Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values

Tuesday, April 18, 2000

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The Culture of Islands and the
History of Environmental Concern

Richard H. Grove

[ Biographical Background ]

Institute of Advanced Studies, Australian National University, Canberra and
Fellow, Program in Agrarian Studies, Yale University.

      We tend to think of anxiety about climate change, global warming, desiccation, species and biodiversity decline and landscape degradation as comparatively new developments. In this lecture I want to outline the contrary case, that global environmental concerns are really not new. Furthermore that they originated not in the democratic United States but often in very most exploitative and dictatorial of colonial states, even if the individuals involved were idealists or eccentrics. I think most Americans tend to think of such concerns as connected with George Perkins Marsh, Henry David Thoreau, the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the new environmental consciuousness of the 1970s, in other words as being connected to part of the American Dream, whatever that might mean. But the real history of environmental concern is a lot more complicated than that and is a lot older, and more international than the story that has often been served up as part of the package of American environmental history.

      Furthermore the real story of American environmentalist pioneers is itself a very neglected one, especially with regard to the history of American forest conservation, and is rather different from that version which Gifford Pinchot himself promoted and in which he cast himself as the star perfomer. We don't as yet really have any adequate history of American environmentalism, especially in its 19th century phases. Where and why then did notions of environmental concern and conservationist intervention first emerge in any systematic and legally defined way. The short answer is they emerged in the context of the deforestation and degradation of small tropical islands and in the context of a very well developed fear of climate change.

      Fear of climate change, so topical today in this age of apparent global warming and increased incidence of extreme climate events, has been an influential part of environmental anxiety for well over 200 years, as we shall see, and has generally been more powerful than biodiversity decline as a motive for conservation. Concern about the environments of continents came about a hundred years later. We can in fact date the emergence of a fully fledged debate about the possible impact of deforestation and its impact on climate change very precisely. We can also precisely locate the first executive actions that resulted from this debate and alarm, in terms of the gazetting of forest reserves and the introduction of comprehensive environmental legislation. Incidentally the legislation I am going to talk about you won't find in any of the standard textbooks on environmental legislation. Let us look back to the year 1791 and to a particular island, St Vincent, in the Antilles chain of the eastern Caribbean. St Vincent now is a tiny independent country, a member of the Commonwealth and dependent largely on the banana trade, much threatened by United States Corporations and United States Government pressure on the European Union to end its preferential colonial preference agreements with former colonies in the Caribbean. St Vincent has only three alternative sources of income, from foreign remittances, from tourism, which is already developed to its limits, and from Marijuana, which already constitutes 25 per cent of national income and which involves the clandestine clearance of remote parts of the wonderfully species rich tropical rainforest. Pressure by US corporations to suppress the St Vincent banana industry in favour of their own investments in Latin America is leading directly to rainforest destruction, an explosive growth in the marijuana crop and trade in it to the USA and a boost to cocaine trafficking to the US. Not that Dole or del Monte or the others worry their heads about that. Back in 1791 what the local capitalists and plantation owners were worried about was the health of the sugar cane crop that made the West Indian islands such valuable colonial possessions. And in 1791 the Caribbean was in the middle of the worst drought known in its history, caused by the longest and severest El Nino event in written history, an event I shall refer to later. One consequence of this event was the passing of a pioneering piece of conservation legislation. This was the Kings Hill Forest Act.

      The Kings Hill Forest Act passed on St Vincent in 1791 was a remarkable piece of legislation. Above all, it was based on a novel climatic theory, that deforestation might cause rainfall decline. The objective of the Act was to "appropriate for the benefit of the neighbourhood the Hill .......and for enclosing the same and preserving the timber and other trees growing thereon in order to attract rain". The fact that the Act was highly innovative was clearly recognised at the time. Governor James Seton commented that the Act is "of an unusual and extraordinary character", not least in the powers which the state arrogated to itself to control land and to impose penalties for its misuse. In the language of today the Act thus conceived of two kinds of sustainability, at a local level, in terms of timber supply; and in a much broader climatic sense. It thus enshrined in legislation a highly sophisticated set of principles and was, in short, based on 'scientific' theory rather than on social structures or assumptions. The story behind the King's Hill Act is relevant not only to its later influence on colonial environmental legislation but also to the environmental crisis of today and to the special contribution which islands have played in bringing about the conceptualisation of environmental problems at both local and global scales. There were two major innovative features of the King's Hill Forest Act. Firstly the Act dealt with the climatic consequences of environmental degradation and developed a conservationist solution to the problem. Secondly, this pioneer of enviromental legislation developed in the very specific circumstances of an island. It was no accident that it did so. As we shall see, oceanic islands have historically played a critical conceptual role in the emergence of environmentalism and in the emergence of modern ideas about conservation. St. Vincent occupies a pivotal place in the origins of environmentalism, along with four other islands, Tobago, St. Helena, Mauritius and Ascension Island.

