Nu History Podcast – 11 – Environmentalism in 20th Century America

In this long and fascinating episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Nick to talk about his specialism of environmental history, particularly in the political and activist movements through 20th Century America.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Cabo Verde: A Slavery Hub

Continuing with our ABC of world history, today as part of our third entry in this yearlong enterprise we invite you to come with us to the beautiful archipelago of Cabo Verde. If you’re an Anglophone, I must warn you that you may still be referring to this country by Cape Verde, and if that’s the case, you really should stop, as the government officially changed the name for all purposes as of 2013. (It seems there was a need there to reflect the Portuguese inheritance of the country and the common use of the English terms in a global sphere didn’t really stick). The name Cape Verde came from Cap-Vert which was the closest landmass to the archipelago: a peninsula on the western coast of Senegal. At this stage, you may be wondering exactly where this place is I am talking about and what I will be discussing today. Well, let’s not rush things but, here is the deal.

Continue reading “Cabo Verde: A Slavery Hub”

And the Ground Shook in London – 1750 “Year of Earthquakes”

Today I am sharing with you something I was very intrigued by and surprised to find about. I am talking about a series of earthquakes that took place in the UK and that in their own way had an incredible contribution to the world of modern science.

As most of you may know, the UK is not terribly well-known for seismic action, yet earthquakes do happen every now and then. Nevertheless, due to the scarcity of these events and the misunderstanding of the same they were overlooked for many years, as the collective memory of the events did not keep the notion and passed it on to future generations in a way that would be significant or memorable for those to come. Previous seismic action in the UK is known to be responsible for the partial collapse of cliffs at Dover due to a convulsion in the English Channel (1580), which interestingly enough Shakespeare references in Romeo & Juliet. But all of this would change in 1750. It was the 8th of February when at noon several witnesses report seismic movement in London. It has now been estimated by the British Geological Survey that this convulsion was of the magnitude of 2.6, but to the Londoners it felt like something else. Witness reports advise of lamps falling of in the streets, drinks spilling in taverns, and other things one would expect in this situation. It has been identified that the epicentre of this earthquake was in the area of London Bridge. Nevertheless, the incident was dismissed by the large majority of the population under the pretence that it was so incredibly unlikely that an earthquake would take place in England that it most certainly could not be the case. Therefore, the events of 8th of February were simply attributed as explosions or cannon fire…And along came March to shake things up a bit more.

Four weeks later, (4th March 1750) seismic activity was reported again, almost a month to the date, this time with the area affected increasing to five times that of the original earthquake of February. This led to the collapse of two houses in Whitechapel, several chimneys destroyed in the City of Westminster, and the very stones of Westminster Abbey suffering damages, to the point that many scared pedestrians through the building may fall down all together. In his A History of British Earthquakes, Charles Davidson advises that witness accounts report strange behaviour in animals, with cats and dogs hissing and barking for reasons unknown to their owners, horses agitated and refusing to move. So when the original March tremor happened to replicate on the 9th rumours of cataclysm started spreading across the city, panic taking over the Londoners who now believed the day of Judgement was approaching. It seems that many preachers took the opportunity – as often happens in history when a natural disaster takes place – to preach that the city of London would fall for the sins of its citizens. It must have been just chaos and madness. However, a month later the city was standing, and no more earthquakes were felt by the Londoners, and slowly but surely, things resumed to normality. The earthquakes became a weird occurrence for most of the witnesses, but that is not the end of the story.

Many intellectuals were deeply curious as to what had caused these events – funnily they did not believe cannon fire took place in the middle of London…Surprise! Philosophers in particular were interested in the phenomenon and the effect it had on people’s mentalities – we must remember this is, after all, the age of Enlightenment. But more importantly, many scholars influenced by Sir Isaac Newton took to heart the believe that this most have been founded in circumstances that ought to be explained by science. And so, the unlikely origin of seismology as a science and serious area of study takes place in the UK! Andrew Robinson has a recent study concerning two men, John Bevis and John Michell who were inspired by what happened in London in 1750 and started researching the topic individually. Bevis had a background as an astronomer, but he was also a doctor and an electric engineer. Michell, who was part of the clergy, had an interest in many scientific topics, one of which was geology. It seems both of them were interested in investigating the witness reports and news published in London using them as their primary sources to understand the nature of their study. But their research was truly grounded when 5 years later, the city of Lisbon was pretty much torn to pieces by a much greater earthquake, which caught their attention as the reports recalled aspects of what happened in London, but on a much greater scale.

