Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2019
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Fishing for Empire: (Post)Colonial Political Ecology of the Oil Sardine

In the 1800s, British colonizers in India began to study marine biodiversity from their trading bastion of Cochin. What they found was not only a vibrant natural history but also a longstanding commercial fishery exporting millions of pounds of fish oil to London to replace dwindling whale blubber. One prodigious but mercurial fish, the Indian oil sardine, enabled this nascent industry. Yet colonial officials would deem such fisheries "primitive, slow, ineffective and undiversified," crying out to be "modernised and improved by the aid of science, knowledge and capital." My dissertation examines, first, how fishery science collaborations between the colonial state and local interlocutors articulated with existing fishing economy to produce a vision of the ocean as a limitless space and site for "improvement." Second, my work asks how this vision endures in India's present sardine fishery driving new capitalist production, accumulation and high-modern science. Examining both the colonial past and contemporary fishing political economy, I look for lingering imperial duress in, for example, today's coupling of remote-sensing sardine forecasts with increasingly uneven capitalist fishing and processing, transforming the oil sardine from local food into industrial commodities of fish oil and meal. My research is in conversation with multiple scholarly fields including histories of colonial science/praxis, especially regarding the natural world; critical development studies, in particular discourses and practices of "improvement;" and critical agrarian studies focused on the development of capitalism in the countryside. Methodologically, I plan research in archives and repositories in the UK and India, interviews and oral histories with scientists and fishery actors in today's sardine fishery in southwestern India, a large-n sample survey of fishing capitalists there, and a critical physical geography analysis of state-produced data, assumptions and conclusions.