      How then do we set about understanding the context and origins of the Kings Hill legislation? First of all we need to question some of the more conventional histories of the emergence of environmental and environmental institutions. Most of these have promoted a history of conservation and environmentalism that is intimately closely associated with ta nationalist version of the history of United States during the nineteenth century. According to these narratives George Perkins Marsh, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir (who we might note was a Scotsman from Dunbar) were the originators and theorists of the "gospel" of North American conservationism. In fact, recent research tends to indicate that conservation ideas arrived rather late in European North America and that the main history of western conservationist responses to environmental degradation developed much further "south", in the context of the complex and largely destructive encounter between colonial expansion and tropical environments. But contact between European imagination and indigenous environmental knowledge was an important part of this. Within these very broad categories the interaction between three much narrower phenomena need to be explored as a basis for understanding the institutional basis of environmentalism as it came to fruition during the late eighteenth century. These three components were; the professionalization of science and particularly natural history; the emergence of global networks of botanical and other specialist information flow and, most of all, the development of detailed perceptions and experiences of the environmental degradation of oceanic islands.

      By the beginning of the 1790s (and a little earlier in the French colonial context) these combined phenomena had given rise to a coherent theory of "desiccationism" connecting forest destruction to rainfall change and regional aridification and to a very specific kind of interest in tree-planting and afforestation. Both matters, it was considered, were a proper part of the concern of the state, in particular the colonial state. If they were not attended to, it was believed, social and economic chaos might follow. Of course, at the time of the Kings Hill Act these ideas were only considered among a narrow circle of influential individuals. They were, as yet, weak in their impact, and only applied in actual policy terms in very few geographical locations. It should be noted, however, that highly interventionist environmental controls, especially in forest protection, were being pursued, often on a large scale, and quite independently of the European colonial regimes, by indigenous states and empires, by for example, the Chinese colonial power in Formosa, and by the Rajahs of Sind in North-West India, where enormous programmes of afforestation and game preservation were being pursued by 1730. Such indigenous interventions were often highly socially manipulative. In general, however, they were not based on a fear of artificially induced climate change and had no kind of global context.

       By contrast, even as late as the end of the eighteenth century colonial environmentalism (as we may term it from hindsight) was confined to St. Vincent, Tobago, St. Helena, Mauritius and to some very limited locations in India. It consisted, in practice, in limited forest reservation, timber licensing and tree planting programmes. Only in the four island colonies was environmental regulation based on systematically-formulated and theory-based fears of climate or precipitational change. However, it is on this development that we need to focus as desiccationism provided the basis for the coherent intellectual tradition behind the much larger programmes of later colonial conservationism, involving a series of ideas about anthropogenic effects on climate that has persisted and been given a new lease of life by contemporary fears. The origins of colonial conservation legislation date back to the late seventeenth century, particularly at the Cape Colony and St. Helena, in a considerable number of west Indian islands and to a lesser extent in North America. They were closely associated with the conditions of colonial rule. Capital intensive plantation agriculture, based on slave labour, promoted very rapid environmental change in terms of deforestation and subsequent soil erosion, flooding, gullying, local aridification and drying up of the streams and rivers. The first European colonies on the Canaries and at Madeira were devastated in this way by the effects of deforestation for sugar cultivation as early as the fifteenth century, as contemporary observers make clear.

       The impact of introduced domestic stock was often rapidly felt. For example, we know that by the end of the sixteenth century severe soil erosion and pasture damage had occurred in large parts of Mexico. Between 1600 and 1800 soil erosion became particularly acute on the Caribbean plantation islands and similar effects were being reported at St. Helena by 1670. These phenomena were so serious and obvious on the restricted spaces of islands (or on isolated peninsulas such as the Cape of Good Hope ) that local conservationist responses soon developed during the late seventeenth century into limited legislative attempts to irrigate land, prevent deforestation and carry out planting programmes. However these were strictly local responses for which previous precedents were not easily available, and there was very little diffusion of knowledge about soil erosion or conservation. Similar developments were taking place in Japan under the Tokugawa Shugunate, where urban and capitalist expansion promised effects similar to those of colonial plantation agriculture. In general, however, until the end of the seventeenth century the tropical world was considered by Europeans to possess illimitable resources. This notion, which took a long time to dispel, was first questioned, in a highly empirical way, on island colonies threatened by the highly visible effects of plantation agriculture.

       At this early stage in colonial expansion the notion of desiccationism started to make itself felt. Columbus is reported to have believed that deforestation would cause rainfall changes. His thinking was probably based on the Classical Greek writings of Theophrastus, which had first been printed in Italy in 1483. Columbus, who had witnessed the desiccation that had resulted from deforestation on the Canary Islands, feared that the same developments might take place in the Caribbean. A century later we find the same concept elaborated in the work of Francis Bacon. It seems likely that Theophrastian concepts remained alive in western thought after the Renaissance, although there are only scattered references to his ideas. However in the mid-seventeenth century the desiccationist debate started to acquire some momentum, precisely in the context of island plantation agriculture. Deforestation in Jamaica was soon linked at this time to rainfall decline and, indeed, the theory was discussed by Sir Hans Sloane, who owned estates on the islands, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society during the 1670s. Sir Edmund Halley, visiting St. Helena at the same period, in 1676, made careful observations of the processes of soil erosion which were active on the island and theorized about the connections between rainfall, vegetation and runoff. His observations were reported, although after a delay of some years, again in the Transactions of the Royal Society in 1691. In spite of these publications (which provide a clue to the way in which the new scientific associations would later develop an environmental debate) there was, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, virtually no way in which such knowledge could be easily diffused and transferred between colonies. So, for example, the earliest local attempts made by officials to stop deforestation and plant trees on St. Helena were studiously ignored or handicapped by the East India Company, which remained unaware or uninterested in the extent of environmental damage caused by its plantation policies and its unwillingness to control the goat population.