…Ignorant me thought something like this probably came from somewhere in the globe constantly affected by earthquakes as the people would have had to live with it, but I guess it is true that sometimes the most unexpected of things can spark curiosity and the need for a deeper explanation. I guess the other thing to take from this is the corollary that we must not underestimate or dismiss natural phenomena due to their rarity, which given the environmental circumstances of the world we live in is certainly something worth keeping in mind…

Cantona – Ancient Ghost Town (Updated 4/10/2018)

The site of Cantona in the modern state of Puebla (Mexico) is one of those golden and mysterious archaeological finds that the experts are still trying to figure out. One of the main mysteries about this place is who actually occupied or originally settled in this ancient city. The experts suggest this could have been a settlement of the pseudo mythological Olmec people, but the archaeological finds are inconclusive. David Carballo has recently suggested that the urban plan of the city seems to indicate and agglomeration of different communities with the purpose of defence. Even the name of the settlement is disputed, and this could be key for our understanding of the site. According to the native inhabitants of the San Pedro Tepeyahualco area, the city’s name should be Caltonac.


Cantona was discovered in 1855, allegedly by Henri de Saussure, but it was Nicolas de Leon who in the early 1900s did extensive research on the site, leaving a comprehensive survey of the structures and discoveries he came across. The plot occupies around 12.5 square kilometres and has been divided in three different sections: the southern area-which corresponds with the Acropolis- is the preferred location for archaeologists and other scholars as it is the best preserved. The whole city is structured in different patios and stone workshops and seems to lack the characteristic stucco decorations of other Mesoamerican sites. Cantona was also a fully fortified complex, built with no mortar (no evidence found in the archaeological data), giving it this imposing look of stone on stone; an impressive site to look at, rivalled only by the likes of Teotihuacan. There are clear signs of active religious and ritualistic celebrations, amongst which human sacrifices are not lacking. However, it has been pointed out by Angel Garcia Cook that, despite the site sharing similarities with other Mesoamerican locations, the cultural differences suggest a lack of connection and influence from the Toltek/Aztect/Mayan culture that is apparent in sites such as Teotihuacan and Cholula.  Moreover, some unusual finds have been unearthed in Cantona. Currently, there are 27 ballgame courts that have cropped up in different areas of the city. The most visited aspect of this settlement is the Plaza de la Fertilidad, which receives it name from the phallic statues that are depicted all around this main square.

One of the latest items of debate about Cantona is the reason for its abandonment – or presumed abandonment. It has been argued that the sudden leave of inhabitants in this area was caused by a severe drought, however that theory is contested. The site is located in a volcanic basin; a good resource for obsidian which was highly demanded for tool making and trading purposes. The area flourished with the help of the materials available, and seems to have reached a peak of 90000 inhabitants before the mass exodus. Archaeologists are certain the evacuation of this area would have occurred between 900 AD and 1500 AD. Certainly the climatological circumstances of the area would have not contributed to a balance environment optimal for human live. It seems that the monsoon season was quite pronounced and was followed by severe droughts, resulting in numerous bad crops and issues with water supplies. It has been suggested this processed was particularly acute for about 650 years, perhaps fitting with the time frame previously suggested for the abandonment of the city. On a contrary note, however, it seems this period of harsh climate changes coincides with population increases in the area. So this has pushed researchers in Mesoamerican history to look elsewhere for the causes of the inhabitants moving out of the site. It has been considered that because this was a firmly fortified city, political unrest and general weather difficulties all over the place may have driven people to move in despite the hardship. Nevertheless, this did not stop the situation from deteriorating, leading to the eventual and full desertion of Cantona by its population.

In any case the facts about Cantona, as many of the other sites and cultures we have explored from Meso and Southamerica, are still quite scarce. I hope the future years will tell us some more about what actually happened in this place, and more interestingly, where did the people of Cantona go…?

Review: The First Nottinghamshire Local History and Archaeology Day

Pen and paper in hand my dad and I found ourselves at 11am this morning seated in the Djanogly Recital Hall awaiting the beginning of a series of short lectures that opened the very first Local History and Archaeology day. Considering this is the first of its kind in my hometown, I figured I’d share this day and to applaud what I believe its success. Organized by the University of Nottingham Museum, Lakeside Arts Centre prepared itself for the descent of several professional and amateur historians, archaeologists and societies all seeking a day of knowledge and information pertaining history in particular to regards with the Nottinghamshire county. Supported by Thoroton Society and the Society for the Promotion of Roman studies the day included talks, videos, exhibitions, pottery handling and coins all found in Nottingham excavations. The entirety was a free drop-in event apart from the lectures which was ticketed due to limited seating and popularity.

