A History of Swamps, or How We Built Sinking Cities?


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A history of the growth and development of Calcutta in the 19th century through aspects of land-making and land-reclamation as urbanisation

This event replaces the talk Circus Histories, Colonial Animals: Archives and their Circulation originally scheduled for this date.

Water is overwhelming life in coastal and riverine cities across many parts of the world. We are responding in multiple ways: by fortifying the coasts, draining and pushing water out of lands, and sometimes making room for river in our constant struggle to remain dry. Each of these responses are situated in deep colonial history. Taking the example of the growth and settlement of Calcutta in the swamps of Bengal, this talk explores how we came to inhabit land-making and land-reclamation as urbanization through the 19th century. Decentering debates around epidemiological urbanization, it looks at how property operated as a technology of drying. Using a couple of case studies beginning from 1770s Debjani Bhattacharyya argues that property and its many instantiations in law and economy became a tool for transforming the landscape and ecology of the delta in creating Calcutta. The presentation follows the journey of the swamps and marshes as they move from the colonial courtroom in the late 18th century, through the 19th-century engineer’s desk and finally the land speculator’s grasp in the 20th and 21st centuries. It concludes by showing how the fluid landscape of the tidal delta shaped urban law, infrastructure and the land market in colonial Calcutta.

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Debjani Bhattacharyya
is an Assistant Professor of history at Drexel University, Philadelphia and the author of Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta’(Cambridge 2018). She is currently working on her second book manuscript tentatively titled Monsoon Landscapes: Law and Climate Science in the Indian Ocean World, which explores how East India Company's marine insurance cases shaped the 18th- and 19th-century climate science.

Image: Fortified Land from 1793-1916 Report on the Hooghly River and its Head-waters: Vol 2 Maps and Plates. Calcutta, 1919, Map 17, [British Library Board IOR/V/27/732/15].


Name: A History of Swamps, or How We Built Sinking Cities?
Where: Knowledge Centre
The British Library
96 Euston Road
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When: -
Price: Free Event: £0.00
Enquiries: +44 (0)1937 546546