       The case of the Dutch East India Company was somewhat different. Sharply aware of the problems of managing their waterlogged home environment the Dutch selectively introduced forest management and tree-planting policies at the Cape and then in Java, where by the 1760s teak forests were being carefully managed, largely for naval purposes. The Dutch Company's tree-planting policies at the Cape were important as they were later imitated by the French at Mauritius. The Dutch made no attempt, however, to manage the Mauritius ebony forests in a similar way and by 1716 had actually abandoned the island. The most significant development in the Dutch context involved their deliberate fostering of botanical gardens and the fostering of botanical knowledge, botanical exploration and publishing. The establishment of botanical or "Company" gardens (at for example Batavia, Peredeniya, Mauritius and the Cape) were essential for early experiments in plant transfer, particularly of spice and other plants to and from the West Indies. There were many different motives behind the establishment of botanical gardens by the colonial powers. However, the specialist skills needed to run networks of gardens and botanical exchange provided the basis for the employment of "experts", most of whom were medical doctors, by all the colonial powers .

      The most significant development of this biological information system, essential to the emergence of eighteenth century environmental awareness, was a consequence of the very deliberate involvement of the French state in botanic garden development and systematic botanical exploration and collection. This involvement was sharpened by the rise of the "agronomes", or agricultural experts, in France and the "scientific" development of agriculture. Since the time of Colbert the French had become especially interested in English agricultural innovation and ideas about woodland management. English agriculture had in turn gained much from the expulsion of the Huguenots from France and infusions of Dutch agricultural expertise.

       By the 1760s the stimulus of systematic agricultural knowledge and early economic theory had crystallized in the scientific enthusiasms of the anti-capitalist "physiocratic" philosophies which became characteristic of emergent French enviromentalism and proto-revolutionary thinking in France and, incidentally, in North America. By itself, however, this would not have enabled the growth of an environmental sensitivity. Emerging debates about the nature of the state, the foundations of economics, the management of agriculture and forestry and the workings of nature were all important to the evolution of environmental consciousness. When these debates came together with the empirical observations of the catastrophic effects of colonial plantation agriculture the results were decisive. The catalyst to the development of French colonial environmentalism was the appointment in 1766 of Pierre Poivre as Commissaire-Intendant of Mauritius.

      Pierre Poivre had already been extensively involved in attempts to transfer spice trees from the Dutch East Indies to Mauritius. In the course of trying to develop these and other objectives Poivre set up what was effectively a physiocratic state on the island. However, partly as a result of his experiments in plant transfer Poivre was already very interested in soil conditions and the effects of deforestation on moisture and local climate. He had developed these ideas in Lyons in the context of agricultural society meetings during the 1750s and in a paper written in 1763 made direct reference to what he thought were now well-established connections between deforestation and rainfall change. The provenance of these notions is not clear and further research would be needed to establish the source of Poivre's very definitive desiccationist convictions. But it seems likely that the main source of inspiration for Poivre's climate thinking came from the arboricultural handbooks written by his contemporary, Duhamel de Monceau. De Monceau, an anglophile, had in turn been very much influenced by the thinking of Stephen Hales, the pupil of Isaac Newton and the discover of the principle of transpiration. A Newtonian linking of trees and atmosphere was thus essential to early environmentalism.

      The practical effects of the theory were soon apparent, however, particularly as Poivre had managed to persuade his physiocratic sympathizers in the colonial ministry in Paris of the seriousness of the deforestation issue. Poivre was not in fact the first administrator of Mauritius to be concerned about the state of the island forests. However his worries were new in the sense that they reinforced by the fear that a failure to control deforestation might result in rainfall decline. Moreover, Poivre was assisted by the services of Philibert Commerson, probably the most knowledgeable contemporary botanist in the world, as a professional and state naturalist. As a result the botanic garden at Pamplemousses was also much enlarged by the Commissaire-Intendant and was soon established as an unrivalled location for transferred plants and botanical expertise.