David Knight of the Trent and Peak Archaeology Association kicked off the lectures introducing excavations sites and finds dating as far back as the Palaeolithic era across the county from Trent near Thrumpton, Bingham and Staythorpe. Due to time limitations he included one slide for each supposed era including Neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman and Medieval showing that Nottinghamshire as an area had been widely populated even from the earliest Hunter-Gatherer tribes. From here Knight passed the speech baton to five local societies to present their work the best of which were:

  • Bingham Heritage Trails – Peter Allen spoke of his amateur archaeologist society that focuses on the fields of Bingham Parish, namely within the Anglo-Saxon era.
  • Ice Age Journeys – Gwil Owen and the Farndon Archaeology Society are currently trying to prevent a new road being built across a field containing finds from the last Ice Age.
  • Nottinghamshire Local History Association – John Parker had been commissioned by the council to record all inscriptions on gravestones to preserve the information they contain on familial connections, historical preferences and religious connotations.

From here the day largely consisted of walking between rooms discovering the difficulties of bioarchaeological handling (bones and fauna), identification of medals and differences between different types of Roman and Medieval pottery. The best part of the day for me was the challenge to read inscriptions on Roman coins to dad and then define which emperor they would have circulated under, and this was difficult even with a Sherlockian magnifying glass, and getting them in the majority correct! For the very first time this event was held, it was not overly crowded; the spread of items included meant that there was easy access to all sections and a good chance to discuss pieces in detail without interruption. All the people involved were happy to talk and give historical background behind pieces, discuss how their society contributes to the Nottinghamshire historical and archaeological projects with many producing major publications on Roman and Medieval history within the East Midlands.

The busiest part that was full of slightly sunburnt historians was the displays and exhibitons set up by the societies in the Rehearsal Hall. The hall was invaded by 31 stands all attributed to different kinds of history such as a World War One hospital in an old manor house and archaeological groups dedicated to Mercia. The interactive exhibitions sold books, provided actual dirt from an archaeological dig and allowed you to design your own cave painting all while being provided with the ability to touch finds from digs, feel the edge of a Neolithic axe and cut out outfits to pin onto paper WW1 nurses and soldiers. Life Lines also brought the WW1 atmosphere to celebrate the centenary by allowing visitors to write on post-it notes sharing their family connections to the Nottingham Hussars Infantry which my own Dad was part of in the TA before leaving a career in the army.

All in all a good day and good first event for the Nottinghamshire locals who are interested in history. Apart from being stalked by a camera man which means Dad and I may end up on the cover of a paper this day would be worth a visit if interested in East Midland excavations or for just a day out if you are in the local area. I hope this event happens again so we can keep up with new finds each society creates and support the Ice Age team in preventing a road destroying a brilliant British archaeological field.

I include some of the societies who attended today for further information:

  • Roman Society
  • Council for British Archaeology
  • Nottingham Postcard Society
  • Southwell Burgage Earthworks Project
  • University Project in Southwell
  • Nottingham City Museum and Galleries
  • DH Lawrence Heritage
  • The Harley Gallery
  • Nottingham Local History Association
  • Friends of Toton Fields
  • Bramcote Old Church Tower Trust
  • Burton Joyce and Bulcote Local History Society
  • Life Lines
  • Mercian Archaeology

The Sherpa: victims of their own success?

Today I would like to provide you with some details about the Sherpa, one of the ethnic minorities living in republican China- around 2600 live in the People’s Republic of China, and there is a total of approximately 180.000 Sherpa in the world. The word Sherpa means people from the East, which makes reference to the area they live in. Most of the Sherpa live in the Himalayas, although they are starting to suffer the effects of migration attempting to obtain a better life. The Sherpas are presumed to have originally been a nomadic culture. It seems likely that the left their home lands in the Khan region in the 16th century for the Nepalese area due to warfare, hence why their language, despite being Tibetan, is not like that of the rest of the Nepalese society. The 18th century presence of the British in Daarjelin attracted the attention of many Sherpa, who offered their services to the Empire for seasonal employment and a chance of better income into their households. This was a very important factor in the development of what nowadays is the Sherpas best known activity: professional mountaineering.

Continue reading “The Sherpa: victims of their own success?”

Man Must Conquer Nature: Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Environment

Any explanation of the environmental problems of the world we live in falls short without a mention of China, be it climate change, ozone depletion or over-exploitation of natural resources. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s was an adventurous attempt to ‘conquer’ nature through human intervention, combining the repression of fellow humans with the repression of nature’s course. However, documentation of environmental changes during this ‘war against nature’ is sparse, and the sources that exist are often semi fictionalised to understate the truth of the damage that Mao’s Cultural Revolution inflicted upon the environment. Maoist thought suggested that the human race were fundamentally distinct from the natural world, and as such humans should mobilise to overcome the obstacles that nature places in their way.

