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Colonialism and Cultural Change in Mid-Nineteenth Century Highland Ceylon

Colonialism and Cultural Change in Mid-Nineteenth Century Highland Ceylon

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This project builds upon Dr Duncan's long-standing interest in the Kandyan Highlands of Central Ceylon. He explored the relationship between culture and politics in the region on the eve of colonialism in his monograph The City as Text (CUP 1990; 2004).

The current project carries the story forward to examine the cultural change that took place in the region during the nineteenth century. Whilst at one level this study is informed by the relation of modernity to colonialism, at another level it is the story of the rise and fall of a commodity, coffee, which was introduced as a plantation crop to the highlands in the late 1830s.

The project looks at coffee as one of the most important world commodities, a product that gathered around itself a vast assemblage of sites, routes, ecologies, technologies,and human and non-human agents. Coffee plantations in the Ceylonese highlands are a particularly interesting site of experiments in modern bio-political power during the nineteenth century. The rise and fall of coffee production from the 1830s to the 1880s is explored in terms of interpenetrating networks of nature/science/governmentality/culture, focusing attention on the reproduction of coffee plants and the Indian migrant labor populations brought in to cultiv ate and harvest them.

The project focuses attention upon a number of interrelated issues: the role of coffee as an important element in the forging of the intersecting trajectories of Britain, Ceylon and South India; the role of capitalist coffee production in the radical transformation of the ecology and disease environments of the highland interior of Ceylon; the destabilisation of subsistence farming in this highland region, the aggressive reterritorialization of populations from India to Ceylon; and the need for the public management of their lives and deaths by British planters and colonial administrators. In order to do this, Dr Duncan outlines global networks of coffee production and consumption, networks of plant and human disease transmission, and knowledge flows concerning the containment of these diseases. These far-reaching networks are mapped by tracing the human and non-human agency - not only of the British colonial state and other British institutions and individuals which exercised authority over the various populations in Ceylon - but also, climate, disease, modern science and technology and the spatially extensive and historically deep-rooted political economies that animated these networks and worked to radically reassemble and transform them. A monograph entitled In the Shadows of the Tropics: Climate, Race and Bio-power in Nineteenth Century Ceylon, has emerged from this project.


Publications arising from the project include:

  • In The Shadows of the Tropics: Climate, Race and Bio-power in Nineteenth Century Ceylon. Aldershot: Ashgate. (2007).

  • "Sombres pensées dans la maison coloniale:masculinité, contrôle et refoulement domestiques à Ceylan au milieu du XIXème siècle" In Espaces Domestiques. Construire, Aménager, Représenter. Edited by B. Collignon and J.-F. Staszak, Paris: Bréal. (2004).
  • "Embodying Colonialism?: Domination and Resistance in 19th century Ceylonese Coffee Plantations." Journal of Historical Geography 28, 3 (2002) , pp. 317-38.
  • "The Struggle to be Temperate: Climate and 'Moral Masculinity' in Mid-Nineteenth Century Ceylon" Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography Volume 21, (2000) 34-47.
  • "Complicity and Resistance in the Colonial Archive: some Issues of Method and Theory in Historical Geography," Historical Geography, Volume 27, (1999), 119-128.