Final Public Oral Exam: Devika Shankar

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
September 16, 2019 - 1:00pm
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

A Perilous Port: Nature, Sovereignty and Development at the Edge of British India, 1860-1937


Gyan Prakash, adviser
Michael Laffan
Bhavani Raman
Sunil Amrith, Harvard University


Through a reexamination of the factors that led to the execution of one of the last grand public works projects in British India, this dissertation sheds new light on the environmental legacy of colonial rule in the region. Most historical accounts have attributed the decision to develop Cochin’s harbor in the inter-war years to important naval considerations. Simultaneously, they have largely represented the project as a spectacular engineering breakthrough that helped the port overcome its natural limitations. Arguing against such narratives, this dissertation draws upon a range of sources, including documents from the underexplored archives of the Cochin State, to show that Cochin’s development was motivated less by the colonial state’s strategic interests than by anxieties produced by its unstable surroundings and the assertiveness of the region’s princely states. Far from representing a successful deployment of technology to strategically reshape the physical environment as other accounts suggest, the Cochin Harbor Project, this dissertation demonstrates, was, in fact, an uncertain attempt at finding a profitable solution for an environmental and political crisis threatening the port’s commercial future. At a time when large scale development projects remain popular despite a heightened awareness about climate change, this study investigates the particular attitudes towards land and value that have encouraged states to pursue risky projects especially in colonial settings. It does so by moving beyond an examination of ecological consequences, focusing instead on the ways in which disasters have historically emerged as opportunities for the execution of such projects.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.