Three Gorges Dam, photo from Wikipedia
Three Gorges Dam, photo from Wikipedia

Make The River Yield The Way

Mao put forward a defiant philosophy in 1958 – ‘make the high mountain bow its head, make the river yield the way’. China’s mission to conquer nature was carried out with military efficiency and accuracy, with families separated and entire towns dissolved in the name of a stronger China. The country’s water conservancy projects intended to keep up with the progress of the Soviet Union, and stated they only needed a further two years to catch up with Britain. The construction of the Red Flag Canal saw more earth moved in a single week in 1959 than the total moved to create the entire Panama Canal.

The hydraulic engineer Huang Wanli wrote that only 23 large and medium dams existed in China before the new government arrived in 1949, a figure which shot to 80,000 in the following 40 years, 2,976 of which had collapsed under nature’s strain. Wanli strongly opposed the plans to construct the Three Gorges Dam on the monstrous Yangtze River, predicting that the dam’s mechanisms would become blocked by the river’s natural siltation process, resulting in extreme flooding and devastation, but he was silenced. Marking the start of China’s boundless mission to control floods and install hydro-electric revolutionary projects which would eventually generate enough energy to power the entire of China, the dam was built regardless, and sure enough, the flooding and ecosystem damage that followed brought more financial damage and devastation than the government could have anticipated. The effects of widespread dam-building and well-digging, such as salinization and alkalinization of water tables are still felt by Chinese to this day in their quality of water and land conditions.

With Many People, Strength Is Great

The government prioritised production that would be maximised by the great population numbers, yet few government officials thought of the consequences. Public propaganda pushed the population in the direction of producing more children to boost the country’s military strength and consequent survival on the world stage. By 1952, all contraceptive devices disappeared from the market, mothers were rewarded with more ration coupons each time they produced a baby and celebrated as ‘mother heroes’ that were saving the country from war defeat. With the blame falling directly at Mao Zedong’s door, the slogan ‘with many people, strength is great’ rang across China since the communist party began. In 1954, Mao claimed that even with nuclear weapons, America could never wipe out China’s 9 million km of territory and 600 million strong population. The figure itself stunned the leadership who had left population numbers unsupervised since the communist success, and Mao later commented that there were so many Chinese people, it would soon be necessary to stand in line to take a walk.

An economist wrote in 1957 that the Chinese overpopulation was soon going to take its toll on the environment, yet this warning fell on deaf ears, and he was accused of supporting the suffering that came with a capitalist approach to government, and he was eventually forced out of his job. That year, the government took family planning measures to import contraception and allow birth control methods, but the action had been taken too late. The one child policy introduced in 1979 has still not saved China from this grave mistake, and to this day the country is still paying a fine price to reduce the drastic population numbers.

With Company They Grow Easily, When They Grow Together They Will Be Comfortable

Imported ‘scientific’ theories turned traditional rural customs on their heads and in 1958, farmers participated in great competition to beat each others’ grain yields, casting aside sustainable harvesting and common sense in an effort to reshape the nonhuman world. China had transformed nature to the point that the earth was producing more grain than could possibly be harvested and stored. Farmers were instructed to plough deeper than ever and plant crops closer to each other as a means of transforming the very soil to respond quicker and more efficiently, and the grain suffocated under the strain, rotting and contaminating the entire field. The Great Leap Forward instructed farmers to launch a direct attack upon the wild sparrows that had been apparently eating too much grain and reducing productivity, launching a mass cull of an innocent species.

Professor Hou Guangjun, a Sichuan teacher who offered ideas for ‘natural nonploughing’ to promote a revolutionary non-invasive approach to agriculture in the early 1950s, was targeted once the Great Leap began, on the grounds his ideas were counter-productive. If his methods had been adopted nationwide, lives would have been spared and land would have remained healthy for generations.

Greater, Faster, Better, More Economical

September 1958 saw the entire country mobilised to smelt steel and iron to meet impossibly high productivity targets, with villages constructing their own ‘backyard furnaces’ to sacrifice their own tools for the smelting of 10,700,000 tonnes of essentially wasted steel, which could not be forged into anything useful. By the close of 1958, 100 million peasants, one in six Chinese, participated under the gleaming promises of a Chinese utopia for all, beginning with the smelting of useful steel to create new tools. Relentless exertion and exhaustion in fear of falling behind on productivity targets or being seen by neighbours as lazy caused the deaths of countless numbers, including children. The pressure to produce a greater amount faster and better than one’s neighbours became too much. Forests were inevitably destroyed by the relentless need to fuel the furnaces, which naturally led to geographical erosion, desertification and climate change across China which transformed once healthy land into barren, unproductive earth. Some forests were never to return, as research in the late 1980s stated forested areas now claimed only 8 percent of Chinese land, down from 13 percent in 1949.

