Remembering Richard Grove: Life and Legacy/ Scholar Humanist by Dr Debojyoti Das

By Sunil Pun|September 9, 2020|Culture, Environment, General, History|0 comments

by Dr Debojyoti Das

Amid Covid-19 pandemic, Professor Richard Grove left us too early. Grove was a trailblazer and maverick who worked across archives in the British Empire to develop a fresh understanding of imperial science and environmentalism that developed out of colonial foot soldiers exploring natural phenomena in the colonies. The science of El Nino and environmentalism he argued, developed at the edge of empires and not in metropolitan quarters of continental Europe. His doctoral thesis from Cambridge published under the intellectually original and thought-provoking topic, in title Green Imperialism in 1995, opened new windows on our shared past. Grove straddled across the Indian Ocean world and the Pacific to establish a historically grounded elucidation of El Nino events that were new to humanities and historical scholarship during the 1990s.

Besides being an erudite researcher, he established a network of scholars who gave a fresh impetus to environmental history as a discipline in the global south. He initiated the transdisciplinary collaboration with atmospheric scientists, paleo-ecologists, botanists, geographers, historians among scholastic peers to understand climate change, forest fire, El Nino, drought, and other challenging environmental issues of our time in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Grove thus pioneered the field of Environmental History in the global South and left an indomitable legacy. His work Green Imperialism recentred the significance of the Empire’s periphery towards understanding the birth of environmentalism. For this contribution, he was recognised by his peers as a ‘romantic’, and his ground-breaking work had a deep impact in academia.

I had a chance encounter with the polymath as a graduate researcher during his visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2005. He came to attend a conference and launch the book of his colleague in the Centre for the Studies in Science Policy. During the conference, he conscientiously took notes and was absorbed in deep thinking asking enlightening questions. He was attentive to details and exploring uncharted territories in his persuasive presentations and talks. Later in life when I came to teach at Sussex, I made several sojourns to his home in Lewes. For the past year before the lockdown, I absorbed a lot about his path-breaking academic adventures and personal life while interacting with (his wife and historian of South Asia) Vinita Damodaran and son Edwin. During one such visit to his home in Lewes in 2019, we watched the BBC documentary on El Nino (later compiled as a monograph jointly by George Adamson under the title El Nino in World history) that showcased a pioneering study of weather extremes as a developing historical idea governing climate change arguments. Thus, Grove’s ambitious life work on the ‘millennial history of the El Nino’ — a study of the climate crisis in different socio-cultural contexts did the groundwork of the much-discussed role of ‘environmental humanities’ in contemporary global environmental change scholarship. Thinking of the environment ahead of his time, he collected data painstakingly from different archives small and big and was reinventing the discipline. He functioned dexterously as an ‘activist academic’ and championed the cause of the underprivileged and marginalised.

From my numerous interactions with Grove and his family, I came to realise that he had a heart of gold and went beyond his capacity to help colleagues, friends and even strangers. On one occasion, Grove helped a man who was stranded at an airport and had no ticket to return home. Grove bought him a ticket and did not expect anything in return. He was a light-hearted person who assisted people in need, particularly his peers — financially and intellectually. His generosity and simplicity towards life were part of his magnanimity. Thus, he pioneered not only in academic research but was an exemplar in private life through philanthropy.

An interesting part of Grove’s character as an intellectual was his consistent resistance to establishment and bureaucracy. He dreamt of a free society where knowledge could be shared without barriers and across borders. He was continually active in resistance movements and inspired many to take up environmental history which was a nascent discipline during the 1980s and 90s across South Asia, Africa and little islands in Asia and the Caribbean. He believed in collegiality and established south-south network with scholars, researchers and academic institutions to establish a collaborative scholarship that gave voice to academic outputs from these regions. The launch of the journal Environment and History published by White Horse Press was an initiative in this direction taken a quarter-century ago. He established the Centre for World Environmental History at Sussex University and championed many other initiatives with his colleagues in South Asia and across the globe. He also established collaborative networks with Indian universities and in Australia. While serving as an ARC Discovery Fellowship Research Chair Professor at Australian National University, he met with a perilous road accident in Australia just months after I met him in New Delhi in 2006. This incident kept him permanently incapacitated to work.

As an environmental activist and maverick, Grove was less drawn to tenured academic positions, and remained a firm believer in field research. His collaborative enterprise and intellectual acumen challenged the frontiers of environmental history; his original works bear the mark of a scholar humanist. His loss has left a deep void in academia, but his scholarly legacy will continue by expanding the domain of environmental history as a discipline.


 Dr Debojyoti Das is a SOAS alumnus and Global Research Associate at the University of Sussex. He is the author of the book titled The Politics of Swidden Farming: Environment and Development in Eastern India (2018).

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