Prize Nominations For The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution

Professor Alison Bashford’s book The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution (Allen Lane/University of Chicago Press) has been longlisted for two awards: the 2023 Cundill History Prize and the 2023 Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award, and shortlisted for the British Society for the History of Science’s 2023 Hughes Prize.

Bashford’s book charts 200 years of modern science and culture through the Huxley family.

The respective long and short lists for these awards are available by following the links below:

2023 Cundill History Prize Longlist

2023 Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award

British Society for the History of Science, Hughes Prize Shortlist

For more details about The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution, or to purchase a copy of the book, visit the University of Chicago Press website.

Update: 4 September 2023, The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution has now been shortlisted for the Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award.

Update: 28 September 2023, The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution has now been shortlisted for the Cundill History Prize.

The World at Six Billion

By Priyanka Nandy, 23 November 2022

‘The Day of the Six Billion’ – observed by the United Nation on 12 October 1998 – came twelve short years after the five-billion mark, making it the fastest recorded billion-growth at the time. Eventually, both the seventh and eighth billion would take twelve years each as well, tying with the sixth for the ‘fastest billionth’ spot. 

Cracks in the fear of ‘overpopulation’

With longitudinal datasets and more robust demographic modelling, the six-billion milestone marked the first cracks in global anxiety about rapid and unchecked population growth. “Never before have birthrates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, all around the world,” the Washington Post stated, quoting the otherwise-conservative demographer Ben Wattenberg.

Writing simultaneously, the New York Times remarked that “six billion actually represents significant progress in reducing birth rate [in a single generation]” – from 2.8 to 1.6 in industrialised nations, and 6.2 to below 3 in the developing world. “This scenario,” it asserts, “is a far cry from the dire predictions about the population explosion commonly made in the 1960s.”

Indeed, in September of that year the NYT published a rather acerbic piece titled, “Why Malthus was Wrong”, declaring that Malthusian fears of population-doubling and resource-scarcity were “an enduring source of error and self-bamboozlement”. The persistent “spectre of overpopulation”, it said, could no longer be supported by demographic data.

“Never before have birthrates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, all around the world”

Ben Wattenberg, cited in the Washington Post, 7 February 1999

What led to falling fertility? Women, Population, and Development

“One of the great lessons learned in the past three decades,” notes a NYT opinion-piece on the sixth billion, “is that controlling population growth is inextricably tied to development strategies that improve gender equity… and give women more economic power.”

This realisation had a rather slow history. Despite an ongoing parallel discourse on women’s rights (including the establishment of International Women’s Year, World Conferences on Women, and the UN Decade for Women), for several postwar decades women from the global south were chiefly seen as recipients of food-aid, contraceptives, and quota-driven sterilisation. Even development-focused family-planning movements, as represented by the International Conferences on Population and Development, limited themselves to “simply doling out contraceptives” or meeting sterilisation-quotas (Washington Post 1999). Southern women’s agency within the ‘population control’ process was either not acknowledged or defined, much less operationalised.

Movements that did focus on women’s economic emancipation, on the other hand, failed to take into account the added burden of their reproductive labour. The pivotal WID-WAD-GAD movement of women-centric development, for example – kickstarted within the UN infrastructure by Ester Boserup’s seminal Women’s Role in Economic Development and spanning the fourth, fifth, and sixth-billion milestones – was severely criticised during its first two phases (WID, WAD) for failing to acknowledge the effect that traditional gendered labour had on women’s reproductive autonomy.

The mid-1990s saw “no less than a revolution” in these attitudes. The 1994 Cairo Conference explicitly connected the threads of poverty, unpaid gendered labour, gender-unequal access to education and employment and gendered violence, to women’s lack of agency in reproduction. As a solution, it removed such prescriptive measures as national sterilisation quotas, and refocused fertility-interventions on girls’ education, women’s employment, combatting violence against women, improving outcomes in maternal and child health, and promoting family-planning education in addition to distributing contraceptives. The year after the sixth-billion mark, many of these goals were incorporated into the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Inequality at 6 billion: Lingering concerns

While sustained global activism in the area of gender equality did bring about the “revolutionary” and “ambitious” changes of the Cairo Conference (Washington Post 1999), the sixth-billion milestone also raised concerns about a deeply-unequal world’s ability to meet them. The Washington Post noted grimly that in the five years since Cairo, “the world has made no dent in maternal deaths” and that there is “considerable resistance in many countries to… boosting the status of women”. The New York Times shares this view, emphasising that nearly 600,000 women still die annually during pregnancy because of inadequate awareness and access to health services, and 350 million have no access to effective contraception at all.

