Debjani Bhattacharyya’s current research addresses two broad questions: how environment and ecological formations shaped law and economy from the eighteenth century onwards; and how the contingencies through which legal and economic imaginaries developed and globalized across the world in turn reshaped colonial environments. In particular she is interested in tracing how the specific geography of the colony, its rivers, seas, swamps, deltas and seasons shaped the legal and economic technologies during the period of European expansion and came to occupy the position of universal knowledge and science. She explores these themes from a South Asian perspective, especially by focusing on the Bay of Bengal delta, one of the active deltas connecting India and Bangladesh. Her first book Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

She is also interested in the transnational financial history of the early-modern and colonial maritime world of the Bay of Bengal region by exploring litigations, petitions, letters and private papers of merchants and traders. Her second project focuses on shipwrecks in the Bay of Bengal in order to investigate how climactic and environmental changes from the eighteenth century shaped ideas about risk and instruments of insurance of imperial trade. 

Her research was awarded the Junior Fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies and The History Project funded by the Joint Centre for History and Economics, Harvard University (USA) and Cambridge University (UK) and International Institute for Asian Studies (The Netherlands). Before joining Drexel University (USA), she researched and taught at Jadavpur University (India), Heidelberg University (Germany) and Emory University (USA). She is also an elected member to the Professional Division of American Historical Association. 

Fellowship at IIAS 2016 - 2017

By rethinking the process of urbanization and the production of hinterlands in a marshy deltaic space, my first book project Hydrologics: Property, Law and the Urban Environment in the Bengal Delta documents an environmental history of colonial Calcutta and empire building in the Delta. As a fellow of IIAS from September 2016 to March 2017, I will finalize my book as well as lay the groundwork for a second project. My second project links the financial port towns of Asia with the maritime world of the Bay of Bengal in order to investigate how climactic and environmental changes from the eighteenth century shaped ideas about risk and the instruments of insurance in the expansion of imperial trade.

Hydrologics demonstrates that viewing the city and its urbanization from the delta unveils a different history of empire-building and colonial bureaucracy. The book proceeds by elaborating how – in the indeterminate and shifting landscape of deltaic Bengal – the concept of “property-thinking” became critical in making land and water into discrete legal elements, with each being governed by separate arenas: riparian and land laws. At the same time, this delta space then became home to many urban infrastructural and legal experiments from the late eighteenth century that were transferred and transplanted to various parts of the world. Hydrologics concludes by illuminating how property-thinking, the revenue-economy and extractive principles have shaped and continue to shape patterns of urbanization in the region and the legal frameworks surrounding the property market with devastating consequences, as evidenced in the receding coastline in the Bengal Delta and elsewhere across the world.

Connecting multiple historiographies – legal, urban, and environmental – my book argues that the materiality of colonial landscapes and their ecologies played a decisive role in the making of property laws and the urban land market. Although there is a robust anthropological literature on urban land markets, town-planning and real-estate in Asian cities, we know very little about the historical genealogy of urban property. Recent historical and anthropological scholarship has already begun raising fundamental questions about the role of marshes and the riverine landscape in understanding territoriality, property regimes and urbanization. I focus on the history of the colonial administrative town of Calcutta as a space situated in the Bengal Delta and not cut off from it, so as to delineate the role of the hybrid environmental space of the delta and its ecology in writing an environmental history of urban property. My book reveals the productive and destructive roles played by the indeterminate delta landscape in the development of the colonial legal architecture of property regimes and a market in urban land.

As a fellow at IIAS, I will also be taking Dutch language lessons to prepare for my second project which will deal with the Dutch East Indies Company records. My second project tentatively titled Risky Credit: The Early-Modern Commercial World in the Bay of Bengal will explore how merchants, commodities, credit and ships crisscrossed this space of the Bay of Bengal from the sixteenth century, creating an ocean of papers in the form of diaries, litigations, insurance records, letters, petitions, ship logbooks and travelogues.