Much of the history of the British Empire is a history of floundering (if not foundering) colonial “improvement” projects, the story of best-laid schemes going awry. At the end of the eighteenth century, as Britain simultaneously licked the wounds it had acquired during the American Revolution and flourished under the new agrarian regimes of the Agricultural Revolution, two ambitious and strikingly similar improvement projects were undertaken in two far-flung, embryonic antipodean settlements, New South Wales (Australia) in 1788 and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in 1795. The goal was, in the words of one colonial booster, to recover in the Southern Hemisphere what had been “sunk” in the Northern. New South Wales and the Cape were to be closely-settled colonies, where Enlightened agricultural practices (based on intensive mixed farming) would reign supreme, inoculating these new societies against unchecked expansion and political unrest. Eventually, New South Wales and the Cape were to look like Norfolk or Cambridgeshire, a patchwork landscape of grain, fodder crops, kitchen gardens, and sown pastures, striped with hedgerows and fences and dotted with villages, farmhouses, ruddy-faced farming families, and carefully contained livestock. So why, by the mid-1830s, had both colonies come to rely exclusively on an agrarian economy based on land-extensive "frontier" pastoral enterprises? Many historians, economists, and geographers would call this quick pastoral turn inevitable in any place (past or present) where grassland is plentiful and cheap and labor scarce. This talk shows how this economic turn from the soil to the sheep/cattle station was not inevitable at all, exploring both how the project of Enlightenment-era mixed husbandry was stymied by political, social, economic, and environmental untidiness of these new landscapes and how its failure shaped the political and ecological futures of these two colonies at a critical juncture in the history of Britain’s settler empire.
Maura Capps is currently an A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, affiliated with the Department of History and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. She is a historian of Britain and the British Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with regional specializations in Australasia and Sub–Saharan Africa. She received her Ph.D. in History in 2016 from the University of Chicago with a dissertation entitled “All Flesh Is Grass: Agrarian Improvement and Ecological Imperialism in Britain’s Settler Empire, 1780–1840.” Her book manuscript, “All Flesh Is Grass: An Agrarian History of Britain’s Settler Empire,” highlights the global interplay between British agrarian politics, Enlightenment–era agricultural science, and imperial ecological networks in the transformation of colonial environments, focusing particularly on the role of sown fodder crops in those transformations.