Tirthankar Ghosh

Colonial Cyclonology and the Indian Ocean: Knowledge Economy and Empire in Nineteenth-Century India 

The sea vessels carrying mariners, merchants, colonialists, precious commodities and symbols of ‘racial’ and ‘cultural’ superiority of the ‘West’ had been frequently caught by the oceanic cyclones which posed a great threat to the commercial and military fabric of colonial consolidation in the Indian subcontinent. British ships sailing in different parts of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, the two major division of the Indian Ocean, had been frequently surrounded by great cyclones which had not only hampered the colonial military activities and maritime trade by causing death of the sailors and damages to the commodities but also provided severe psychological blow to the imperial conviction of the British naval supremacy. Therefore, the main objective of producing cyclonic knowledge by the colonial rulers was to maintain maritime hegemony and military supremacy over the salt waters of the Indian Ocean. Thus a whole range of cyclonic data and theories had been generated, initially from the logbooks of the ships and later from several meteorological observatories established during the nineteenth century, in order to produce the ‘laws of storms’ which would act as the ‘practical’ guide to the mariners and would enable them to ‘survive’ in the oceanic salt water. In this historical backdrop, the present paper would argue that the colonial ideology of conquering ocean by conquering the storms had provided the major impetus for the genesis and development of cyclonological knowledge which in turn had also strengthened colonial domination over the land that had been frequently visited and destroyed by the extension of oceanic cyclones. Thus the paper will explore the connections between the oceanic cyclones and the mainland politics of disaster. The paper intends to look into the theories regarding the oceanic-atmospheric circulation behind the origin of the nineteenth-century cyclones which had been recorded in the ships’ logbooks with their origin, velocity, and wind-direction. Since the existing historical literature on the Indian Ocean, so far, have largely emphasized the Ocean as a ‘zone’ for military, cultural and economic exchange or encounter, hence, a political and environmental study of oceanic cyclones through the colonial cyclonology, which was gradually come out as a distinctive genre of ‘scientific’ discipline, would also help to underscore the development of oceanic knowledge in nineteenth-century India.