September 21, 2017

Forgotten Paths of Empire: Ecology, Disease, and Commerce in the Making of Liberia’s Plantation Economy: President’s Address

Abstract

This essay follows the journey of a 1926 Harvard expedition to Liberia and also the more recent journey of its remains—nearly six hundred photographs and more than two hours of motion picture footage. My goal is to make visible the forgotten paths of empire that led to widespread economic, environmental, and cultural change in the West African republic of Liberia. In tracing the transnational flows of capital, knowledge, commodities, and microbes associated with the rise of industrial plantations instrumental in advancing American economic and political interests across the globe, I offer a materialist approach to the history of scientific ideas and objects that takes both epistemology and environmental change seriously. The transformation of landscapes on an industrial scale was critical, I argue, in bringing ecological and evolutionary understandings of disease into being. And the photographs and film footage left behind have the potential to acquire new agency and meaning as they bring forth stories from Liberians that reanimate places and give voice to ancestors, who were much more than laboring bodies, reservoirs of biological specimens, or objects of a scientific gaze.

by Gregg Mitman

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