By the winter of 1958, the combination of both exerted harvest efforts and pointless steelworks resulted in the greatest man-made famine in history. The number of lives lost is uncertain, although historians estimate from 23 million to as much as 42 million from famine alone.

Get Grain From The Mountaintops, Get Grain From The Lakes

Dazhai terraces, photo from: Virtual Tourist
Dazhai terraces, photo from: Virtual Tourist

Under a policy of dogmatic uniformity, peasants were encouraged to remould the landscape, regardless of their geographical location and the specific needs of their land, so that land in the north looked and responded identically to land in the south. Across the nation, Chinese were called upon to recreate the example of Dazhai, a commune that left behind the devastation of natural disasters through self-reliance, refusing state compensations of grain while also promising to contribute its own significant figure of grain to the state. Through conquering nature by hand, Dazhai forged hills into stepped landscapes to maximise production potential. However, terracing of sloped land forced deforestation, and brought with it it erosion, sedimentation and ecosystem corrosion, while the transformation of lakes negatively impacted climates and forced widespread flooding. China’s landscape still suffers today from the irreparable damage of terraced slopes, yet these striking horizons appear as picturesque tourist attractions.

China’s misinformed past since the rise of communism in 1949 has irreparably impacted its climate and land conditions, and while China battles on, the nation will never forget the Cultural Revolution. It is impossible to determine the exact number of lives claimed by the Cultural Revolution in its entirety, but the natural as well as human devastation of the grand philosophy of Maoist thought is undeniable.


Elvin, Mark, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (London, 1973).

Shapiro, Judith, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, 2001).

A brief history of the Dodo – or, how one species came to be a Victorian environmental icon.


Sketches of the Dodo drawn from life on Mauritius for the Dutch East India Company, 1602. The famous “Gelderland” drawings are probably some of the most realistic that have survived for analysis. Picture Credit: V.O.C/Wikimedia Commons.

Within modern political discourse, concern for the environment is often unthinkingly assumed to stem from the first alarming North American ‘tipping points’ centring on the critical overexploitation of localities which occurred from 1950 to 1975, and arguably continues throughout the world today. In particular, this includes the identification of the loss of wildlife and biodiversity within exploited localities, exemplified by the research and prophesies of the first truly prominent environmental scientists such as Carson and Lovelock.

While the half-myth of this arbitrary scientific and philosophical genesis fits comfortably into a highly complex liberal consensus of the post-industrial and post-globalisation responsibilities of the state, space age anger only really constituted a revolution in environmental thought. Evidence of environmental concern over impact and biodiversity amongst technologically advanced civilizations far pre-dates the advent of D.D.T and O.P.E.C.

Stemming from the rational values of the European enlightenment, academia during the Industrial Revolution created clearly recognisable preliminaries of modern climatic and biological analysis, albeit devoid of a global perspective due to technical and societal constraints. The radical mid-eighteenth century theories of De Buffon tentatively began the process of assessing the environmental impact of humans in the Holocene in a way truly distinct from reliance on the interpretative Early Modern ‘Great Chain of Being.’ Naïve sources from the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’ also provide us with further unique perspectives on first encounters within the “natural laboratories” of remote islands, through an arguably anthropological filter. These have proved exceptionally useful to scientists and historians alike in reconstructing the irrevocable alteration of ecosystems.

There is a lot to be learnt from examining both the environmental methodology and mistakes of the past. Yet amongst the historiography and popular culture of environmentalist forethought within historical biology, the exemplary case study has been that of the Mauritian Dodo. Iconic to the point of being instantly recognisable, the Dodo enjoys a privileged position as the nominal ‘poster species’ for biodiversity loss and mass extinction.

Raphus cucullatus has become an enigmatic and enduring symbol of unnecessary destruction. A humble tropical, flightless pigeon has helped to cast a long shadow of doubt over humanities ultimate role in the world into modernity, from an iota of first hand experience.The ultimate environmental moral of this avian martyr to colonisation and development is contained in how few first hand accounts are available. Between initial settlement in 1598 and c.1681, the species constituted a mere ornithological curiosity amongst the literate classes and (more frequently) a source of easy game meat for the seaborne working on Mauritius until c.1638, when the surviving population probably moved inland.

