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'Improvement': British colonial settlement and the environment

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My paper will, I hope, form part of a book I am writing on British colonial settlement and the environment in both temperate and tropical colonies. Improvement and the environment in the colonial context has many strands. Some of them are discussed in this paper: advertising to prospective settlers about resources and improvement, ideological and conceptual beliefs, the role of the law of ownership in ensuring that improvement of a pre-existing environment took place and the language of improvement. The paper, like the book, goes from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth and in some parts of the book to the twentieth, so my time period is very long. Geographically, this particular paper covers the settler colonies of North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, though much of the material is from North America. Given the limits of space I have generalized across different colonies though differences between the colonies will, I hope, become clearer in the book itself.

Improvement was one of the ideological engines for colonial settlement. It was one of the lenses through which colonial settlement was viewed, with its own discourses and as well as being one of the inducements and one of the drivers of settlement and of consequent environmental change and destruction of pre-colonial peoples and their cultures. At the very least it was an indicator of change, though, ironically, it was one of the constants of colonisation. Though the sense of improvement changes in some of its meaning, nevertheless, it is an ever present concept across time and places so my paper may well be eliding some cherished distinctions as to types of empire or kinds of colonization. This is something that can jar with British and American historians who tend to concentrate on change and difference rather than on continuities.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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