      In a law of 1769, called the Reglement Economique, and in later laws passed after Poivre had left the island in 1772, an extensive system of forest reservations and riverside reservations was established in Mauritius, on the basis both of climatic arguments to protect the rainfall and to provide a sustainable timber supply. Meanwhile plans for state tree-planting were initiated, both to prevent soil erosion and, it was hoped , to promote rainfall. These plans were very ambitious in scale, one scheme of 1784 envisaging the planting of 500,000 trees. The complex environmental and botanical agendas pursued by the French on Mauritius stand out as the source of ideas for most subsequent conservationist initiatives throughout the British and French colonial empires. As we shall see they also constituted a major plank of the earliest arguments for a forest conservation service in the United States. Before investigating the way in which the methodology of Mauritius desiccationism was transferred to other parts of the world we need to look at another important aspect of eighteenth century environmentalism, the parallel development of state-sponsored botany and colonial interests in tree-planting. Both developments were closely connected with the elaboration of botanical information and exchange networks during the latter half of the eighteenth century, particularly with the reinforcement of the original systems pioneered by the Portuguese, Dutch and French empires by a British network centred on Sir Joseph Banks at Kew Gardens in London, and on his Linnaean exploring agents.

       European tree-planting obsessions had devolved largely from concern about supplies of ship timber and the debate owed much to the contributions of John Evelyn, the Comte de Buffon and Duhamel de Monceau. Tree-planting acquired a variety of potent meanings from the mid-seventeenth century onwards in both England and France, in economic terms and as an expression of power, order and improvement. Soon after its foundation the Society of Arts started to take a particular interest in arboriculture through the interests of its founder, William Shipley and in 1758 the Society started to award prizes for tree-planting. Significantly, Shipley and his colleagues were also much interested in exotic tree and plant tranfer and in the establishment of botanic gardens as part of a wider improvement ideology. In 1762 this led the society to place an advertisement in its journal soliciting proposals for the establishment of a botanic garden in the West Indies . It was this initiative by the Society of Arts that led General Robert Melville, the Scots victor at the Peace of Paris (when the Eastern Antilles were ceded by France to Britain) to establish the botanic gardens at St Vincent in 1763. This Caribbean botanic garden was thus the first to be established in the western hemisphere, long before any similar establishment in North America. It became the focus of early environmentalist thinking, principally through the genius of its second curator, Alexander Anderson, another Scotsman who found himself at the imperial periphery.

       In Scotland tree-planting had become a particular enthusiasm of the landed classes, above all in Fife. John Hope, Curator of the Edinburgh botanic garden, shared this enthusiasm, and was encouraged in it by his contacts with Andre Thouin and other tree-planting devotees of the Jardin de Roi in Paris. Hope in turn passed on his enthusiasm for tree-planting to his students, many of whom went on to become physicians and surgeons in the East India Company Medical Service. One of them, William Roxburgh, as Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, pioneered tree-planting programmes in north-eastern India. In order to understand William Roxburgh's tree-planting activities we need to shed a little light on the early pattern of the East India Company's worries about timber supplies.

      By 1761 Company officials at Fort William in Calcutta were already aware of the emerging French interest in conserving forests in Mauritius, and of their interest in the desirability of forest cover for defensive purposes. Throughout the 1760s the problems of timber supply at Calcutta for shipbuilding and urban supply became steadily more acute. So too did concerns about the degree of Company dependence on indigenous timber merchants. As a result, during the 1760s strenuous efforts were made to secure independent sources of supply from the Morangs region , on the northern Bihar border, whence supplies were floated down to Calcutta along the Kosi and Ganges rivers. Investigation of possible alternative sources was already reaching out as far as Burma and at this stage it became clear that the search for secure timber supplies away from indigenous control was becoming a major factor in East India Company expansion, not only in Bengal and Bihar but on the Bombay Presidency coast as well, where the desire to control timber sources contributed to Company involvement in the Maratha wars. On Prince of Wales Island and at Bassein in 1781 'indiscriminate cutting' was being openly put forward as a reason for the extension of political control. However, it is also clear that the Indian forests were no longer being seen as inexhaustible sources of raw material supply, while the desirability of husbanding resources was already being canvassed by the colonial state.

      On Mauritius the employment of a credible body of naturalists by Pierre Poivre after 1768 had bolstered the agendas of nascent state environmentalism. This kind of development was much delayed in India. Indeed it was an Indian ruler, the Nawab of Arcot, and not the East India Company, that first recognized the inherent value of professional naturalists and scientific experts, when the Nawab took Johann Koenig into his employ. Only as late as 1778 did the Company itself decide to employ Koenig, a Linnaean botanist from Schleswig-Holstein trained at the University of Kiel. William Roxburgh, who arrived in India in 1778, the year in which Koenig was first employed by the Company, soon began the re-building of a Mughal garden, at Samulcottah on theCoromandel coast of south-eastern India, as a systematic botanic garden. However, this was a limited development. Further north, in Bengal, Robert Kyd, a Scotsman from Fife, started to replant several species of trees, some from the Himalayas, (as well as some imported cinnamon trees), in a private garden in Calcutta. This was partly a result of his shocked response to the famine of 1770 and what he saw as a need to establish alternative staple food plants. It led eventually to a proposal by Kyd in 1786 to establish a Company botanic garden in Calcutta.