The overriding concern, however, was the “massive shortfall in funding” – owing in part to the Asian economic crisis, in part to “anti-abortion forces in the [United States] congress… holding up funding for international family planning” (NYT 1999), but chiefly – the WaPo suggests – to the “the world’s richest countries” seeing the ‘population problem’ as an issue for the global south to solve, and paying less than one-third of their pledge in Cairo. Unless these pledges are paid in full, both pieces warned, “the next billion people may be consigned to lives of privation in countries where resources are already stretched to the limit (NYT 1999)”, becoming “a major threat to health, the environment… and the world economy” (WaPo 1999).

Democracy or authoritarianism?

An interesting footnote to this multifaceted discussion is a debate on modes of governance. In her piece on India and China at the sixth billion, NYT’s UN Bureau Chief Barbara Crossette wondered if democracy is as good for the global south as it is for “the Free World”. “Democratic India has not delivered on its promise of a better life for most Indians,” she noted, whereas “authoritarian China has done much better on that score”. Similarly, she suggested, military rule in Bangladesh and Indonesia had enforced development and family-planning programmes, whereas in a democracy “such measures have to have some popular support”. Referring to Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom, Crossette seems to suggest that authoritarian regimes that impose development as a form of freedom on its citizens might be preferable to a government that has to convince its politically-free citizens to vote for their own improvement.

Coming as it did at the conclusion of an unprecedented period of fighting for gendered liberty, empowerment and equal rights, this was certainly an interesting hypothesis, and one that would gain considerable political mileage in the decades to come.

Priyanka Nandy is a PhD candidate at the Laureate Centre for History and Population, UNSW Sydney.

Cover image: Karl Maria Stadler (1888-1943), Deutsch: Plakat der Frauenbewegung zum Frauentag 8. März 1914. Es wird das Frauenwahlrecht gefordert. English: Poster for Women’s Day, March 8, 1914, demanding voting rights for women. (Public Domain). Available:

The World at 5 Billion

Priyanka Nandy, 16 November 2022

‘The Day of Five Billion’ – marked on 11 July 1987, and celebrated as World Population Day since 1989 – was the first precisely-dated population milestone that was predicted before it happened. The third and fourth billion milestones, in 1960 and 1974 respectively, had not been attached to a specific date (indeed, per the United Nations, not even to a specific month). 

Retrospectively, 1987 also marked the end of the postwar “global baby boom”: a period between 1950 and 1987 where global population doubled faster than ever recorded in human history – from two-and-a-half billion to five billion in just thirty-seven years. The previous doubling (one to two billion) had taken one hundred and twenty-three years. The next doubling (three to six billion) took only a year longer, but the doubling after that (four to eight billion) took forty-eight years – a significant lengthening.  

The fifth billion was also the first population milestone that marked a small—but very significant— departure from the authoritarian birth-control discourse surrounding population growth in the forties, fifties and sixties.

Before the 5 Billion: Contradictions, confusion, and bias-afflicted science

In the fifties and sixties, existing fears of a neoMalthusian ecological apocalypse – triggered in popular consciousness by Fairfield Osborn’s and William Vogt’s 1948 popular-science bestsellers, Our Plundered Planet and Road to Survival – were further propagated by the pamphleteering of Hugh Everett Moore (“The Population Bomb!”), evocative human-interest stories of population and poverty (see, for instance, the Times cover story from 11 January 1960, “Population: A Numbers Game”), and alarmist science-adjacent literature such as William and Paul Paddock (Famine 1976!), Heinz von Foerster’s doomsday equation (which predicted an uncountable, infinite population on Earth by 2026), and, of course, Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb – labelled by the Smithsonian Magazine as “the book that incited a worldwide fear of population”.

The general fear of “overpopulation” was compounded by the specific fear that “Afro-Asian nations in the U.N.” – many of which were impoverished postcolonies with large populations – would “turn more violently against the West” unless they were “pacified with rapid economic help” (Times 1960). There were further concerns that any attempts at encouraging birth control in these “poor nations” would be met with religious and cultural resistance. Indeed, fear of local aggression (or ill-informed recalcitrance, or both) featured prominently in most discourses of demography and development, such as land-engineering for the purposes of population redistribution. Populating “vast tracts of [fertile] empty land” – such as the jungles of Amazon, Sumatra, or Uganda – with ‘excess’ non-white population was a popular idea during this period, as was the idea of forcibly relocating people from their traditional communities to commercial farms as labourers (Times 1960). All of these were conceptualised as tools of greater global good, and local communities’ resistance to them often inspired harsh responses, such as the Paddocks’ and Ehrlichs’ idea of triage: letting the poorest populations, incapable of feeding themselves, starve to death.

In the seventies, however, both anglophone academia and media were influenced by the emerging concept of political ecology – a framework of analysis that focused on the political and socioeconomic roots of global ecological degradation. During the seventies and eighties, the framework revisited demographic alarmism through the lens of material consumption, and demonstrated that the carbon footprint of the global north was at least as draining to the environment as overpopulation in the global south.

