The Volcano Lover: Climate, Colonialism, and the Slave Trade in Raffle's History of Java (1817)

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This essay revisits Montesquieu's racialized theories of climate in the context of the British Interregnum in Java, 1811–16 and the devastating eruption of Mt. Tambora. In his History of Java (1817), Stamford Raffles, would-be empire builder in Southeast Asia, positions himself as a revisionary reader of The Spirit of the Laws (1748): one who accepted Montesquieu's progressive understanding of the link between human societies and their material conditions but who, as a self-made bureaucrat of empire, upheld government, not climate, as the nurse of culture. Raffles writes as a European governor seeking to embody in his liberal reforms and georgic representations of Java the "mildness" of his own native climate, but his romantic depiction of Javanese agriculture and society is haunted by the island's volcanic geology and its cataclysmic manifestation in the Mt. Tambora eruption of 1815. The devastating human impact of the Tambora event entirely overawed his colonial administration, seriously thwarting his globalizing agenda for the Dutch East Indies, and consolidating instead the indigenous systems of slavery and maritime raiding. As an eco-historical case study, this essay offers an example of the regressive impacts of ecological disaster on the development of Western-driven global trading networks and their liberal political apparatus.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-55
Number of pages23
JournalJournal for Early Modern Cultural Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2008


  • Culture


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