Contributed Papers

Agriculture in Colonial and Postcolonial Contexts

Presenter 1

Fertilizer, Preservation, and the Popularization of Late-Victorian Egyptology

Meira Gold

European University Institute


Following the British occupation of Ottoman-Egypt in 1882, British archaeologists fashioned their discipline into a colonial field science. Disciplinary developments owed as much to new Anglo-Egyptian relations abroad as they did to increasing specialisation and popularisation at home. The mid-nineteenth century 'communications revolution' created a mass British readership, and for the first time, writers published cheaply on ancient Egypt for non-specialist audiences. British popularisers of Egyptology, such as Amelia Edwards and Flinders Petrie, promoted the urgent 'preservation' of antiquity to fund-raise for further archaeological work in Egypt; however ulterior motives actually resulted in the wide-scale destruction of Egyptian material heritage. This paper will focus on the communication of excavations at Tell el-Yahudiyeh, in 1887 by the Egypt Exploration Fund and in 1905 by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. Archaeologists relied on local labour and knowledge, but just as quickly condemned Egyptian motives. This tension played out in debates over sebakh (fertiliser). Nineteenth-century Egypt underwent massive agricultural and irrigation reforms to increase the country's cotton exportation to the European-especially British-textile industry. Rural agricultural labourers, also employed in archaeological workforces, responded by digging up fertilizer from nearby tells (abandoned mounds built up over time from human occupation) where the soil was known to be particularly rich in nitrates from decomposed ancient mudbrick. My paper will explore how British Egyptologists seeking disciplinary legitimisation both benefited from and criticised sebakhin in order to promote archaeology to the British public. I will show that fellahin were tied to British archaeologists and merchants in more than one way. The former planted and harvested the cotton cash crops and excavated antiquities which were exported to industrial towns in the North of England. Wealthy mill-


Presenter 2

Indian Engagements with Scientific Agriculture under British Colonial Rule: The Case of the United Provinces

Sandipan Baksi

Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India


Scientific agriculture, or agricultural improvement through the application of modern science and technology, in India emerged essentially as a colonial project. However, notwithstanding this broad economic imperative, the actual process of agricultural improvement played itself out in a terrain that was shaped by many significant players, including the traditional class of landlords (zamindars) which exercised hegemony over the village economy, the burgeoning Indian intelligentsia which was the foremost in responding and independently contributing to the discourse of modernization, the peasantry which protested and rebelled in various forms and under different contexts against both colonial rule and the local elite, the officials of the imperial and provincial agricultural departments, and the emerging political leadership which led the anti-colonial nationalist movement. Interestingly, while the origins of these various social strata can be traced back to the colonial rule, once formed they developed views and interests that were independent, and even contradictory, to the colonial one.
A comprehensive picture of the evolution of scientific agriculture in India under colonialism emerges from examining the views and perceptions of these different sections, and their respective roles. This study attempts to capture aspects of these engagements in the United Provinces of colonial India. It also traces the emergence of a particular viewpoint on scientific agriculture that has become a part of received wisdom in post-independent India.
The study will analyze various official and non-official writings on agriculture. It will also investigate sources like Reports of the Native Press and Legislative Council Debates that provide a reflection of the attitude of different sections of Indians towards agricultural modernization. Vernacular sources, especially contemporary Hindi periodicals, constitute an important and unique source for this study.


Presenter 3

Asceticism and Food Crops in 16th-Century Mexico

Marlis Hinckley

Johns Hopkins University


In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries were at the forefront of European efforts to observe, describe, and change the Americas, a process that encompassed both its people and its natural resources. This paper examines how missionaries approached indigenous crops using an ascetic lens that affected their perception, presentation, and adoption of these novel foods. In the Caribbean, reading asceticism onto a dependence on wild foods allowed missionaries to cast this lack of agriculture, cast as "primitive" in other European sources, as evidence of fundamental virtue. In the Valley of Mexico, similarities between Christian and Nahua ascetic practice were taken by missionaries as evidence of a natural Christian religiosity. In turn, their perception of the Nahuas as natural ascetics shaped European perceptions of corn, the Nahuas' staple crop, as less nutritious. Consequently, asceticism had a major impact on Spanish missionary attempts to reconfigure and preserve the cultivation and consumption of American foodstuffs over the course of the sixteenth century. Through this paper, I aim to show that classic religious and ethnographic sources on indigenous culture, such as the works of Sahagún, Durán, and Motolinía, can provide a new angle from which to examine environmental and food history.


Presenter 4

Interconnected Cropscapes, Agronomists and Varieties in the Global South

Marianna Fenzi

Laboratory for the History of Science and Technology, EPFL, Lausanne.


The agricultural programs established in the Global South by U.S. philanthropic foundations during the second half of the 20th century played a crucial role in the construction of the currently dominant model in international agricultural research. The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) was the main financial and technical supporter of the establishment of the International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs). The RF agricultural programs, with engineers and especially breeders as the scientific elite, were based on the spread of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) combined with fertilizers and irrigation systems. This phase of agricultural modernization, dubbed "Green Revolution" in 1970, has often been presented as a homogenizing force, due to the expected global impact of these innovations. However, these programs saw the involvement of different values, actors, and approaches. This epistemic heterogeneity in international agricultural planning remains to be understood from a comparative and multi-scale perspective. Combining sociohistorical analysis with the history of science and technology, I present the technoscientific endeavors undertaken to modernize agriculture in the Global South. I will trace the evolution of plant breeding science within IARCs, which are situated at the boundary between science, technology, and politics. I will examine the process that led to the elevation of elite, genetically homogeneous or genetically engineered varieties to their status as the only possible rational choice. My aim is to identify the processes that contributed to making different approaches to plant breeding and seed production either dominant or marginal. Finally, this presentation aims to highlight the plurality of epistemologies in the interconnected Global North and South, exploring the material, political, and intellectual spaces within which agronomic knowledge has been developed.