A transition to new ideas of power, politics, and population

By 1987, many of the older ideas had been retired from mainstream media. Population in China remained a central concern for the American media, whether it was concern for a re-rise in its population, short histories of its one child policy, or its social ramification. But the core of the conversation had begun a slow pivot towards the environmental consequences of mass-consumption. Environmentalist Norman Myers, in his Guardian piece on the five-billion milestone, is firm about dispelling the prevalent idea that the impoverished billions are responsible for destabilising global ecology. Using the five-billionth baby as an illustration of unequal access and unequal capacity for environmental damage – and also for underlining the difference between resource use and resource wastage – Myers points out that if the baby is born American, then “it would waste more energy in its lifetime than 20 Kenyans would ever consume”. By implication, if born Kenyan, they would have no opportunity to participate in such wastefulness.

Beneath these new empirical attitudes, however, traces of older fears are still visible. Though asserting that the greenhouse effect has been caused entirely by western “fossil fuel binge” and industrial farming, Myers reverts to population control – and only population control – as its solution. And he frames this solution in words that are strongly reminiscent of the Times’ fears of “Afro-Asian countries”. Estimating that meeting global contraceptive needs amounts to only one-third of one day’s global military spending, he asks his western readers, “Which would buy us more all-round security?”

And thus the growing population of the global south is reframed, even within a discourse of ‘modern’ environmental thinking, as a biosecurity risk.

In our discussion of future population milestones, we shall explore how – if at all – this anxiety of being numerically, economically, and culturally overwhelmed has affected global population policy, and how it has interacted with other demographic determinants.

Priyanka Nandy is a PhD Candidate at the Laureate Centre for History and Population, UNSW Sydney.

Cover image: Unsplash.

Calls for a ‘One-Child Policy’ in India are Misguided at best, and Dangerous at Worst

Aprajita Sarcar, UNSW Sydney and Joel Wing-Lun, UNSW Sydney. First published in the Conversation, 15 November 2022.

India will surpass China as the country with the world’s largest population in 2023, according to the United Nations World Population Prospects 2022 report.

The UN also projects the global population has reached eight billion as of Tuesday.

As early as March 2022, reports circulated on Chinese social media that India’s population had already surpassed China’s, though this was later dispelled by experts.

Women in India today are having fewer children than their mothers had. But despite a lower fertility rate, the country’s population is still growing.

The idea the country should adopt something like China’s former “one-child policy” has been moving from the fringe to the political mainstream.

But the notion that India should emulate China’s past population policies is misguided at best, and dangerous at worst.

Both countries are struggling with the legacy of harsh population policies, and stricter population controls in India could have disastrous consequences for women and minority communities.

Given Australia’s growing ties to India, it should be concerned about what population policy could mean for the erosion of democratic norms in India.

Unintended consequences

India implemented the world’s first national family planning program in 1952. The birthrate began to drop, but only gradually, and family sizes remained stubbornly high. The government then implemented widespread forced sterilisation particularly of Muslims and the urban poor, especially during “The Emergency” years of 1975-77.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, infant mortality dropped significantly. Between 1950 and 1980, China’s population almost doubled. The “one-child policy” – limiting births per couple through coercive measures – was implemented in the early 1980s, and fertility dropped dramatically.

In both India and China, these population policies had unintended consequences.

In China, the government found that once fertility rates dropped, they were faced with an ageing population. Even after relaxing birth control policies to allow all couples to have two children in 2015, and three children in 2021, birth rates remain low, particularly among the urban middle class favoured by the government.

In both countries, skewed sex ratios caused by sex selective abortions have led to a range of social problems, including forced marriages and human trafficking.

China has found that despite reversing course, it cannot undo this rapid demographic transition. Urban, middle-class couples face mounting financial pressure, including the cost of raising children and of caring for the elderly. While the government has encouraged “high quality” urban women to give birth, rural and minority women are still discouraged from having more children.

As in China, in some states in India, women’s education and their aspirations for their children have contributed to lower birth rates. Like China, these states now face an ageing population. Birth rates in other states with high Muslim populations have also declined, but at a slower rate.

Unfair impact

Despite declining birth rates, some politicians have advocated for the adoption of something like China’s former one-child policy in northern states with large Muslim populations. These calls have less to do with demographic reality, and more to do with majoritarian Hindu nationalist concerns around Muslim and “lower-caste” fertility.

The worry here is that the coming population milestone will push India to adopt knee-jerk population policies. These could in turn unfairly affect women and minorities.

Four Indian states with large Muslim populations have already passed versions of a “two-child policy”. What’s more, built into many of these policies are incentives for families to have just one child. And in 2021, a senior government minister proposed a national “one-child” policy.

Like past population control policies, they’re targeted at Muslim and lower-caste families, and illustrate a broader Hindu nationalist agenda with anti-democratic tendencies.

As happened at the height of China’s one-child policy, Indians could lose government jobs and more if such laws were passed at the national level. Some Indian states and municipalities have already legislated that people with more than two children are ineligible for government jobs and to stand for political office.

