Friday, 9 October 2015

"It's an archival problem": Simon Schaffer in conversation with Sujit Sivasundaram

Do read in full this fascinating conversation about the history of science at - the University of Cambridge Research Bulletin. I have pasted some highlights below.

One conundrum the researchers debated was how global narratives of science could have been missed by scholars for so long. It largely stems from the use of source materials says Schaffer: “It’s an archival problem: as far as the production and preservation of sources is concerned, those connected with Europe far outweigh those from other parts of the world.”

“If we are to de-centre from Europe, we need to use radically new kinds of sources – monuments, sailing charts, courtly narratives, and so on,” explains Sivasundaram. He gives an example of Sri Lankan palm-leaf manuscripts: “The Mahavamsa
is a Buddhist chronicle of the history of Sri Lanka spanning 25 centuries. Among the deeds of the last kings of Kandy, I noticed seemingly inconsequential references to temple gardens. This led me back to the colonial archive documenting the creation of a botanic garden in 1821, and I realised that the British had ‘recycled’ a Kandyan tradition of gardening, by building their colonial garden on the site of a temple garden.”

Moreover, says Sivasundaram, the mechanisms of knowledge assimilation are often overlooked. Europeans often accumulated knowledge in India by engaging with pandits, or learned men. “The Europeans did not have a monopoly over the combination of science and empire – the pioneering work of Chris Bayly shows how they fought to take over information networks and scientific patronage systems that were already in place. For Europeans to practice astronomy in India, for instance, it meant translating Sanskrit texts and engaging with pandits.”

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