Antipodean Agriculture in the Archives

Author: 
Maura Capps

 I returned to the United States this June after having spent well over a year in archival repositories throughout the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa with a digital mountain of unprocessed documents.  I always new that my dissertation project, “All Flesh Is Grass: Cultivation as Conservation in the Sown Grasslands of the British Empire, 1780-1850,” was an ambitious one.  It is a transnational project that relies almost exclusively upon manuscript materials, with an occasional printed text or map.  I visited sixteen different repositories, from the industrial-scale National Archives in Kew to the charming Victorian-era reading room of the Museum for English Rural Life in Berkshire, from the gorgeous glass-ceilinged Mitchell Library in Sydney to the underfunded but ridiculously friendly Western Cape Archives in an repurposed prison in Cape Town.  I tried to do as much processing of the documents I encountered on site, but inevitably towards the end of my time in each location, I had panicked.  At the places that allowed it, I just snapped pictures of everything that I hadn’t gotten to, which, by the end of my extended research trip amounted to over 5000 images of manuscript material.  Adding all that to the thousands of pages of archival notes and transcriptions, I found myself overwhelmed with data at the start of this summer. 

My SSD Summer Grant enabled me to devote all my energies this summer to breaking that mountain down to smaller manageable hills, and to move forward in my progress to my degree.  I was able to complete a draft of my first non-introductory chapter based on my archival research in South Africa in preparation for write-up fellowship applications.  The chapter, “’A Most Infamous Management’: Negotiating Grain, Grass, and Granger in the British Occupation of the Cape of Good Hope, 1795-1806” looks at the sending out of William Duckitt, a young man intricately connected to the movers and shakers of Enlightenment “High Husbandry” in Britain, to start up an agricultural department in the newly acquired Cape of Good Hope to bring agrarian improvement to the hopelessly indolent (according to nearly all early observers) Dutch inhabitants.  The dissertation as a whole looks at the fate of Enlightenment mixed-husbandry (balanced farming using both arable cultivation and stock rearing to increase yields and recycle nutrients) in British settler colonies, paying particular attention to cultivated grasses and fodder crops.  As my first case study, this chapter has really helped me reevaluate my approach to my archival materials and tweak the conceptual framework of my project as I head into the next year of writing.  I hope to turn the chapter into an article in the next month or so. 

Additionally, I was able to make good progress on a conference paper entitled Clover Colonization: The Uneasy Journey of an Agricultural Revolution through Britain’s Settler Empire, 1780-1850, which I will be presenting at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History in Washington DC in the Spring, and, pending approval, several other conferences throughout the year.  For the past two years, I have been preoccupied gathering the materials needed to write this dissertation, and the SSD Summer Grant has enabled me not only to make progress in the writing, but also in terms of professional development.  I am excited to start putting my work out to the public to get responses and feedback so that I can improve upon it.