      In so doing Kyd was keenly aware of the precedents established at St. Vincent and Mauritius. However he was also aware of the possibilities of developing tree stocks for plantations, an idea which he had probably also culled from the French in Mauritius. Until 1784 the East India Company Directors in London had largely failed to interest themselves in botanical matters. However in that year, with the appointment of the Board of Control, the situation was transformed, particularly with the rise to power of Henry Dundas as secretary of the Board of Control. Dundas was an agronomic and botanical enthusiast and an associate of Sir Joseph Banks. Indeed, after 1784 Banks was able to exercise considerable influence over EIC policy and to incorporate its servants into the global botanical network which he was now establishing. An early result of these changes was the appointment of Roxburgh to the Superintendency of the Calcutta Garden in 1792, in succession to Robert Kyd. The post gave Roxburgh the opportunity to develop an extensive tree-planting programme, carrying on the ideas of Kyd and John Hope as well as those of Pierre Poivre and his associates on Mauritius. From 1792 until 1820s it is possible to trace the pattern of a whole series of tree-planting initiatives developed in response to the deforestation of large parts of Bihar and Bengal. There is, however, no direct evidence that Roxburgh's agricultural zeal was fired by any well-defined climatic theory, even though he may have been acquainted with contemporary published works on the relationship between vegetation and moisture, particularly in the writings of Joseph Priestley. This is an area upon which further research may be able to shed some light.

      However we do know that climatic theories had become very influential on St Vincent and St Helena between 1785 and 1795. The pattern of awareness that had developed on those islands was specifically connected to the kinds of desiccationist interest in forest reservation which had emerged in Mauritius and which was ultimately decisive to the onset of state forest conservation in India. Roxburgh's geographically much larger afforestation efforts were, by contrast, eventually much less significant in the global development of conservation. The connections between the Society of Arts, tree-planting and the establishment of the St. Vincent Garden have already been alluded to, and the mere fact of the existence of a botanical garden on the island was clearly critical to subsequent developments there. The existence of the institution ensured that the environment of St. Vincent would be monitored by individuals possessing a social and technical credibility that extended far beyond the bounds of the island, and who involved it in a network of globally-derived information from which precedent and experience could be derived. In this connection the appointment of Alexander Anderson as was clearly significant. Anderson was a botanist, trained in Edinburgh in the Enlightnement tradition, but who had failed to complete a medical degree, attracted instead to military adventurism in North America. After a chequered career fighting on both sides in turn in the American Revolutionary War he had ended up on the Isle of St Lucia before securing the job of Curator of the St Vincent Garden in 1784.

      A highly original and well read scholar and anti-slavery campaigner, Anderson was able to articulate and apply environmentalistic notions of which he had become aware and which had developed in locations very distant from St Vincent, above all in Mauritius. The connections with the latter island were strengthened by an existing patterns of contacts which had evolved in the course of numerous plant transfers. The plan to transfer specimens of the breadfruit tree to St Vincent from Otaheite, which led to the famed expeditions of William Bligh on his ships Bounty and Providence, reinforced the signficance of the island in global knowledge networks still more. To some extent, then, the transfer of desiccationist and environmentalist notions to St. Vincent was derived not only from local conditions but also from imported technological assumptions. In the importation of environmental legislation, two factors stand out as having been significant; firstly the existence of expertise and a scientific discourse on the island, and secondly the evolution of environmental perceptions based on the mental constraints imposed by the island geography of St. Vincent. In other words the notion of resource limitability was already present; it was simply not possible for planters to move on to a better situation, when their existing geographical contexts had been degraded through deforestation and poor land-use practices.

      It has to be said that the detailed administrative background to the introduction of the Kings Hill Forest Bill into the St. Vincent Assembly on 13th November 1788 by William Bannatyne is still not fully understood. Historically, however, the broader social and institutional context of the legislation can be stated with some confidence. The geological and climatic history of the island in 1788 was already well known and the vulnerability of its population to extreme events well appreciated. Volcanic eruptions took place on the island at intervals of approximately ten years, and were sometimes extremely violent and destructive. Indeed Daniel Defoe in a somewhat mischievous piece of journalism published in 1711 reported that the island had entirely disappeared beneath the waters of the Caribbean. While this was an exaggeration the permanent vulnerability of the island to natural extreme events was not in question. This impression is gained in particular from Alexander Anderson's paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of 1785.

       In this article it is clear that Anderson was also keenly interested in cloud formation and the association between vegetation and moisture retention. He does not, though, go on to elaborate on the likely consequences of deforestation, emphasizing instead the bulk and impenetrability of the forest cover. Internationally, nevertheless, the causes of climatic change and meteorological alteration were already firmly on the international scientific agenda. Joseph Priestley had published his Experiments and observations on different kinds of air in London in 1774 and published an article on the subject in the Royal Society Transactions in the very year in which Anderson's article on St. Vincent volcanism has appeared. Only a year earlier Benjamin Franklin had put forward a theory linking volcanic dust to climatic change in the Transactions of the Manchester Philosophical Society. Anderson would have been aware of such publications and thinking as, of course, was Sir Joseph Banks himself. Banks had already, in his diaries, been particularly scathing about the extent of soil erosion on St. Helena when he had visited the island in 1771. The colonists had, he said, 'made a desert out of a paradise'. However, these facts do not allow us to conclude that either Banks or Anderson played a decisive role in initiating the Kings Hill Legislation, and indeed it would seem that even had Banks done so the only conceivable source for any fully developed precedent for desiccation-based forest legislation remained that gazetted in Mauritius in 1769 and subsequently renewed in 1777.