The irony is that India’s birth rate and the size of families are decreasing because of women’s own reproductive choices. Many women are getting surgical contraception after having two children (or after having a son).

However, financial inducements for doctors and the women means poorer women are pressured to undergo these procedures.

In other words, the trend in India is towards smaller families already. As the 2022 UN report itself notes, no drastic intervention from the state is required.The Conversation

Aprajita Sarcar, Laureate Postdoctoral Fellow, UNSW Sydney and Joel Wing-Lun, Lecturer in History and Asian Studies, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover image by author.

New Publication: Alison Bashford, An Intimate History of Evolution

Laureate Centre Director, Professor Alison Bashford, has just launched her latest book, An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family.

Out with Allen Lane, this work charts 200 years of modern science and culture through the family history of the Huxley family.

“Full of surprises on every page, this book makes you wonder why all history can’t have the engaging intimacy of a novel. Bashford brilliantly marries intellectual history with the story of four generations of a great family in a literary tour de force.”


About the book:

In his early twenties, poor, racked with depression, stranded in the Coral Sea on the seemingly endless survey mission of HMS Rattlesnake, hopelessly in love with the young Englishwoman Henrietta Heathorn, Thomas Henry Huxley was a nobody. And yet together he and Henrietta would return to London and go on to found one of the great intellectual and scientific dynasties of their age.

The Huxley family through four generations profoundly shaped how we all see ourselves. In innumerable fields observing both nature and culture, they worked as scientists, novelists, mystics, film-makers, poets and – perhaps above all – as public lecturers, educators and explainers.

Their speciality was evolution in all its forms – at the grandest level of species, deep time, the Earth, and at the most personal and intimate. They shaped great organizations – the Natural History Museum, Imperial College, the London Zoo, UNESCO, the World Wildlife Fund – and they shaped fundamentally how we see ourselves, as individuals and as a species, one among many.

But perhaps their greatest subject was themselves. Alison Bashford’s marvellously engaging and original new book interweaves the Huxleys’ momentous public achievements with their private triumphs and tragedies. The result is the history of a family, but also a history of humanity grappling with its place in nature. This book shows how much we owe – for better or worse – to the unceasing curiosity, self-absorption and enthusiasms of a small, strange group of men and women.

For more details, or to purchase a copy of the book, click here.

Rethinking Population in an Age of Revolution, 23-24th June Conference Recap

Over Thursday 23rd and Friday 24th June, the Laureate Centre for History and Population hosted a conference on population theory in the age of revolutions – part of an ongoing project led by Laureate Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Stephen Pascoe.

The project, “Rethinking Population in an Age of Revolution,” interrogates how we might make sense of the revival of interest in the population question during the late revolutionary age. It considers the emergence of key texts in the production of knowledge about population – penned by such thinkers as Malthus, Volney, and Adam Smith – and explores how the production of demography in diverse contexts around the world was shaped by the profound global upheaval of this period. The revolutionary moment of the 1770s and 1780s had remade conceptions of citizenship and subjecthood, and of populations and states, from North America to France to Haiti and beyond. By the late 1790s, revolutionary fervour continued in some parts of the world, while reactionary politics had emerged elsewhere.

As a first stage in the collaborative project, this two-day workshop brought together scholars of the Middle East, the Caribbean, India, and of the British and French empires. Participants examined how emergent ideas of statecraft, population and empire took expression in this revolutionary moment, reflecting on how the population question shaped the struggles over land and territory in this period, from Egypt, Ireland, the Antilles, India, to North America and contested territories beyond.

Through such case studies, participating scholars considered how conceptions of the domain of the social, and of “the people” were reconfigured in this period. This allowed reflection on the ways in which new imaginaries of population, against the backdrop of revolutionary, anti-revolutionary and postrevolutionary debates, shaped concern for the government of life, in both metropolitan and colonial spaces.

Plans are now underway to produce a special journal edition based on this productive exchange of ideas. This will be led by Stephen Pascoe (Laureate Centre for History & Population, UNSW) and Professor Ian Coller (University of California, Irvine), who will work together to further elaborate the key themes of the collection. Publication of the special issue is anticipated for mid-2023.

You can read more about this project, and view the full program by clicking here.

What We’re Reading: Dr Chi Chi Huang and Dr Aprajita Sarcar on Clarke and Haraway (eds.), Making Kin Not Population

In March 2022, the Laureate Centre reading group discussed Adele E. Clarke and Donna Haraway’s edited volume, Making Kin Not Population: Reconceiving Generations (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2018). Here, Dr Chi Chi Huang and Dr Aprajita Sarcar reflect on that conversation.

