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A perilous port: Nature, sovereignty and development at the edge of British India - 9 November 2022

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In recent years, the port of Cochin, which was opened up to modern steamships in the first half of the 20th century through the much celebrated Cochin Harbour Project, has come to be regarded as a port in crisis. As the harbour with the highest siltation levels in India, Cochin’s finances have suffered from the need for extensive dredging even as repeated technological interventions have destabilized its surroundings. But this is not the first time that the port has appeared to be on the brink of a disaster.

Almost exactly a century ago, the port’s colonial rulers similarly found themselves confronting an uncertain future. The port’s environment had become increasingly unstable due to persistent coastal erosion, even as one of the princely states of Malabar, the tiny Cochin State, had begun to claim sovereign rights over the backwaters adjoining the harbour.

The Cochin Harbour Project was itself, Devika Shankar argues, initiated in response to this ecological and political instability. Why did a harbour development project become the means for tackling the problem of coastal instability? And how did a princely state become involved with the development of a port in British India?

Focusing on the second of these questions this event will highlight the possibilities and limits of princely sovereignty in the decades preceding India’s independence through a close examination of the Cochin state’s involvement with a port development project in British India. 

About the speaker

Devika Shankar

Devika Shankar is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hong Kong. She is a historian of modern South Asia and the Indian Ocean region and her research interests primarily lie in the fields of environmental history, economic history and science and technology studies. She is currently finishing her book manuscript titled An Encroaching Sea: Nature, Sovereignty and Development in South Asia which focuses on the port of Kochi and its transformation in the 20th century. She has also published articles on the history of water laws, princely sovereignty and land acquisition in the South Asian context.

About the discussant

George Adamson

Dr George Adamson moved to King's in 2013, having studied and worked in the Geography, History and Earth Science departments at the Universities of Manchester, Brighton and Sussex.He brings this interdisciplinary background to his research, which focuses on the complex relationships between climate and society. Since 2016, he has also convened King's Climate Research Hub, a multidisciplinary research cluster with a particular interest in cultural perspectives on climate and people. George's research focuses on the complex relationships between climate and society. As a physical scientist, he tries to understand long-term variability in climate over the last few centuries, particularly in the tropics. As a social scientist, he is interested in the way that societies live within climate variability, particularly how institutions create social vulnerability to climate-related hazards.

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