       A partial clue to solving the problem of the origin of the Kings Hill Act rests in the wording of the legislation, that it would 'be appropriate for the benefit of the neighbourhood', on the basis of the forests attracting rain. A passage in the Assembly minutes in March 1789 refers to the clearance of 'wild and unfrequented woods turned to cotton planting'. This, of course, reflects the wider economic background of the introduction of cotton cultivation into the island, an enterprise which Joseph Banks had sought to encourage through the introduction of new species of cotton seed from India. The environmental consequences of cotton plantation soon appeared to be serious, as an Assembly report of January 1790 indicates. Widespread gullying was described as a consequence of the new cultivation, some of the gullies being so wide that oxen could no longer cross them without the aid of wooden bridges. These reports of gullying, a sign of well developed overland-flow and soil erosion, echo contemporary descriptions of St. Helena. They allow one to begin to understand why forest protection might suddenly have seemed attractive to the St. Vincent colonists, particularly when one considers the impact which forest clearance for cotton might have had on what had originally been perennial stream channels.

      The slow three-year progress of the Act through the legislature was conspicuous, and it may well be that the Act reached the statute books only as a consequence of the rapid soil erosion recorded after the Bill had originally been laid on the table of the Assembly. Once made law, the Kings Hill Act constituted one of the very earliest attempts at forest protection legislation in the English-speaking world based on climatic theory. While the exact nature of its connections with the French legislation of Mauritius still require detailed work it is a much easier task to identify the way in which the Act made its undoubted mark on the subsequent history of British colonial conservation legislation. By the time the Kings Hill Act was passed Sir Joseph Banks had renewed his interest in the environmental status of St. Helena, which was, unlike St. Vincent, an East India Company possession. The immediate cause of Bank's concern was the establishment of a new botanic garden at St. Helena in 1788. This appears to have led Banks to consider the serious water supply problems of the island, and during 1790 and 1791 he was frequently consulting official papers on St. Helena at the specific request of the EIC Court of Directors. At one stage Banks was even led to suggest that 'the cultivation methods and tenure system of Lincolnshire should be adopted to solve the island's agricultural problems'.

       Clearly, by this stage Banks was casting around for a strategy for a forest protection strategy for St. Helena. With the passing of the Kings Hill Act he had found one, probably being briefed about the law by Henry Dundas who, during 1791, dealt with correspondence between Whitehall and Governor James Seton at St. Vincent. During 1791 and 1792 severe droughts were experienced in the Madras Presidency, on St. Helena and on Montserrat, as a result of what we now know was an extended El Nino event. The coincidence of these events seems to have made a considerable impression on the East India Company and it may well be that alarm at such an apparently global incidence of drought stimulated it to more definitive action on St. Helena, now vital to the transfer of botanical material between Calcutta, St. Vincent and London. After much encouragement by Sir Joseph Banks the Court of Directors was eventually persuaded, by 1794, of the connections between rainfall decline and deforestation and was making anxious requests to the St. Helena authorities to control deforestation and plant trees in order to maintain rainfall levels.

      As a result, after 1794 and particularly after the arrival of Alexander Beatson as Governor in 1808, tree-planting programmes were pursued on St. Helena with direct Company backing from London. By the mid-1830s, when the island was handed over to Crown rule, it was generally agreed that rainfall levels had substantially increased as a result of the afforestation programme. We now know that during the 1820s the influence of drought-causing El Nino events was much reduced. However at the time it was widely and triumphantly believed that climate could now be actively controlled by tree-planting. This optimistic consensus achieved such publicity that it strongly influenced the views of George Perkins Marsh and Franklin Benjamin Hough and their associates in North America, with enormous consequences for the history of state forestry in the United States and elsewhere.

      But prior to to this, the apparently successful tree-planting experiments were duly noted by Joseph Hooker when he visited St. Helena and Ascension in 1843, and exercised a decisive influence on him when he came to advise Lord Dalhousie, the new Governor-General of India, on the subject of tree-planting in India in 1847. Dalhousie was in turn easily convinced of the climatic arguments for forest protection and this undoubtedly assisted him in the decision he made in 1854 to found an all-India forest service, a decision made at least partly on climatic grounds. The Kings Hill Act can thus be seen to have played a critical role in the evolution of environmentalist thinking as well as thinking about the relations between forests and climate. The Act bridged the gap between French physiocratic conservationism, as it was developed on Mauritius, and the evolution of a British colonial environmentalism.

