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The Vertical Globe: Altitude and Science in the Exploration of the Himalaya, 1800-1850



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Fleetwood, Lachlan   ORCID logo


In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Himalaya were finally being recognised as the highest mountains on the globe. Simultaneously, they were becoming the insecure northern frontier of the East India Company’s burgeoning Indian empire. This thesis examines the scientific, political and imaginative understandings of the Himalaya that emerged from this context. It traces two overlapping sets of arguments through the mountains. Firstly, it examines the laboriousness of scientific practice in the high spaces of the Himalaya, and the inherent dependency of European surveyors and naturalists on pre-existing networks of labour and expertise. Secondly, it details the role of global comparison in the rise of verticality as a framework for understanding both human and nonhuman worlds.

The thesis consists of five thematic chapters, each of which deals with a different type of science: measurement, physiology, geology, botany, and biogeography. By addressing a range of interrelated sciences rather than focusing on only one, it becomes possible to explain how the mountains became both spaces and subjects of scientific practice. Methodologically, the five chapters do so by examining the practical aspects of doing science in remote and often topographically challenging locations. They concentrate especially on the moments that instruments, bodies and practices broke down, which are revealing of the social relationships that underpinned the knowledge they produced. A close focus is also maintained on everyday interactions between travellers and their guides (especially Bhotiya, Tartar, and Lepcha), which often highlight the limits of imperial mastery.

Tracing the reconfiguration of these networks and practices ultimately reveals the many ways that the mountains were rendered as marginal spaces in this period in relation to lowland norms. More broadly, this thesis demonstrates the value of using geographical features as sites and scales for histories that transcend traditional national and area studies framings. By placing mountains at the centre of the analysis, it shows that travellers in the Himalaya were constantly measuring their experiences against expectations arising from the Alps and the Andes. It thus offers a methodology for examining the formation of what were inherently both sciences of the globe and global sciences in practice. At the same time, it shows that these global comparisons could be contradictory, often only adding to scientific and imperial uncertainties. Ultimately, this thesis thus argues that we need to pay attention to disconnection as much as connection in the making of supposedly global categories in the nineteenth century.





Sivasundaram, Sujit


biogeography, borderlands, botany, brokers, empire, environment, frontiers, geology, global history, global science, Himalaya, historical geography, India, indigenous knowledge, physiology, scientific instruments, scientific practice, mountains, South Asia, surveying


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge