Red Coats and Wild Birds: Military Culture and Ornithology Across the Nineteenth-Century British Empire
Greer, Kirsten Aletta
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“Red coats and wild birds: military culture and ornithology across the nineteenth-century British Empire” investigates the intersections between British military culture and the practices and ideas of ornithology, with a particular focus on the British Mediterranean. Considering that British officers often occupied several imperial sites over the course of their military careers, to what extent did their movements shape their ornithological knowledge and identities at “home” and abroad? How did British military naturalists perceive different local cultures (with different attitudes to hunting, birds, field science, etc.) and different local natures (different sets of birds and environments)? How can trans-imperial careers be written using not only textual sources (for example, biographies and personal correspondence) but also traces of material culture? In answering these questions, I centre my work on the Mediterranean region as a “colonial sea” in the production of hybrid identities and cultural practices, and the mingling of people, ideas, commodities, and migratory birds. I focus on the life geographies of four military officers: Thomas Wright Blakiston, Andrew Leith Adams, L. Howard Lloyd Irby, and Philip Savile Grey Reid. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Mediterranean region emerged as a crucial site for the security of the British “empire route” to India and South Asia, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Military stations served as trans-imperial sites, connecting Britain to India through the flow of military manpower, commodities, information, and bodily experiences across the empire. By using a “critical historical geopolitics of empire” to examine the material remnants of the “avian imperial archive,” I demonstrate how the practices and performances of British military field ornithology helped to: materialize the British Mediterranean as a moral “semi-tropical” place for the physical and cultural acclimatization of British officers en route to and from India; reinforce imperial presence in the region; and make “visible in new ways” the connectivity of North Africa to Europe through the geographical distribution of birds. I also highlight the ways in which the production of ornithological knowledge by army officers was entwined with forms of temperate martial masculinity.