Dr Chi Chi Huang & Dr Aprajita Sarcar, 22 June 2022

Making Kin Not Population falls within a long legacy of writing about population with immediacy. Taking the form of a pamphlet, this co-edited volume echoes the sense of urgency common to the western tradition of writing on population planning. Yet, the approach of the authors in this volume differs to previous generations of advocates of population alarmism working in the tradition of Paul Ehlrich. Taking a step away from providing demographic modelling, these scholars provide their own visions of how “making kin” is the solution the problem of overpopulation. The volume’s biggest contribution is that it is an outcome of an ongoing conversations: the authors are not in consonance in the way they think of kin but united in the way they envision life without the need to register and document procreation.

Yu-Ling Huang and Chia-Ling Wu’s chapter bring an East Asian perspective into this conversation, a geography where it is the problem of underpopulation, not overpopulation, that concerns governments and policy makers. In this context, making kin involves 緣-making (yuan in Chinese) for the authors. “Understanding relationships between interdependent people”, they argue, “thrive[s] both within and outside marriage and family” (142). Fate and serendipity have been integral to the notion of 緣, but they are sidelined in Huang and Wu’s intervention. This is purposeful to emphasise that active engagement is required to reconfigure thinking about population outside of marriage and family. To illustrate this, Huang and Wu select examples of initiatives that have germinated from the local level to develop inclusive kinships. This volume’s call for changes to institutional approaches in documenting population by recognising diverse relationships and familial ties is crystalised in this chapter, which showcases how cultivating community connections from local actions can reverberate into policy. Part of the problem they’ve identified in East Asia is the entanglement of traditional family with ancestral bonds. However, the ancestral component of kinship has historically been the foundation for creating diasporic community welfare, particularly in hostile and unwelcoming societies. Rather than dismantling of “traditional” family and kin-networks, understanding historical conceptions of kin can also provide an alternative model in reconfiguring contemporary population studies.

The relevance of historical modes of social ties in new visions of kin-making is apparent in Kim TallBear’s contribution. The dismantling of the Indigenous family in North America by settler colonialism was a violence perpetuated by population policies seeking to limit and define acceptable relations. TallBear’s advocacy, and indeed the entire volume, raises the limits of (the English) language in defining new visions of kin. The cumbersome nature of describing non-nuclear relations is not only an impediment in social settings but has legal ramifications. Beyond the need to give labels to erased or hidden extended relationships, TallBear talks back to existing population discourse that in its many versions has continued to legitimize settler colonialism by the reproduction of not just family ideals, but consumption and ownership ideals.

The larger arguments of this edited volume still come with caveats, however.  Much of the volume, perhaps unintentionally, focuses on the United States, with scholars’ critique of populationism centered on North American colonial pasts and the present continuities of Trump’s white supremist nation. Such a framework is productive for future scholars to dismantle white-cis-hetero nuclear family models. But this mode of critique erases the small dissenters: those who had been working within the seams of population control lobbies across the globe, trying to work away from a vision of a world that rested on eugenics. In India, for instance, there were feminist demographers like Kumudini Dandekar who worked within the postcolonial framework of looking at population control as a measure to control poverty, to advocate for fertility decline through socioeconomic development, and not knee-jerk solutions. Their recommendations may not have been popular with the government, but they made their resistance known and circulated.[1] The second fallout of this national framing has been the way it could not make space for the existing traditions of critique in academia that have undertaken similar projects of recovering decolonial and anti-caste pasts, such as subaltern studies and South American scholarship.

Nonetheless, what these thinkers bring together provides rich interventions on the possibilities of critique. It is a unique contribution and one that is foundational to future scholarship on population control by recommending dialogue over demography.

Feature image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

[1] See Ashwini Tambe, Defining Girlhood in India: A Transnational History of Sexual Maturity Laws, University of Illinois Press, 2019, 117-120.

Seminar: 100 Years of China’s Population Strategies

2022 marks the 100th anniversary of Margaret Sanger’s first visit to China.  Her visit prompted public discussions of birth control in the service of improving China’s population that continue to the present day.  These conversations and subsequent policies expanded to include many aspects of reproductive health like screenings for sexually transmitted infections and cervical cancer.  They also corresponded with conflicting policies through the 1960s, as (primarily) women’s calls for more control over reproduction clashed with paternalistic pronatalism.

China’s restrictive population policies in the following decades have today given way to incentivizing birth to balance an aging population, with the “three-child policy” announced in May 2021.  In all cases, the Chinese state’s focus on women’s fertility and their reproductive health is the fundamental method of implementing population policy.

Tina Phillips Johnson is Professor of History and Director of Chinese Studies at St. Vincent College Fine Arts, and a Research Associate at the University of Pittsburgh Asian Studies Center. She has published several works on public health and medicine in China, including the book Childbirth in Republican China: Delivering Modernity (Lexington Books, 2011). She is currently consulting on several global health initiatives and is doing research for a book on women’s health in 20th-century China.

This talk forms part of the UNSW Laureate Centre for History and Population’s 2021-2022 seminar series on population and modern world history, and was recorded on 6 October 2021. The video has been edited to focus on the presentation, and does not include the discussion that followed.