Competition from imported mammals such as the common rat probably proved highly detrimental, but this is hard to absolutely prove in the wake of extremely poor observation. In the absence of a typically dense breeding population, the Dodo went into terminal decline. Within one hundred years of settlement and regular human contact, the species was extinct.

These apathetic attitudes that aided the eradication of the Dodo are bitterly reflected in the small amount of surviving historical evidence. Most reasonably reliable written sources derive from the Dutch East India company, and can be comfortably listed within a single article. Regardless, these existing accounts are often ambiguous, factually flawed when cross-referenced or fundamentally erratic in nature, complicating analysis.

Physical remains are also astoundingly scarce; only two recent Holocene skeletal specimens (the Ashmole and Thirioux deposits) are known to have survived into the twentieth century in Oxford, England and Port Louis, Mauritius. Additionally, most sketches and paintings from life or carcass are confined to a very small number of examples from a four decade window of Dutch art, with the (likely inaccurate) works of Savery dominating.


Savery’s imagined sketch of three Dodo birds foraging, c.1626. The unrealistically fat Dodos depicted probably stemmed from observation of one of the very few birds to survive transportation to the courts of Europe, far removed from their natural habitat and diet. Picture credit: Wikimedia commons.

With the addition of enduring and popular misconceptions, it is understandable that the average modern mental picture of the Dodo is probably woefully inaccurate, and the scientific one inevitably flawed to some degree. For example, it is a widespread assumption that the Dodo was an ungainly and obese bird as in the drawings of Sir John Tenniel despite more recent scientific evidence pointing towards the Dodo being closer to an athletic scavenger. Even within more academic texts, speculation and logical conjuncture still abound in discussions of the Dodo. Despite approximately two centuries of fossil interest, we still do not know the precise diet, morphology, behavioural patterns and definitive cause of extinction for the Dodo, as palaeontology cannot substitute fully for direct zoological observation.

It is unsurprising therefore that the majority of the European academic community outside of Britain during the early eighteenth century seemed to have held the Dodo to be pure myth, or at best a subject of contentious validity in biological science. However, the late eighteenth and nineteenth century provided a redemption, and posthumous recognition for the species. A combination of French scientific radicalism and the subsequent English biological revolution (encompassing the theories and work of Lamarck and Darwin) marked a change in fortune for the bird.

As speculation over the impact of the increasingly adept and sprawling European civilizations grew, political upheaval resulted in Mauritius being annexed in 1814 as a British outpost during the Napoleonic conflict. This coincidental event that had the fortunate side effect of greatly assisting the research into historical Dutch settlement of the British intellectual elite, a group that already possessed the only reliable and tangible Dodo remains in Europe. An increasing interest in biological adaptation and variations within fossil material from the 1830’s thus led to Strickland and Melville’s gradual assembling of their exhaustively researched “Dodo scrapbook” from which the vast majority of our primary sources are still derived.

Subsequent osteological dissection undertaken by Strickland and Melville in 1848 of the cranium (from part of the Ashmolean Dodo, the rest bar a foot having been unfortunately incinerated by Oxford curators in 1755) and of post-cranial anatomy by Owen et al from the Clark deposit of fossil remains in 1866 greatly furthered attempts to biologically define and identify the Dodo. Through Owen reconstructing an anatomical frame by juxtaposing the skeleton onto the surviving works of Savery, a rudimentary working model of Dodo physiology and morphology was created, proving the existence and subsequent demise of the Dodo beyond reasonable doubt. This combination of biological science, palaeontology and historical research within both art and literature helped to enshrine the Dodo as an inarguably evident example within wider nineteenth century theories of extinction.

Alongside other examples of vanished fauna examined by the scientific community in the wake of Darwin (such as Steller’s Seacow and the Great Auk) the Dodo contributed greatly towards proving indisputably that human impact can influence an ecosystem to the point of obliterating an entire species. Following the publication of these respective and quietly extraordinary monographs in the midst of rapidly emerging radical work by Darwin, Huxley and Wallace, the Dodo increasingly became something of a minor Victorian celebrity.

Most famously of all, Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) was directly inspired by the Dodo’s increasing academic fame and a contemporary display accompanying the remains at the Ashmolean. Dodgson popularised and personified the Dodo in 1865 within Alice in Wonderland, using the (then) ungainly and ridiculous figure as an allegorical vessel for self insertion into his playfully absurd world. This appearance helped to make the Dodo a common point of reference within both the United Kingdom and America.