      Undoubtedly the existence of close institutional links between the botanical gardens at Calcutta, Mauritius, St. Helena, St. Vincent and Kew played a vital part in enabling the development of the kind of embryonic global environmentalism so usefully symbolized by the Kings Hill Act. But above all it was the emergence of the island as a metaphor of global vulnerability to human economic demands coupled with the experimental context which the island provided which was so central to the growing acceptance by states and scientists of the need for conservationist intervention in global environmental processes, particularly those relating soil, forests, water and climate. We might note that by the time the St Helena, the Falklands and the Galapagos exercised in turn their seminal influence on Charles Darwin the signficance of the island as an experimental and theoretical scientific paradigm was already very well established. But the significance of the island as a theoretical environmental and cultural paradigm was by no means confined to the French and British colonial contexts.

      George Perkins Marsh depended on evidence linking deforestation to rainfall change or increased instability for the most powerful arguments canvassed by him in favour of state forest protection. In turn he found the best kind of evidence was that related to the environmental history of islands, initially those in the Mediterranean region with which he was most familiar. Marsh seems to have had his interest in the topic of islands reinforced by his readings of Jules Clave and Heinrich Schacht, who had both published texts in 1862; Clave, in turn quoting Boussingault and Blanqui, attribute declines in rainfall in Malta, Etna, the Cape Verde Islands, Ascension Island and St Helena to their respective experiences of deforestation. It was from Clave that Marsh learnt of the apparently successful attempts to increase the rainfall of St Helena by afforestation. Marsh, with his extraordinary depth of Classical and later scholarship had already read other sources on the environmental history of Malta, especially George Sandys' Relation of a Journey, published in 1627. On another occasion, in discussing the past hydrological conditions of Gran Canaria Island, he quotes Juan Abreu de Galindo, writing in 1632 in his famous history of the colonisation of the Canary Islands. It is this depth of scholarship that is the key to many of Marsh's insights; he was able assess change over time simply through the scale of his learning. Comparisons of seventeenth century accounts of island ecologies with those of the nineteenth century helped to indicate the scale of human impact as well as alleged changes in climate linked to deforestation.

      But the island that interested Marsh most of all was St Helena. His sources on the island were threefold; Darwin's Journal of Researches, Foissac's Meteorology based on the teaching of Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos and most important of all, the Tracts on the Island of St Helena, published in 1816 by Alexander Beatson, a one-time Governor of St Helena and the pioneer of the rainmaking plantations on the island. Beatson's book had been carried by Darwin on the Beagle, and had been enormously influential on the naturalist, both because of William Roxburgh's list of endemic island plants which it included and because of Beatson's descriptions of high altitude marine shell bearing beds on the island. If Beatson's Tracts were a key to Darwin's understanding of the relations between climatic change and extinction then for Marsh they were a key to his passionate advocacy of the relations between deforestation and rainfall decline. St Helena was the ideal model or testbed since, as many contemporaries believed, the success of the rainmaking plantations was quite demonstrably proved. Beatson had shown that St Helena was the ideal site to observe environmental processes; indeed we now that Beatson's linking of the droughts recorded on the island in the 1790s with simultaneous events in Montserrat in the British West Indies and in south-eastern India was the first known recognition of a global drought event due to a major El Nino episode. St Helena did indeed help to produce revolutionary insights in the environmental sciences. For Marsh the Classicist the degradation of such oceanic islands was reminiscent of the ancient deforestation and cultural decline of the Classical Greek Island societies with which his early education and travels as a diplomat connected him.

      It is perhaps not surprising to learn that Marsh's consuming interest in the lessons to be learnt from the environmental histories of small islands was in herited with increased enthusiasm by his intellectual disciples, associates and imitators, above all by Franklin Benjamin Hough, the much ignored founder of the US forest service. In his famous Report on Forestry to Congress, published in 1878, Hough expanded even further than Marsh on the lessons to be learnt on small islands about the climatic deterioration that might follow from uncontrolled deforestation. Hough was originally a country doctor from Lowville in Lewis County in upstate New York, who prepared a paper arguing for state forest conservation in the United States for the AAAS conference in 1873. Hough, a frequent correspondent of Marsh, began a correspondence with Jasper Smith, the US Consul in Madeira, requesting information on the impact of the removal of the forests of the island, which had become a Mecca for European and American tuberculosis sufferers. Once again the apparent negative effects of deforestation on climate were confirmed from a variety of sources. Hough now began an exhaustive series of researches into the climatic history of oceanic islands, far more elaborate than that of Marsh. Drawing heavily on the work of John Croumbie Brown, Hough reported to Congress on the salutary and gloomy environmental histories of Madeira, St Helena, Ascension Island, Ceylon and the West Indies. His scope of reference was extraordinary. He even quoted Strzelecki on soil erosion in Australia, the island on which Marsh had wished to experiment, and the tree-planting programmes of the Emperor Akbar in Mughal India. But perhaps most significantly he picked out for the particular attention of Congress the forest conservation legislation of Pierre Poivre on Mauritius, the Reglement Economique of 1769. It was the example of Mauritius, Hough seems to imply, that the United States ought to follow. 'The authorities of the island' he wrote 'have their welfare under control and the world at large will be taught another lesson in national economy'.

      In a speech to the American Forestry Congress in Cincinatti, April 1882, Hough justified this backward-looking rationale in planning state forestry. 'We learn the probabilities of the future from what we know of the past, and reasoning from this experience, look ahead and strive to learn what the future promises in the way of resource and opportunities, and what are our duties in respect to the waste of forest supplies that we see going on around us'.