What We’re Reading – Visual Fragments: Hong Kong in British Culture, 1841-1941

QandA with Chi Chi Huang and Emma Thomas, 12 October 2021

A postcard from Hong Kong, dated 1910. It shows Hong Kong as a small port city, with a mountain in the background. In the top centre, there is a Christmas greeting in Pidgin English.

Chi Chi Huang is an environmental and medical humanities historian of the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her research interests lie in the intersection of transnational and imperial histories, with a focus on Southeast Asia and China. Her doctoral research on the production of British popular and visual cultures of Hong Kong explores the environment as commodity, the notion of an imperial ideal, and tropicality. Huang’s next project takes the third plague pandemic in Australia as a starting point to explore the history of the Australian-Asian connection through the lens of health.

The Laureate Centre Reading Group discussed two pieces of Huang’s work: the unpublished Introduction to her book manuscript, titled Visual Fragments: Hong Kong in British Culture 1841-1941 and her article ‘“Hong Kong can afford a typhoon or two”: British discussions of revolving storms’, published recently in the British Journal of the History of Science.

In the Introduction to Visual Fragments, Huang outlines how Hong Kong, a small entrepot, featured persistently in British popular culture before World War II. She reveals how Hong Kong’s existence in British popular culture functioned differently to other larger colonies like India and British colonial holdings in Australia and Africa. Hong Kong came into the British imperial mindset at the height of its empire, and as such, it was frequently imagined and portrayed not as its own space, but as a reflection of other British spaces and a connector of imperial networks. It is upon this myriad of associations that Hong Kong is construed as an ideal tropical and cosmopolitan colony as a result of British rule. Huang draws on a rich and varied archive in order to advance her arguments about the place of Hong Kong in British culture, beginning with a compelling analysis of a postcard, made in Hong Kong around 1910. As Huang argues, picturesque imagery portrayed the island as a model colony, whose orderly nature and aesthetic similarities to the Home Counties signaled British ‘colonising genius’ to metropolitan viewers. Huang’s article ‘Hong Kong can afford a typhoon or two’ extends this analytical frame through a fascinating examination of British discourses on weather events in the region. In studying how the experience of typhoons affecting Hong Kong were covered in the British press and scholarly publications, she argues that the occurrence of a typhoon became an opportunity to celebrate colonial and cosmopolitan unity within this colony. These discourses demonstrated the perception of successful British authority in the aftermath of a crisis, but also British authority over the management of the weather.

Q & A

Q (Emma Thomas): Hong Kong emerges in your analyses as occupying a paradoxical space in imperial British imaginaries in a number different ways. Firstly, there’s the ‘tropical paradox,’ in the beauty and prosperity of the island sit uneasily next to the dangers of disease and chaos associated with tropical locales. Related to this, Hong Kong is portrayed as a ‘model colony,’ but it is also one that is associated in British imaginaries with disorder, criminality, and immorality. Perhaps most strikingly, Hong Kong was simultaneously a ‘small colony’ and one of the largest and most important ports in the British empire. How do these contradictions contribute to Hong Kong’s unique position within the empire?

A (Chi Chi Huang): I would argue that Hong Kong’s unique position within the British empire came from the fact that it sat in the margins of imperial concern. There were episodic scandals and sagas that shone a negative light onto the colony from the metropole. However, the way it moved into and out of public concern in Britain, bolstered by its significance as a trading port, enabled the perception that it had been developed into the perfect vision of what a tropical colony could be. This was made all the more apparent in the fact that Hong Kong was frequently spoken about in direct contrast to the Chinese mainland, to Macau, to the Malaya Straits, but also in direct comparison to visions of Europe and Britain.

Q: As a historian of the German empire, your research brought to my mind George Steinmetz’s argument in The Devil’s Handwriting – that oscillations between Sinophilia and Sinophobia were key factors in shaping German colonialism in Qingdao. Do you see similar factors at work in the case of British rule in Hong Kong? And if so, how did this play out over the time period you study?

A: What a great question. While the oscillation between Sinophilia and Sinophobia certainly played a factor in the ways that Hong Kong was represented in British culture, the subject of my study, I think this was not a large factor in the colonial rule of Hong Kong. This is mainly because there was a sense of distance created between Hong Kong—as a fundamentally British vision of a developing colonial city—with China. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an anxiety about China and the Chinese. That was a continual presence. Rather, there wasn’t an oscillation towards the admiration for Chinese characteristics in the same way. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that British rule in Hong Kong was impacted by a fluctuation of Sinophobia at different times.

Q: I was fascinated to learn about how weather events like typhoons were mobilized by the British as a legitimizing narrative of empire. You also demonstrate that British colonialism in Hong Kong was predicated on the colony’s being ‘made barren’ so that it could in turn be reconfigured as a tropical ideal. With this emphasis on environment, I’m interested to know if these British imaginaries effectively worked to de-people Hong Kong in ways that also served imperial claims. How do local people appear (or not) in the British discourses you study?

