Red Coats and Wild Birds

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Kirsten Greer
Kirsten is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University.

My doctoral project, “Red coats and wild birds: military culture and ornithology across the nineteenth-century British Empire,” interrogates the intersections between British military culture and the practices and ideas of ornithology, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean region. The collecting practices of British military officers have been integral to the establishment of many natural history and ethnographic collections in the United Kingdom and in the colonies, as military men mapped avian, moral, and racial geographies of the British Empire. Similarly, their natural history collections, as well as the birds commemorated with their names, present historical and cultural meanings intricately linked to identity, colonialism, and empire.

Considering that British officers often occupied several imperial sites throughout their military careers, to what extent did their movements shape their environmental knowledge of these places? How did British military naturalists encounter different local cultures (with different attitudes to hunting, birds, field science etc.) and different local natures (different sets of birds and environments)?

In order to answer these questions, I have centered my work on the Mediterranean region as a “colonial sea” in the production of hybrid identities and cultural practices, and the mingling of the peoples, ideas, commodities, and migratory birds. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Mediterranean region emerged as a crucial site for the security of British trade routes to India and South Asia, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The military stations in the Mediterranean acted as trans-imperial sites, connecting Britain to India through the flow of military manpower, commodities, ideas, information, and bodily experiences across the empire.

The relationship between British military men and the production of colonial knowledge produced a particular kind of subjectivity in the spatialization of the Mediterranean region. By critically examining the material remnants of the avian imperial archives, I have demonstrated how the practices and performances of British military field ornithology helped to materialize the Mediterranean as a moral “semi-tropical” place for the cultural acclimatization of white, transient, British soldiers to and from India; and to make “visible in new ways” the connectivity of North Africa to Europe through the geographical distribution of birds.

The intersection between the British military, “home,” and migratory birds has been central to my research. The emotional connection to “British” migratory birds in the Mediterranean allowed officers to assert their own moral, temperate approach to nature when commenting on local cultures of natures in Gibraltar and Malta. When back home in Britain, their networked ornithological knowledge helped define notions of national, “British” birds, which in turn influenced in part the bird preservation movement. I have therefore stressed the importance of examining both the trans-imperial and the trans-local in the formulation of environmental knowledge and ideas of birds.

Lastly, my own archival and field research in the Mediterranean has provided me with an opportunity to understand the impact of British imperialism on more contemporary issues of bird migration protection. My investigations in Malta have revealed how bird hunting is still a hotly contested issue, and how some have claimed that the European Union is another form of imperialism now imposed on the Maltese. I have attempted to shed light on Malta’s British colonial past as a means to illustrate the ways in which telling Maltese bird hunters what to do from a British perspective might aggravate the problem. Furthermore, I have highlighted the importance of studying the complexity of migratory birds across multiple borders and local cultures of nature in order to understand the tensions implicated in claims to a territory’s “natural heritage,” and the rights to use or protect it.

My doctoral project has benefited greatly from the support and insight of my co-supervisors, Dr. Laura Cameron and Dr. Joan Schwartz, at Queen’s University, and my host-supervisor, Dr. David Lambert, at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Featured image: Photo by Heather Wilde on Unsplash.

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Kirsten Greer is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Geography and History at Nipissing University, and the Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies. Her CRC program addresses specifically reparations “in place” from Northern Ontario to the Caribbean through interdisciplinary, integrative, and engaged (community-based) scholarship in global environmental change research. As a critical historical geographer, she is interested in human-environment relations in the past; the environmental histories and legacies of the British Empire; and the politics of biodiversity heritage in the global North Atlantic. Greer is the past chair of the Historical Geography Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers (2016-2019). She is of Scottish-Scandinavian descent, from the unceded lands of Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. She currently lives and works on the traditional territory of the Nbisiing Nishnaabeg, and the lands protected by the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850.

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