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PHILLIP GOODING (McGill University)

A Climate of State-Building in Equatorial Eastern Africa c.1840-1875

03 June 2024 | 3pm BST

Link to talk


The mid-nineteenth century is well-known as a period of major political change in equatorial eastern Africa. New states emerged in Ukimbu and Unyamwezi in present-day west-central Tanzania, and some already-established states, such as Buganda in present-day Uganda, consolidated and expanded. These developments are usually associated with processes of indigenous innovation in the context of the wider region’s rapid integration with the growing capitalist economy via the global ivory trade. This presentation, by contrast, incorporates recent and ongoing climatological research to add an environmental perspective to this history. While rejecting environmental determinism, it shows how some of the most prominent states in the region took advantage of a protracted period of abundant rainfall in c.1840-1875 to enhance production and administrative capacity. They did so by exploiting the natural world in new ways, such as through modified agricultural practices, introduction of cattle, and establishment of larger settlements. These changes and enviro-climatic contexts, the presentation argues, were fundamental to how the region’s mid-nineteenth-century states grew and consolidated. Further, in making this argument, the presentation draws parallels with phenomena occurring in the wider nineteenth-century Indian Ocean World, where increased environmental exploitation has regularly been considered as fundamental to political and economic life. 

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Philip Gooding is a project manager and research affiliate at the Indian Ocean World Centre, McGill University. He is the author of On the Frontiers of the Indian Ocean World: A History of Lake Tanganyika, c.1830-1890 (CUP, 2022) and editor of Droughts, Floods, and Global Climatic Anomalies in the Indian Ocean World (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2022). His current project uses historical and climatological methods to investigate how a deeper knowledge past climatic conditions helps to refine our understandings of eastern Africa’s history in c.1750-1900. He has thus far drawn linkages between enviro-climatic change and histories of food security, disease transmission, and political instability in this context, with publications in the International Journal of African Historical Studies, the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, and the International Review of Environmental History. For more information, see:

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