made me start digging at other cases, and I was startled by the traffic in ideas about truth, veracity, and evidence between the legal and scientific writings from the final decades of the eighteenth century, especially in the marine court records. What is emerging as I dig into this archive, is how much of cyclone science in the early decades of the nineteenth century emerged through insurance settlement cases in these courts, as they adjudicated between what could be called “natural” phenomenon and what could be assigned to human liability. 

What are you currently teaching? How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am currently wrapping up a course I have been offering for a few years at Drexel, titled Empire and Environment. It is an introductory seminar style course where I introduce students to key themes in colonial environmental history, focusing primarily on the British Empire on both sides of the Atlantic, but also expose them to new methods of doing history. As part of the class we do a landscape exercise very much modeled on William Cronon’s, but adapted to Philadelphia as a city in the Delaware Watershed region. We also get out into the city to explore the imperial geography by visiting the Bartram’s Garden or using the wonderful resources of the Drexel Academy of Natural Sciences. In fact, during the pandemic lockdown the challenge was how to get outside the traditional classroom, and I taught a born digital Rivers in History course, where students picked a fluvial urban geography and worked with our in-house GIS team to develop a sort of ersatz deep-learning experience. You can read a bit about our adventures with that course here:

I am beginning a new position next year at the University of Zürich, where I will be the incoming chair and professor of Anthropocene History, and I am developing a few new courses: a lecture course on Nature Inc: Colonial Environmental History of the Modern World and two other seminar style courses on Planetary Histories and Beyond Property: Writing Colonialism.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

There are too many to name. I will focus on some new exciting urban studies research in South Asia emerging from recently completed dissertations that shift the frames and elicit new debates. Devika Shanker, who teaches at Hong Kong University, is completing her book on the history of Cochin Port, that melds environmental history and urban studies with histories of finance and austerity to explore the question of infrastructural development under the colonial regime. Chandana Anusha, who is an urban and environmental ethnographer at Princeton University, is working on a theoretically rich project on the Mundra port in the Gulf of Kutch in western India to explore the transformation of this living coast of seawater, sediments, and freshwater, as it is being reengineered as a global trade hub. Ayesha Omer’s forthcoming book Networks of Dust, based on the Gwadar port, allows us to rethink how deep water transshipment ports, media ecologies, and the violence of securitization is transforming port cities in the Global South. Together, their studies are breaking fresh ground in what we understand as coastal urbanism, urban developmental and infrastructural logistics. I am also excited about Anwesha Ghosh’s manuscript; she teaches at National Law School (India). Her research critically recasts urban history through the idea of exchange and what she calls “municipal governmentality.” 

What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?

This is an intellectually exciting moment for the field of urban studies. On the one hand, the works of N.D.B Connolly, Keeanga Yamahatta Taylor, and Destin Jenkins have opened new lines of inquiry in histories of race, inequality, and capitalism. On the other hand, this is a politically critical moment in urban studies as increased urbanization, climate change, and coastal erosion are transforming what cities will look like, especially in the Global South. The Global Urban History Project is responding to this moment in the field by organizing a series of conversations over various themes like inequality, empire, and the Anthropocene as they intersect with urban history. I would share a suggestion I received from my mentors in India: read widely in the historiography and urban theory, but allow the archive to frame your concepts and thereby reframe the given narrative of the field.  

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