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“Illusory Riches”: Representations of the Tropical World, 1840–1950

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This article traces the emergence of a negative strain in European and North American representations of the tropics, as earlier images of natural abundance were supplemented, and partly supplanted, by the fears and frustrations of would-be colonisers and the growing realisation of the technical difficulties of tropical “development”. Taking Pierre Gourou's The Tropical World (1947) as an exemplary text that embodies attitudes accumulated over the previous century of scientific activity and colonial administration in the tropics, it is possible to see how, despite recognition of wide regional variations, the tropics as a whole were seen as constituting an impoverished and pestilential region, largely unsuited to white settlement and agriculture, and yet reliant upon outside agency for prospects of development. Without entirely ceasing to be landscapes of desire, the tropics represented a more primitive world than the northern temperate zone, a domain of largely untamed nature that served, by contrast, to demonstrate the moral and material “superiority” of northern climates, races and civilisations.

Document Type: Original Article


Affiliations: Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK

Publication date: March 1, 2000


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