A: There are two ways in which the island of Hong Kong was ‘de-peopled’ in the British imaginaries. When the British first took control of Hong Kong, it was only of the island. It wasn’t until 1860, that the Kowloon Peninsula on the Chinese mainland was ceded to Britain. So early references to local or existing Chinese people in Hong Kong were referring to people who lived on the water or lived in small villages. While the population on the water was a concern for the British colonial government, they were considered fluid and not part of the landscape, and thus didn’t pose in those early years a claim to the land of Hong Kong. In the nineteenth century, narratives of the local population in the small villages tended to veer towards the same orientalist tropes used to depict any Chinese villages at that time, rendered them an ornamental addition to the landscape. With the establishment of the colony and extension of the colony into mainland China, the majority of the ‘local’ population was Chinese, but they were seen again to be fluid and migratory under British rule. So while this Chinese population became the local, supplanting the villages and water population, they were similarly divorced from the land in these British discourses. Effectively, British discourses rendered Hong Kong barren of people and civilization at the very moment it was ceded to Britain.

About the authors:

Dr Chi Chi Huang is a postdoctoral research fellow at UNSW, working on the ARC Special Initiative Project, ‘Rethinking Medico-Legal Borders: From international to internal histories.’ She holds a PhD from HKU (2018) and an MPhil from Cambridge. Her doctoral research on the production of British popular and visual cultures of Hong Kong explores the environment as commodity, the notion of an imperial ideal, and tropicality.

Dr Emma Thomas is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Laureate Centre for History and Population at UNSW Sydney. She specialises in histories of gender, labour and colonialism, with a focus on transnational histories of Oceania and Europe. Her doctoral dissertation (Michigan, 2019) and first book project analyses intersections of gender and sexuality, labour regimes, violence, and demographic concerns in Papua New Guinea under German colonial rule.

What We’re Reading: QandA with Jarrod Hore on ‘Settlers in Earthquake Country’

Jarrod Hore and Chi Chi Huang, 28 September 2021

Black and white photo of Alexander McKay’s son William on Glyn Wye station in 1888. McKay is sitting on the ground, using his body to indicate the size of the vertical rupture. It's the length of his legs, about 1 metre

Jarrod Hore: ‘Settlers in earthquake country: Apprehending instability in New Zealand and California’ (forthcoming in Pacific Historical Review) examines how two slightly different colonial societies responded to seismic instability throughout the late nineteenth century. Focusing on two earthquakes in Aotearoa New Zealand and two in California, I align the temporality of natural disaster with an economic temporality of settler colonial boom and bust. In contrast to more recent disasters, such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, settlers in earlier times often confronted seismic instability with optimism and enthusiasm. Despite some dissenting voices, most settlers were quick to resume their speculation on colonial markets in both Wellington in 1855 after the huge Wairarapa earthquake and in San Francisco after the 1868 Hayward quake. Shifts in the faults underlying Wellington and San Francisco could produce opportunities to reclaim land, improve infrastructure, and reiterate settler control.

In some ways earthquakes signify the creative destruction at the core of the settler colonial project, which ‘destroys to replace’ to adopt the terminology of the historian and theorist Patrick Wolfe. This was simple when boom economies insulated settlers from the anxieties of dispossession, but more complicated during crashes. In the aftermath of the 1888 North Canterbury earthquake for example, settlers were more circumspect about recovery, eventually reinventing the image of the city’s toppled cathedral as a symbol of stoic endurance. A more open articulation of instability inflected scientific reports in the aftermath of the 1872 Owens Valley event, which, according to the geologist Joseph LeConte, was a symptom of a whole world in a ‘rather unstable state of equilibrium.’

Read together, responses to these four events offer us a new way into the environmental history of settler colonialism. Earthquake country is, for me, an intriguing site to begin a consideration of the relationships between scientists and settlers, their environmental knowledge, and the physical world. These relationships always came back to the fundamental conflict over land between settlers and First Nations people, but they were also shaped by economic conditions that insulated colonists or exposed their worries.


Chi Chi Huang: I was struck that it was quite novel to think about Aotearoa New Zealand and California in the same historical space. You make a great case for thinking about both these places as comparable earthquake country, but could you expand a bit more about them as comparative sites within your research? And perhaps comment on the extent to which there was exchange or communication about these events and the subsequent approach to seeing them as moments of opportunity?

