CLIMATE HISTORY AND HUMAN-ENVIRONMENT INTERACTION IN EQUATORIAL EASTERN AFRICA, C.1780-1900

Funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant

This project adopts a novel, data driven, interdisciplinary approach to study the history of equatorial eastern Africa (EEA), c.1780-1900, a region hitherto analysed through the lens of conventional Eurocentric historical spatial, temporal, and thematic paradigms. It deploys the latest climatological data and models, recent crop science research, and cutting-edge Geographic Information Systems (GIS), as well as archival and oral materials, to reconstruct historical patterns of human-environment interaction during a particularly transformative era in EEA’s history. The period c.1780-1900 witnessed the end of the Little Ice Age (LIA) and the start of warmer more humid climatic conditions; the introduction of new crops, including rice, maize, and cassava into hinterland EEA; and the integration of the region into the burgeoning international economy, notably through the expansion of the global ivory trade. This is the first historical project focused on EEA (a region incorporating present-day Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo) to compile data on these climatic, environmental, and economic systems, and to organise and visualise it in a bespoke geo-linked database. This will, for the first time, enable an analysis of transformations in the region from c.1780 to 1900 based on human-environment interaction, rather than human agency alone, as the catalyst of historical change.

This project also has significant policy implications. It is vital to incorporate patterns of past climatic changes, their impact, and human responses to them, in analyses of the potential future effects of global warming. In EEA, much of the scientific focus has been on examining how global warming will affect crop production, the basis of the region’s economies. Rainfall is a key variable in this context. This project will thus be the first to systematically analyse and visualise data demonstrating: 1) variations in seasonal, annual, and decadal rainfall in EEA between c.1780 and 1900 in the context of a changing global climate; and 2) how resulting risks to food production were mitigated against or exacerbated by changing patterns of land-use and by institutions associated with the region’s integration into the emerging international economy. In short, this project will draw the history of EEA into the digital age through utilising cutting edge research and methods from the natural and human sciences, thereby providing historical insights that could inform policy aimed at mitigating the current and future impacts of global warming.

This project is for two years (June 2021 - May 2023) and will be completed at the Indian Ocean World Centre, McGill University. It is for $66,070, which will employ two part-time undergraduate research assistants for 18 months and enable travel for research and dissemination.

More to come soon.