Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Short answer: what to do with 5,000 more words

· August 8th, 2018 · No Comments

Today’s post, by July 2018 WMQ authors Matthew Mulcahy and Stuart Schwartz, authors of “Nature’s Battalions,” comes in response to the following question:

“WMQ articles are capped at 10,000 words (plus notes). If you had 5,000 more words to play with, how would the article be different?”

by Matthew Mulcahy and Stuart Schwartz

Our article “Nature’s Battalions” was born out of our collaboration in another project on the environmental history of the Caribbean. Our collaboration in general goes back a long way to when we played on the same departmental softball team at the University of Minnesota. Eventually we both wrote books on hurricanes in the Caribbean, and when asked to collaborate on a long chapter on natural disasters for a collective volume on the environmental history of the Caribbean, we began to broaden our areas of coverage. In the process, we turned up a good deal of material on insect infestations. While there has been much work by modern entomologists on the Caribbean and Latin America, the subject has been little explored by historians. We had no idea that our article would be part of an issue dedicated to similar themes; no one had ever mentioned it. We simply spun off and expanded the article from our more general study, but are pleased to be part of the special issue.

WMQ readers helped us shape the article in several important ways, including asking for more material on the relationship between entomology and empire, for greater clarification of the relationship between infestations and other environmental hazards, and to better situate our work more in the existing scholarship on the culture and science in a colonial setting. One reader pushed for more incorporation of literary material, but we were more oriented to the political and economic implications of insects and in the responses they provoked. We were impressed by the way knowledge about insects and how to manage their threat was developed and shared across imperial and cultural boundaries, and how the practical application of this knowledge became an acknowledged tool of empire. We also became aware of the importance of Native American and African systems of multicropping and natural methods of insect management, which may have played an important role in controlling this challenge, but we found that this aspect has not been explored very much by historians or entomologists. If we had more time, we probably would have devoted it to digging deeper into sources on African and indigenous agronomy and if we had more space, we probably would have expanded or discussion of the growing symbiosis between “naturalists” and empire in the eighteenth century.

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