In the words of Nicholas Pike (writing in 1873) “Everyone has heard all about the Dodo…1” testifying to the extraordinary impact of a fairly obscure biological quandary in middle class culture within the English-speaking world. As well as the obvious metaphorical appeal of its unfortunate demise, the absurd, grotesque and oddly named bird lent itself well to becoming an object of romantic and patronising affection for the educated Victorian public, analogous perhaps to penguins today. This has had long-lasting effects. As well as the obvious environmental fable, the Dodo retains an undeniable popularity amongst authors with a decidedly phantasmagorical focus. Successful writers from Adams to Fforde have used the bird to flavour their surreal plots.


Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustration of the Dodo, 1865. Picture credit: The Victorian Web, Educational/Academic use only.

While literature and popular culture undoubtedly transformed some general attitudes towards nature, this new scientific knowledge contributed to more serious protective measures in law. Although we should not confuse Victorian legislation with measures aimed at global protection, it is both notable and fitting that Mauritius became the first country in the world to enact legislation restricting hunting of specific species in 1878, in light of this new narrative of concern over excessive natural exploitation. Many other species have since vanished worldwide through the impact of humanity but this can be seen as the start of a long road towards conservation and protection within British territory, one which would be paralleled in America and Australasia as species became accidentally outmoded by increased human settlement and technological development.

The Dodo is but one part of several larger narratives, in that it is both an object of scientific and historical interest and a moral warning from history. While the arguments for retaining our natural environment are far too complex to go into here, to write off the loss of the Dodo as an acceptable casualty of modernity would be enormously callous considering the highly interconnected nature of natural life cycles and the loss to the human experience that each extinct species represents.

However, the Dodo may not stay permanently extinct. Recent developments and advancements in genetics have opened up the serious possibility of redressing this historical injustice in the near future, either out of scientific or moral interest. It is highly possible that within the next century (pending investment and clearance) the Dodo will live once again via genetic reconstruction and cloning. This would constitute a fitting final chapter for a noble (if poorly adaptable) species that has suffered so much unnecessary persecution both intellectually and physically through ignorance.

Further materials of interest.

Strickland and Melville published their findings (along with illustrations and additional research) for public consumption in 1848. It is now possible read and download the classic The dodo and its kindred online here as a result of the generosity of the various benefactors of Biodiversity Heritage library collection.

1 Checke, Anthony S. and Turvey, Samuel T.,  ‘Dead as a dodo: the fortuitous rise to fame of an extinction icon,’ Historical Biology, Vol. 20, No. 2, (June 2008) 149–163.


Checke, Anthony S. and Turvey, Samuel T., ‘Dead as a Dodo: the fortuitous rise to fame of an extinction icon,’ Historical Biology, Vol. 20, No. 2, (June 2008) 149–163.

Hume, J.P., Cheke, A.S., and McOran-Campbell, A., ‘How Owen ‘stole’ the Dodo: academic rivalry and disputed rights to a newly-discovered subfossil deposit in nineteenth century Mauritius,’ Historical Biology, Vol. 21, No. 1–2, March–June, (2009) 33–49.

Hume, Julian P., ‘The history of the Dodo Raphus cucullatus and the penguin of Mauritius,’ Historical Biology, Vol.18, No.2, (2006) 65–89

Nicholls, Henry, ‘Digging for Dodo,’ Nature, Vol. 443, Sep., (2006) 138-140.

Environmental Change and the Holocene

As you already know, our theme for the month is environmental history. This is a subject I have come across not that long ago, and I personally enjoyed it so much I proposed it for the blog! I think considering the times we are living in the environment is something to keep present in our minds. Environmental change is inherent to the nature and dynamics of the world: it influences us in the same way we alter it, so I think that makes it a very interesting historical approach.

Anyway, this post will briefly mention the general environmental conditions of the Holocene, and particularly the Mesolithic. [Why?…Well…why not? Who does not like a bit of pre-history 🙂 ] I find it interesting that most of the data and information we know from the pre-historical period does come mainly from natural sciences like biology and geology. It is true much anthropological work has been done lately, but perhaps we suffer from the lack of big serious archaeological/historical/humanities-social sciences investigations about this subject…Even a greater reason to dedicate this entry to this particular period!

Continue reading “Environmental Change and the Holocene”

Natural and Man-Made Environmental Disasters

As part of our Environmental History month on the blog, I am going to discuss the effects of man-made and natural disasters and the effect that these types of environments have on society. There have been many well-documented instances of both natural and man-made disasters and I intend to draw the attention to two from each category.

