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How the Other Half Drifts: Nature, Violence, and the Character of Migration in the 19th Century

Sat, April 1, 3:00 to 4:30pm, The Drake Hotel, Venetian

Session Submission Type: Panel


Popular conceptions of a ‘refugee’ rely on excluding nature from our understanding of what drives millions of people to drift into a nomadic and often ‘state-less’ existence. While specialized fields such as refugee law overwhelmingly focus on persons fleeing political persecution during the 20th century, the reality of human displacement has a longer and more complex history. The long lens of environmental history can be useful to everyone interested in these conversations. The well-attended event on “War and Environment” during ASEH 2016 was clear evidence that environmental historians recognize their role in this conversation and can effectively unpack the underlying issues. Our panel extends this conversation back into 19th century while offering insights toward the predicament of 21st century refugee affairs.

At the heart of virtually all constructions of what it means to be a refugee is the history of the territorial state or empire struggling to keep its people locked in, its wars locked out, and the environment locked down. Our panelists study this struggle across terrains local and global: Erin Stewart Mauldin’s work brings a rich understanding of the impact of the U.S. Civil War and a variety of surrounding environmental crises on the lives of those apparently ‘emancipated’ by its closure, illuminating the ecological instability that forced thousands of freed people to migrate. In Philipp Lehmann’s paper we encounter migrants in colonial Southwest Africa caught between environmental crises and the violence of German state policing their movements. Finally, Saptarishi Bandopadhyay’s contribution shows how interpretations of nature in the 19th and early 20th century produced fundamental notions of international law (such as the legal character of the “refugee”) even while nature itself was erased from view—an erasure which makes it impossible for contemporary discourse to behold “environmental refugees” as a category worth reckoning with.

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