JH: It’s kind of interesting to reflect on that double register actually. I came to this topic through a wider comparative history of settler environmental attachment in nineteenth-century California and Australasia. We know that there was quite a high degree of trans-Pacific mobility throughout the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Gold-seekers, to begin with, circulated from California to the Australian colonies to Otago. Later on, as Thomas Dunlap, Ian Tyrrell, and now Marilyn Lake have shown, agriculturalists, environmentalists, and politicians looked across the Pacific (from both sides) to adopt technologies and strategies to improve yield and preserve or transform environments. From this perspective it’s natural to think about National Parks, intensive settler agriculture, progressivism, and earthquakes as trans-Pacific phenomena. Of course the other fundamental history that these places share is one of Indigenous dispossession, which I think is important to always return to in environmental and economic histories.

I found that earthquakes, especially, were useful because they have a very clear material basis in plate tectonics. While those other phenomena can be explained by the exchange of people and ideas, I wondered whether there was something essential about shaky places that might reveal the fundamentals of settler colonialism. They were also almost immediately linked together within scientific networks. I start the essay with Charles Lyell, who upon learning of an 1855 earthquake in Wellington immediately tried to place its importance geologically in a kind of earthquake ‘power ranking.’ The causes of these earthquakes were a very much a live question within scientific networks, and so we get people like the geologist Josiah Whitney, in 1872, trying to place local events in a global ‘earthquake cycle,’ and the Berkeley geologist Joseph LeConte trying to emphasise the importance of comparison in studying seismic movement. Overall, I was initially quite surprised by how unperturbed settlers were in the aftermath of earthquakes, which I think attests to how powerful flows of capital and people could be when times were good in the colonies.

CH: While this is a story of scientists and settlers making sense of seismic instability, you mention that photographers and artists also participated in the production of sentimental post-disaster landscapes. How did photographers and/or artists contribute to the documentation and interpretation of these earthquakes? Were images created in the process of studying these earthquakes as well?

JH: Absolutely. Alfred Burton takes quite a striking photograph of the Christchurch cathedral in the wake of the 1888 north Canterbury earthquake (see below for image). This image has, as you say, quite a sentimental affect, and is reminiscent of some of the imagery we’re so familiar with now when seismic events from around the world are reported. Another settler, Alexander McKay surveyed the area around the Hope Fault closer to the epicentre of the quake in 1888 and took several photographs of fence lines shifted out of alignment and of vertical ruptures. These photographs ended up settling some contention over horizontal displacement and became part of a collection of about 150 photographs that McKay used to document his explorations of the cause of the elevation of the Kaikōura Ranges north of Christchurch.

McKay was particularly invested in photography as a way of communicating geological arguments, but this crossover wasn’t unique. Settler photographers were often involved in scientific debates and expeditions. In California, Eadweard Muybridge’s spectacular images of ‘glacier channels’ in Yosemite fed into a controversy about the formation of the valley that pitted those who figured that something like an earthquake created the valley and those who favoured glacial origin. Similarly, Carleton Watkins’ images of trees were used as botanical index images across the United States and his 1870 photograph of the Whitney glacier became an important piece of evidence in a disagreement about the existence of ‘living’ glaciers in California. I like to think there’s still sentimentality in these images, but no doubt it differs from the pictures of urban places that photographers captured in the wake of natural disasters.

CH: In my study of typhoons in Hong Kong during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I similarly saw how, in the aftermath of a destructive natural event, it became an opportunity. In the Hong Kong context, it was an opportunity to consolidate imperial sentiment. What other dimensions did this sense of settler optimism and enthusiasm take on in the aftermath of an earthquake?

JH: Certainly, there’s a version of imperial sentiment being consolidated in 1888 as the Burton Brothers were developing that image of the Christchurch cathedral and processing it into photographs, colourised images, and eventually, postcards. It becomes a visual marker of settler endurance in much the same way that McKay’s geological studies across Canterbury are eventually celebrated as a kind of hard-won knowledge about the formation of this part of Aotearoa. The image of the spire carries a bit of extra symbolic meaning, though, which leads to some provincial press writing about the ‘melancholy appearance of the wreck.’

Settler colonies are also places of that same imperial sentiment, but I tend to think there’s often a fundamental vulnerability hovering on the edges. As I mentioned earlier, in times of rude health settlers were adept at thinking optimistically or even opportunistically about natural disasters like earthquakes, but in more trying times or in contested places this vulnerability creeps in. 1888 was one such time in Canterbury. Historians refer to it as the ‘great bust’ and it comes after a long period intense conflict between Māori and Pākehā: the New Zealand Wars. While few settlers made these connections at the time, and while this conflict mostly took place in the North Island, I do think it’s important to link any expressions of doubt in the settler project in this period to this history of settler colonial conflict, as well as to those economic patterns of boom and bust.

Images (top of page): Alexander McKay’s son, William McKay, on Glyn Wye station in 1888. GNS Science (photo by: Alexander McKay). Images (from left): Alexander McKay’s son, William McKay on Glyn Wye station in 1888, GNS Science (Photo by Alexander McKay); Christchurch Cathedral, injured by earthquake, September 1, 1888, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio. Te Papa (C.011676) (Creative Commons)