European colonialism converted vast swathes of the globe into primarycommodity producing hinterlands. In Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, entire ecologies were transformed in the single-minded pursuit of agricultural or mineral products demanded and desired by
industrial societies in Europe and North America. With decolonization and independence, these colonial hinterlands had to be recast as national economies. In the mid- twentieth century, postcolonial nationstates across the world faced a similar challenge: to reconstitute their territorial inheritance of a colonial hinterland into a national economic space producing resources and revenue for the benefi t of the newly independent nationstate. Postcolonial states attempted to transform colonial commodities into national resources. This paper explores ecological aspects of colonial and postcolonial practices of commodity production and space making in the Bengal delta— the alluvial lands formed out of the silt deposits of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna river systems comprising much of present- day Bangladesh.
Unlike many other imperialist and nationalist ecological interventions, the Bengal delta was not subjected to statist megaprojects intended at the wholesale ecological reengineering of soil and water. Jute, the delta’s primary commodity, could be obtained from the delta’s existing agrarian ecology without canals, dams, and river- divergence projects. Jute slotted into the peasant crop calendar, as an alternative crop to rice, and was well suited to the delta’s soil and climate. Instead of massive engineering projects, imperialist and nationalist ecological interventions in eastern Bengal consisted of the minutiae of governmentality— collecting statistics, disseminating weather and crop reports, providing security, regulating fl ows of capital and commodities, and so forth. It is through such everyday state practices that colonial and postcolonial governments sought to constitute and reconstitute the Bengal delta as colonial hinterland or as national economy.
In the language of the Calcutta- headquartered colonial government and British capitalists, the Bengal delta was “up-country” or the “mofussil”— colonial spatial terminology that denoted the delta as Calcutta’s hinterland.1 Th e colonial commodity jute cemented the delta’s place as hinterland. Before being replaced by plastics and containers, jute fabrics were the premier packaging material in world trade. Jute acks were used to pack the world’s grains, cotton, sugar, coff ee, guano, ement, and even bacon, as these commodities journeyed from farms, plantations, and mines to centers of consumption. While the fabric circulated globally, the plant was cultivated exclusively in the Bengal delta, by peasant smallholders using a combination of household and hired labor and borrowed and stored capital. As global demand soared, the peasant households devoted more and more of their lands to fi ber. Jute ultivation expanded exponentially, from less than fi ft y thousand acres of land sown with jute in 1850 to about 3.5 million acres in 1913.2 During the colonial period, 90 percent of this crop was transported to Calcutta through the delta’s rivers and railways, on oxcarts, wooden boats, teamer fl ats, and railway wagons. An archetypal colonial commodity, jute transformed the delta into Calcutta’s hinterland and, conversely, Calcutta into the delta’s metropolis.
The imperial state and colonial capitalists initiated and implemented practices and projects intended to smoothen and accelerate the circulation of everincreasing volumes of fi ber between peasant smallholdings and Calcutta to extract ever- greater profi ts out of peasant produce. Most signifi cant of these statist and capitalist projects were the expansion of steam- powered transport technologies into the delta, displacing the delta’s existing infrastructure of oxcarts and sail and oar- powered boats. Railways and river- steamer routes connected peasant farms and rural markets solely to Calcutta, while the existing infrastructure of country boats and oxcarts provided numerous outlets for the delta’s produce, notably to the port- city of Chittagong to the southeast of Bengal. Between 1876– 77 and 1889– 90, arrivals of jute into Calcutta by railway more than doubled from 3.4 million to 8.4 million maunds; and by river steamer, they almost quadrupled from 860,000 to 3 million maunds, while arrivals by boat barely increased, from 3.8 million maunds to 4.5 million maunds (1 maund equals 40 kilograms).3 Steam- powered transport technologies, however, were only one of myriad projects that would secure the Bengal delta as a colonial hinterland.
These projects ranged from collecting and disseminating information on crops and weather; providing public and private security; constructing docks, railway sidings, and warehouses in intermediary market towns; installing hydraulic presses to pack loose fi bers; providing agricultural extension services; and so forth. Th ese myriad practices— not solely railway construction— enhanced imperial and capitalist control over peasant commodity production, enabled colonial business to generate profi ts from peasant labor, and constituted the Bengal delta as a colonial hinterland. In August 1947 this hinterland was carved out, shorn of its metropolis in Calcutta, and incorporated into the territory of postcolonial Pakistan. To the horror of Pakistan’s most ardent champions, partition created an East Pakistan that was a hinterland without a metropolis. Serious concerns were raised about the economic viability of the Bengal delta as a national economy. “Economically [East Bengal] could not survive,” agreed the provincial governors of British India. “If partition left this metropolis [Calcutta] out of Bangistan, the economic situation of the remnant state would not be enviable,” wrote a geographer at the London chool of Economics. Mere weeks before the decision to partition Bengal was fi nalized, Jinnah asked rhetorically, “What is the use of Bengalithout Calcutta?”6 Abul Hashim, a prominent Muslim League politician in Bengal, argued that eastern Bengal was destined to remain a colonial hinterland, even aft er formal independence: “Eastern Pakistan will be mainly reliant on jute. In this situation, Eastern Pakistan will probably develop as a good market for American manufactured goods.
America might give us loans and we will have to buy American cigarettes and other goods to repay these loans.”7 As the baton of imperialism passed from Britain to the United States, Hashim argued that the hinterland was destined to fall under the dominion of the new empire or the postcolonial Pakistani state, the most immediate and pressing project was to reconstitute this colonial hinterland as a national economic space, to transform a territory in the service of colonial capital into a territory in the service of the independent nation- state. Th is eff ort at reconstituting the territory focused on jute, on converting a colonial commodity into a national resource. Toward this end, the postcolonial Pakistani state attempted to monitor and regulate flows of fiber across its newly drawn boundaries, particularly along the well-grooved routes through which jute flowed to Calcutta, now in India. Commodity flows that evaded the government were criminalized as smuggling, and smugglers were subjected to draconian punishment. Statist attempts to contain jute fl ows within partition lines were ecological interventions. Th e postcolonial state sought to monitor and punish small- scale jute traders carrying small lots of fi ber on country boats and oxcarts across the borderland’s deltaic ecology of shift ing soil and water. In its eff orts to actualize imaginary partition lines, the state ran into the delta’s uncertain and shift ing ecology of soil and water.
As I argue, the British Empire and the postcolonial Pakistani nationstate encountered the delta’s ecology as resistant to governmental efforts to know, regulate, and control it. Th is was partly a function of the unique nature of the delta’s ecology, characterized by shift ing rivers, continuous processes of alluvium and diluvium, and uncertain monsoonal weather. However, imperialist, capitalist, and statist experiences of ecology as resistance were not solely due to the peculiarities of specifi c ecologies. The imperialist, statist, and capitalist desire for total and ultimately impossible knowledge and control over nature and its products meant that ecology would always be seen as something to be overcome and that various projects intended to attain mastery would only ever be partially successful. While such desires were doomed to frustration, colonial and postcolonial pursuits of absolute mastery over ecology produced rationales for continuous imperialist and statist interventions into the delta’s ecology. To constitute a territory as hinterland or as national economy, I argue, was to produce a discourse of continual and intensive imperialist and statist interventions into that territory.