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The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library


‘Zoology and the Raj’ , 16th January, 2015.


‘Zoology and the Raj’


Dr. John Mathew,
Indian Institute of Science Education and Research,


This talk examines the development of taxonomic zoology in India between the very late eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, largely coincident with British colonisation of the region. In so doing it draws into question conventional dyads of colonising and colonised nations where the vectors of influence are deemed deterministic in one direction, by suggesting instead that the flow of information is in fact reciprocal, if asymmetrical. While early natural history studies of the region involve French ‘voyageurs-naturalistes’ who come for relatively brief periods to the Indian subcontinent as part of larger expeditions to return material to the central dispatching body, ‘Le Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle’, thus contributing to France’s domination in the field during the early nineteenth century, it is functionaries from or working for Great Britain, first employees of the East India Company and after the Great Mutiny of the 1857, of the Crown, given to such disparate lines of occupational activity as medicine, religion, administrative surveys and the military, that come to dominate the study of the increasingly specialised disciplines of zoology, botany and geology over the following century, their expertise predicated upon intimate knowledge of the ground under study at first hand, which will play a pivotal role in writing the zoological treatises of South Asia particularly in relation to large faunal groups, especially the vertebrates. However, along with the metropolitan taxonomist in London, the voice of the ‘native’ gets belatedly recognised in the twentieth century through a complex and involved series of taxonomic texts numbering eighty one volumes and grouped under the heading The Fauna of British India.


Dr. John Mathew is an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. Prior to joining IISER in late 2014, he was a visiting faculty associate at the University of Pennsylvania, following teaching appointments at Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts Boston and Duke University, USA. After obtaining B.Sc., M.Sc. and M.Phil. degrees in Zoology at the Madras Christian College, he pursued a doctorate in Ecological Sciences at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, which he completed in 2003. He also holds an A. M. in Medical Anthropology (2006) and a Ph.D. in the History of Science (2011) from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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