Empire and environmentalism: The legacy of a brilliant maverick, Richard Grove


Richard Hugh Grove (1955-2020)

Born and schooled in Accra in Ghana, before moving to Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Richard Grove is remembered as a great interdisciplinary scholar with deep interests in the environment, an opponent of Eurocentrism in academia, and a mentor to students from around the globe. 

Some of this was inherited no doubt from his parents, the eminent geographers AT “Dick” and Jean Grove. Richard read geography at Oxford, conservation science at University College London, and completed a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge (1988). It was during his doctoral studies that he became a champion of environmental history, and the volume Conservation in Africa: People, Policies and Practises (1987), co-edited with David Anderson, remains a foundational work. 

Grove’s PhD thesis formed the basis of his career-defining book Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism 1600-1860 (1995). In it, he drew on archives from 12 countries and islands to overturn the idea that environmentalism originated in Europe, in the imperial “centre”. Instead, he argued that it was the experience of Europeans in the colonies that shaped modern environmentalism. Working at the “periphery” (as historians of the time saw it), these experts (physiologists, botanists, foresters) learned much from indigenous peoples about the workings of tropical ecosystems. 

Far from being a modern development, concern over environmental degradation was witnessed first-hand by colonial experts and managers as they saw animals and plants, soils and forests disappearing as a result of the ravages of plantation agriculture and forestry. This was particularly apparent on the “island Edens” of St Helena, Mauritius, Madeira, Barbados, Montserrat and St Vincent, where effects were quickly registered, soils washed away, and droughts and floods followed. As the title of his book implies, Grove did not believe that Christianity, Western science or imperialism necessarily engendered environmentally destructive attitudes. Perhaps a little romantically, he discussed the Christian notion of Eden as a dream of a world in harmony, and argued that the Scientific Revolution fostered a desire to discover and live within natural rules. Environmentalism became a tenet of colonial government in India and other colonies in ways it had not been adopted in Europe. 

Grove treated what was the Dutch colony in the Western Cape as a “mainland island” in Green Imperialism, and wrote the most influential and thorough early environmental history of the region. This was how I first encountered him, and I was influenced to write about the first Dutch settlers’ explorations and transformations of the Cape environment, drawing on the Dutch East India Company resources neglected by most historians writing in English. In fact, Green Imperialism had its roots in Africa, in a period of work Grove did in the forests of Malawi where he developed an interest in tropical forest conservation. He subsequently met the distinguished geographer Clarence Glacken, who suggested he read the environmentalist tracts of the missionary and colonial botanist of the Cape Colony (1862-1866) John Croumbie Brown. Grove discovered the chain of intellectual influence between the pioneer environmentalists of the Cape and Natal, and their scientific predecessors in St Helena, Mauritius, St Vincent and in India, and so he began to piece together a global network. 

Grove’s sweeping gaze, at first fixed on Africa, expanded to take in the West Indies and Asian colonial regions, then Australia, reading always against the grain. He was determined that environmental history should be a global field. Grove was influenced by work coming out of the French Institute in Pondicherry, and developed a relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, spending part of each year teaching and doing archive work there and collaborating with the eminent Indian historian Professor Deepak Kumar. Following on from Green Imperialism, he published Ecology, Climate and Empire: The Indian Legacy in Global Environmental History, 1400-1940 (1998), and with his wife (now professor) Vinita Damodaran (they married in Pondicherry in 1993) and S Sangwan, Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia (1998). The latter is now the standard work on the environmental history of the region. 

Grove’s study of colonial networks, particularly in India and Australia, revealed the network of meteorological concerns and studies that would eventually bring the El Niño phenomenon to international attention, and he was struck by the relationships between major meteorological, economic and social events — another theme Grove pioneered as a historian. He showed that global warming had been a concern since Victorian times. This was the subject of his edited collection El Nino: History and Crisis: Studies from the Asia-Pacific Region (2000). While the potential for early scientists and experts to check the destructive powers of empires was a prevailing theme in his work, Grove also turned increasingly to asking why it was that these ideas about harmony in nature were also used to punish the poor. He had a strong sense of social justice, and an innate suspicion of authority. Grove’s many books were accompanied by a torrent of published papers and chapters, keynote addresses and interviews too numerous and varied to summarise here. 

Grove’s intellectual work extended well beyond publications and formal appointments, of course. He organised numerous influential international conferences and workshops focused on his wide-ranging interests in African and Asian environmental history, and British and Commonwealth histories. In 1995, he founded Environment and History, the first international journal in its field, which remains influential today. In 2002, Grove and Damodaran initiated the Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex, to provide a focus for world environmental history, with the initial research theme being the forest and environmental history of the British Empire and Commonwealth. 

Although I did not meet Grove before his accident, I felt I knew him a little through my uncle, John Stewart, who had remained a close friend since their Cambridge days, and on whose recommendation I very nearly studied for my PhD with Richard. This was just before he moved to Australia to take up a position as professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Australian National University, in July 2006. He was involved in a terrible road accident in the same year, from which he never properly recovered his faculties. He was brought back to England and looked after near Cambridge, and finally in Lewes with his wife and their son Erin. 

Tributes by the likes of the distinguished professors Richard Drayton and Mahesh Rangarajan mention his generosity and kindness to peers and students. Words they use to describe him include “big-hearted”, “idiosyncratic”, “argumentative”, “infuriatingly unreliable”, “shamelessly irresponsible”, “brilliant”, “polymathic”, “irreverent” and “courageous”. He was a true maverick who leaves a brilliant legacy.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Simon Pooley
Dr Simon Pooley, Lambert lecturer in environment, department of geography, Birkbeck, University of London

Related stories


Subscribers only

Medical aids blame external costs as fees increase beyond inflation

Medical aid is becoming more of a luxury for many South Africans, and it’s not about to get any better

No mercy for teachers who are found guilty of misconduct

New regulations give direction on what sanctions should be imposed on disgraceful teachers, including lifetime bans for serious offences

More top stories

Freedom Under Law sends letter of demand to JSC on...

The letter follows the commission’s insistence that the embattled Western Cape judge president will partake in this week’s interviews of candidates

Diko to challenge step-aside ruling

Khusela Diko’s lawyers say she has appealed an instruction to step down from her position on the ANC provincial executive committee after a finding that she brought the party into disrepute

Zuma’s legal team withdraws in wake of appeal court’s ruling...

Eric Mabuza notified the high court and NPA of his decision just weeks before the former president goes on trial for corruption

JSC will deliberate Hlophe’s fate on June 4

The Judicial Service Commission said in a letter to the Cape Bar that the judge president would participate in interviews of aspirant judges in his division

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…