Natural Disasters:

Shaanxi Earthquake, China
In 1556, one of the most devastating earthquakes tore through Shaanxi in central China, killing nearly 1,000,000 people. This region of China has boiling summers and freezing winters, so to try to accommodate a home for both extremes, the Chinese started to burrow into the hillsides, a tradition which has been maintained for over 2,000 years. The soil is soft and can be tunnelled through, sometimes to depths of hundreds of metres in order to build yaodongs (caves). However, as the soil is so light, it means that it is highly unstable and can collapse easily; these structures would therefore not survive the earthquake of 1556. Estimates on the modern scale put the earthquake at around an 8.0 magnitude and everything within 1,300sqkm was destroyed, landslides were triggered on the hillsides and therefore the yaodongs were completely compressed. Accounts from the time described scenes of mountains and rivers changing places and roads being destroyed. In some places the ground rose up creating new hills, or sank abruptly creating new valleys. In today’s society, there are close to 40,000,000 people still living in these caves and it begs the question, if 1,000,000 died 450 years ago, how many would perish today if history was to repeat itself. This may not have been the biggest earthquake, but it was responsible for the deaths of the most people killed by an earthquake.

Mount Vesuvius, Italy
On an early August morning in 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted. An eyewitness account from Pliny the Younger was the only surviving written evidence of this eruption and since, many geologists and volcanologists have visited the buried towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum to study the sites. Vesuvius spewed toxic clouds of ash, gas and fumes to a height of 20.5 miles and released around a hundred times more thermal energy than the atomic bomb, killing an estimated 16,000 and leaving towns still today, perfectly preserved in their natural state since the eruption. The main cause of death was due to the hydrothermal pyroclastic flows; these were fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock which can reach up to 450mph and tend to flow down the volcano and across the ground if there is not sufficient heat to carry the plume upwards. There was no possible way for the majority of lives to have been saved without modern technology to detect unusual volcanic activity. Pliny the Younger reports that minor tremors in the region ‘were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania’. However, there were a series of small earthquakes leading up to the supposed date of the eruption and locals may have noted the strengthening of the tremors, not the possible outcome. ‘It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.’ (Pliny the Younger)

Man-Made Disasters:

Christopher Columbus, the New World
In the 1490s, Christopher Columbus was given financial support from Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain to go on a voyage to discover the East Indies. However, before he reached his destination, he came across the Americas – a land those in Europe had never before discovered (at least that had been documented), and so Columbus aptly named it the ‘New World’. His discovery of the Americas spans from 1492-1504, where he makes four voyages, the last in 1502 reaching the mainland.
Columbus said of the Indians: ‘So tractable, so peaceful are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is no better nation on earth. They love their neighbours as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile.’ However, although stating that they would make excellent slaves, the Caribbean natives were nearly exterminated by the extreme brutality of the colonists and the impact of diseases of which they had no resistance – the first epidemic of smallpox in Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti) in 1507 was said to have wiped out entire communities. This forced the Spanish to venture further into mainland America in search of slaves.

Conquistadors, Mexico
In 1519, the Conquistadors began the massacre of Southern and Meso-Americans. Cortes was elected Captain of the third expedition to the mainland – however, at the last-minute, orders were revoked for the potential colonisation of Mexico. Cortes ignored the orders and in an act of open mutiny, arrived in Mexico with around 500 men. Cortes ensured he had allies within the Aztec population and through these he learnt of the treasures of their people, but also the horrors. The act of ritual sacrifice, which became the defining feature of Mexican civilisation, came as a shock to Cortes and his men. A local rebellion triggered the extermination of the Aztec empire. However, before torturing and killing Montezuma (the Aztec emperor) and seizing Mexico City in 1521, Cortes made several attempts to convert him to Christianity, as if this could justify the entire conquest. Before 1519, the population was estimated to be around 12 million, however in 1600, there were only 1 million. The three main reasons were deliberate mass murder – scourging for treasures locals would not relinquish or rebellions that could not be quashed through anything but death. Death as a result of forced labour and malnourishment and as Todorov states, the natives were in ‘microbe shock’ by which the majority of the population were infected and died off.

These are only a few examples of both natural and man-made disasters. Today, men are still engaging in the most destructive of man-made disasters; war. Each day spent fighting against one another is another day changing the environment and the society that surrounds it. There is no disaster that can be classed as more destructive than the next, each in their own time had a massive effect on the environment, and therefore it makes it impossible to judge literally. However, humanely, man-made disasters are the worst, purposefully creating havoc and causing death is never the answer when trying to gain authority. To conclude, it is easy to sit and judge which disaster caused more destruction than another, however, I think it is more important to take from this a history lesson. If changes in the first century, even in the 1500s to the environment were anything to go by, imagine the damage that is being caused today.