Matthew Shutzer (Harvard)

Fossil Fuel Archives

The area of study is indicated here by the major coalfields detailed across central-eastern India.
Credit: World Bank. Click image for full size.
My research investigates the changing place of nature, specifically fossil fuels, in the economic life of colonial and postcolonial South Asia. The agrarian, ecological, and social transformations of the coal mining region of Jharkhand (in eastern India) forms a major axis of the present work. My ambition has been to reconstruct fossil fuel commodity chains in Jharkhand, and South Asia more broadly, as a means of understanding the place of Jharkhandi coal in the formation of global regimes of extractive capital and as an object of so-called developmental intervention by the modern Indian state. This framing, which involves the tracing of multiple space-economies, presented methodological challenges of archival scale: Jharkhandi coal, simultaneously as a physical substance, a form of property, and a speculative asset, could be followed through what seemed a nearly boundless number of repositories within an emergent, worldwide regime of fossil fuel dependency from the late-nineteenth century onward. The value-changing form of coal – beyond its putative economic utility – attracted me as a symbolic object as well, embedded in colonial and postcolonial political cultures as an indispensable, and yet often invisible, material of state legitimacy.  

Early on, I became interested in understanding how geologists in the nineteenth century came to think about and measure the economic value of different types of minerals and fossil fuels. If one does not confine the history of imperial geology to the practices of those individuals who believed they were working within an institutionally codified scientific tradition, the actual archives of such pursuits are fairly widespread, with “amateur” geologists, mineralogists, and botanists cropping up across the Indian Ocean world throughout the nineteenth century searching for new energy sources. Many of these individuals made maps, diary entries, estimates for prospective investments, timetables, glossaries, and translations of South Asian mineralogical vernaculars. These documents can now be traced back to institutional holdings in London, such as those at Imperial College, the London Geological Society, or at the National Maritime Museum, while others appear in India in the remaining archives of the Calcutta Port Trust, the Geological Survey of India, early branch reports of the Imperial Bank, or in regional archives of present-day Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha, among other such repositories. Letters held by the Moravian Church archives in Herrnhut, Germany provide a significant account of European mineralogical interests as well.

Testing miners in Jharia, Jharkhand, for black lung, c.1960s. Credit: Central Mining Research Station, Dhanbad.

Overall, these documents attest not only to a blurring of what might have been understood as “practical” as opposed to formal scientific knowledge, but also to a worldview that recognized nature as fundamentally knowable and comparable, and which could therefore, for my purposes, mediate the particular qualities of a coal or petroleum “discovery” to abstract quantities of economic value. It has been especially interesting to compare geological and topographical maps of the eastern coalfields over time, as some of the best local maps tell stories of spatial transformation now lost in archival accounts, which can provide crucial insights to the emergence of mining areas down to the level of villages, forest groves, and paddy land.

Photograph from a Miner's Village. Credit: F.W. Heilgers and Co., Diary, 1906, Author's Collection.

Coal mining in India, as elsewhere, was destructive business, and companies frequently worked at the edges of legality, amassing both fraudulent and legally-recognized land deeds in their repositories dating back to the early eighteenth century. These deeds, written in Bangla and English, attest to the centrality of written records in encoding new modalities of social power in colonial agrarian society. They tell the story of forced and de facto land acquisitions, of the usurpation of entitlements as proprietary rights, and of the usages of local knowledge and local language to remake legal meanings of ownership. Companies thrived when they could set the terms by which the state was able to intervene on their claims to control the natural resources and the labor of the coalfields, whether by conferring formal property deeds or setting employment regulations for wage labor. The social and ecological fallout of mining – including events like epidemics, underground mine fires, and land subsidence – reflected the chaotic logic of profit-making. The documents of these enterprises span the colonial and the postcolonial, and can be found in industry-related journals available online (though often behind paywalls), engineering reports, Government of India commissions, as well as company papers held in Dhanbad, Bhubaneswar, New Delhi, and London. Published law reports remain an under-utilized resource for retracing the civil litigation histories of land acquisition as well. They are the venues in which statute is messily brought into being, and, in the case of mining, the contexts in which private appropriations of natural wealth were raised to everyday principles of social organization.     

Ledger of Properties to be acquired. Credit: Author. Click image for full size.
I was attracted to this project, in part, because I wanted to understand the imperial and neocolonial origins of the current climate crisis. Petroleum archives are useful for tracking these continuities, especially for South Asia, which has experienced a great deal of capital investment in petroleum infrastructures since the late-nineteenth century. The British Petroleum archive at the University of Warwick is one of the best resources for documenting these histories. For the postcolonial period, however, there are many other smaller collections associated with the World Bank and U.S. diplomatic private papers, which have allowed me to consider transformations in postwar South Asian politics in relation to the rise of dollar-denominated, U.S. energy hegemony.

In reading the records of company geologists and financiers across the twentieth century, I was struck by how the language of geological “discovery” was expressed as a political language, utilized by companies and stock-holders to define alternative visions of corporate sovereignty over and against the political authority of states. I read this political vocabulary against the new articulations of peoples’ sovereignty raised by adibasi and peasant movements, particularly drawing from the letters and published writings of figures like Jaipal Singh Munda, Nirmal Minz, and A.K. Roy. There are few centralized repositories that allow one to map the breadth of what might be haphazardly grouped under the “adibasi movement” in Jharkhand, though one can procure useful documents, including political manifestos, from the libraries and archives associated with the Satbhavna Bhavan, the Tribal Research Institutes in Patna and Bhubaneswar, and the National Archives in Delhi, among others.    

July 2019