      Franklin Hough was perhaps the first practical propagandist for state environmentalism on a national scale in the United States. His work, now largely forgotten, set the scene for William McGee, Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. But his decisive interest in the lessons of oceanic island ecology and history were echoed by the words of a far more contemporary and familiar and female environmental prophet for whom islands were an equally important stimulant to action and lesson for the future. 'Islands' she said 'have always fascinated the human mind. Perhaps it is the instinctive response of man, the land animal, welcoming a brief intrusion of earth in the vast overwhelming expanse of sea'. Writing, like Darwin, Hough and Marsh, of Mauritius, Ascension Island, St Helena, Hawaii and the Galapagos, she notes that 'man unhappily has written one of his blackest records as a destroyer on the oceanic islands...upon species after species the black night of extinction has fallen...in all the world of living things it is doubtful whether there is a more delicately balanced relationship than that of island life to its environment'. This is of course the voice of Rachel Carson, writing in The Sea Around Us in 1951. The closing words of her chapter on 'The Birth of An Island' are perhaps a worthy finale to the story of the influence of islands on the history of environmental concern, as well as warning for foresters and environmentalists in the century to come:-

      The tragedy of the oceanic islands lies in the uniqueness, the irreplaceability of the species they have developed by the slow processes of the ages. In a reasonable world men would have treated these islands as precious possessions, as natural museums filled with beautiful and curious works of creation, valuable beyond price because nowhere in the world are they duplicated. W.H. Hudson's lament for the birds of the Argentine pampas might even more truly have been spoken of the islands: 'The beautiful has vanished and returns not'.


1. Public Record Office (PRO) CO260/3 St Vincent Acts.

2. PRO CO263/21 St Vincent Assembly Minutes 12th January 1791, Letter from Governor Seton to the President of the Council.

3. For a survey of indigenous resistance to colonial and pre-colonial forest policies see R. Grove, 'Colonial conservation, ecological hegemony, and popular resistance; towards global synthesis' , in J. Mackenzie, ed. Imperialism and the natural world, Manchester, 1990

4. See Grove, R. 'The origins of environmentalism', Nature, London, May 3rd, 1990, pp 11-16.

5. Crosby, A.., Ecological Imperialism , Cambridge, 1987

6. E. Melville, 'Environmental and social change in the Valle del Mezquital, Mexico, 1521-1660', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 32, (1990) , 24-53

7. Totman, C. 1989 The Green Archipelago; forestry and conservation in seventeenth century Japan. Berkeley, Calif., 1989

8. I have obtained the references to Sloane's comments from R. Moffat, Missionary labours and scenes in southern Africa, London., 1844, p.332.

9. P. Poivre.,Voyages d'un philosophe, Paris, 1770.

10. A. J. Bourdes, The influence of England on the the French 'agronomes; 1750-1789, Cambridge, 1953

11. Unpublished MS of P. Poivre, Ref. no 575, Archives of musee d'histoire naturelle, Paris. pp. 27-29.

12. Guilding, L., The botanic garden at St. Vincent., London, 1825

13. Home Public Files, 1792-1820., National Archives of India, New Delhi

14. Select Committee Proceedings, Foreign Department Files, Vol 12, 1767. National Archives of India. New Delhi

15. See Grove, R. Green Imperialism; colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, Cambridge, 1995, Chapter 4.

16. The details of the laying on the table of Bannatyne's Bill are in PRO, CO263/21, dt 13th Nov. 1788.

17. Anderson, A., 'An account of Morne Garou, a mountain in the island of St. Vincent, with a description of the volcanoe on its summit (In a letter from Mr James [sic] Anderson to Mr Forsyth, His Majesty's Gardener at Kensington)', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 75: (1784) 16-31.

18. Priestley, J., 'Experiment and observations relating to air and water. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 75: (1785) 279-309.

19. Franklin, B. 1784. Meteorological imaginations and conjectures. Transactions of the Manchester Philosophical Society, 1: 373-77.

20. PRO: CO263/21, dt 28 Jan 1790.

21. Letter to Thomas Morton, dt 8 Jan 1791; Banks letters.

22. See, for example PRO: CO260/3 Miscellaneous correspondence; June 1791. During April 1791 the subject of the necessity of safeguarding the botanic garden was also frequently mentioned.

23. We now know that the global occurrence of droughts in tropical latitudes in 1791 and 1792 was due to a very severe El Nino/Southern Oscillation event in those years. For details of this see, Grove, Green Imperialism, Cambridge, 1995; and W.H. Quinn and V.T. Neal, 'El Nino occurrences over the past four and a half centuries', Journal of Geophysical Research, 92, (1987), 14449-61.

24. Hooker had been in close correspondence with Humboldt shortly before his departure for India. Humboldt had given him detailed instructions and it seems clear that these included remarks on the relationship between forest cover and rainfall retention: see Mea Allan, The Hookers of Kew , 1785-1911, London, 1967, p. 168