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How to dissect an elephant : surgeons, clergymen, local informants and the production of knowledge at Fort St George, 1690-1730 Fleetwood, Lachlan Charles

Abstract

Fort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast of India, served as a key site for European natural philosophical knowledge production in the period 1690-1730. As a colonial port city at the centre of cosmopolitan networks of trade under the English East India Company, Fort St George can be considered a “contact zone.” In this space, interactions between European surgeons and clergymen stationed at the Fort, and local Tamil, Telugu and Malawanlu informants had particular implications for the natural philosophical, natural historical, geographic and ethnographic knowledge produced there. While questions around local informants and the hybridisation of knowledge in colonial contexts are becoming a priority in the scholarship of science and empire, the mechanisms operating in these interactions remain underexplored. This paper works to address this by reconstructing cross-cultural knowledge-making interactions between Europeans and Indians at Fort St George, highlighting the way that Europeans treated information from local informants in a dual sense, seeing it as containing potentially useful practical information embedded in flawed religious or cultural explanations. This attitude guided the way Europeans selected and recorded local knowledge, but was only ever applied imperfectly. Indeed, this paper argues that there was an ongoing tension between the ways Europeans intentionally appropriated local information, and the unintended infiltration of Indian cultural knowledge into European natural philosophical accounts. Exploring the particular dynamic of knowledge production that emerged in the contact zone at Fort St George reminds us why we must consider local contexts more closely if we are to properly understand the European natural philosophical project of cataloguing the globe and its imperial implications at the turn of the eighteenth century.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada

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