Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften

Geographies of Accumulation: Nature, Infrastructure, and the Urbanisation of Cochin, c. 1860-1945

Dissertationsprojekt von Justin Mathew



This dissertation explores the historical geography of capitalist urbanisation in the context of Cochin, a port city on the southwest coast of India. The study argues that in the colonial context urbanisation was a geographically extended process of producing material infrastructures for capitalist accumulation. By drawing upon the critical theories on the production of social spaces and the political ecology of urbanisation, the study attempts to transcend the methodological perspective of confining the urbanisation to the visible territorial unit of the city. The existing studies on the history of the port cities in the nineteenth and twentieth century Indian Ocean tend to focus on larger regions, metropolitan port cities, and commodities with world-wide mercantile networks. Moreover, geographical descriptions of maritime history portray port cities as spatially bounded city spaces created by external influences. The present study attempts to overcome these limits by incorporating the political ecology perspective of the urban as a metabolic process of appropriating and circulating the natural riches as commodities. Towards this, rather than focusing on the morphology, demography or culture of the southwest Indian port city of Cochin, which is the subject of the present study, the dissertation elaborates how the changing spatial organisation of capitalism manifests as uneven urban landscapes.


In exploring the sociospatial restructuring of capitalist urbanisation, periodisation emerges as an important question. The period selected for the study, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, corresponds to the British colonial rule in South Asia. The study is divided into two sub-periods based on the problematic of the spatial practice of circulation. This study emphasises the totality of circulation as the basis to identify two interconnected, but separate sub-periods to examine the process of urbanisation in the colonial period. The six decades starting from the 1860s to World War I constituted the first sub-period of the circulatory regime of commercial accumulation that was dominated by the colonial and the princely ruling and mercantile elites and the European planters. Characteristic of this phase are the infrastructures of commercial accumulation of nature. The subsequent period, from World War I to the end of World War II, was marked by a remarkable development of technology-based and an energy-intensive circulatory regime of industrial accumulation of nature and was dominated by the princes, industrial entrepreneurs and the planters. The actualisation of the sociospatial relationship of circulation and the uneven urbanisation of capital was most visible in the infrastructures produced in these distinct sub-periods. To elaborate these issues, the study is divided into six chapters. Individual chapters map how the physical landforms of coasts, waterbodies, plains and hills are thus turned into the urban fabrics of ports, markets, canals, and roads. The chapters argue that the long-term and large-scale infrastructure projects carried out by the colonial state authorities as well as the princely states of Travancore and Cochin were not merely the networks that connected a city and its hinterland but the sociospatial organisation of landforms as urbanised extractive landscapes. Along with the official archives, the study consulted a new set of sources that include the archives of the mercantile companies, shipping agents, chambers of commerce, the plantation companies and the local intermediary traders.

Justin Mathew is a PhD student at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen, Germany. His PhD dissertation "Geographies of Accumulation: Nature, Infrastructure, and the Urbanisation of Cochin, c. 1860-1945" examines the historical geography of capitalist urbanisation in the context of the port city of Cochin. It elaborates the relationship between the port city of Cochin and its hinterland in geohistorical and political ecology perspectives. He also teaches history at the University of Delhi. His writing and teaching focus on the issues related to colonialism and ecological histories. His major research foci include critical urban theory, political ecology of the infrastructures, and the state-spatial restructuring under colonial capitalism.
Justin is a part of designing the course "Global Ecological Histories" for the University of Delhi and has contributed to the course "History of Environment" for Indira Gandhi National Open University. He also writes a column "Second Nature", for the Malayalam online magazine Navamalayalai on environmental issues within a socio-political framework. He is also a member of "Teachers Against Climate Change", a non-funded organisation that seeks to promote understanding and engagement about different aspects of the climate crisis among students, teachers, and activists.