“Science on the Roof of the World: Empire and the remaking of the Himalaya” by Lachlan Fleetwood

Junnoo 24,000 ft from Choonjerma Pass 16,000 ft, East Nepal, from Joseph Dalton Hooker’s Himalayan Journals (1854) Junnoo 24,000 ft from Choonjerma Pass 16,000 ft, East Nepal, from Joseph Dalton Hooker’s Himalayan Journals (1854)

The exploration of the Himalaya contributed vastly to scientific knowledge. From botanical discoveries, to understanding of how human bodies work at altitude, to pioneering the use of new scientific equipment, the mountain range had an immense importance. Yet its hostile environment meant that this knowledge was not easily gained. Moreover these scientific endeavors were by no means apolitical. Empire and imperialism was a central aspect of these activities. Despite the notional purity of science and scholarship, these western surveyors, naturalists and scientists were taking part in the imperial project. 

Lachlan Fleetwood contends that our histories of “imperial sciences and geography need to be understood not only as method and a means for understanding ostensibly universal phenomena and our planet holistically, but also as a powerful tool of empire.” This new book aims to do exactly that by explaining “the story of uneven, incomplete and contested attempts to impose scientific, imperial and imaginative coherence on the Himalaya.”


Science on the Roof of the World: Empire and the Remaking of the Himalaya, Lachlan Fleetwood (Cambridge University Press, May 2022)
Science on the Roof of the World: Empire and the Remaking of the Himalaya, Lachlan Fleetwood (Cambridge University Press, May 2022)

Each of the book’s  six chapters deals with a specific topic, ranging from surveying the height of mountains, the medical understanding of bodies at altitude to development of scientific instruments and plant life.

Although large swathes of the Himalaya, almost but not all, came under the purview of the British Raj in India, little was known about this snowy frontier. The immense efforts of the Survey of India survey attempted to close this knowledge gap, but this survey was not driven purely by scientific enquiry but by “insecurity around the frontiers”. In a time where fears of Russian expansion into the sub-continent led to the “Great Game”, these same fears drove this scientific exploration. Indeed as Fleetwood writes


The emergence of the Himalaya as an important imperial frontier is inextricable from the story of measuring them as the world’s highest mountains, and compounded both by the topographical challenges and scientific uncertainties.


We are then treated to a history of Himalayan exploration and surveying.


In considerable detail, Fleetwood explains the laborious process that surveyors had to go through and their challenges. The difficulties of note-taking in precarious positions or the toll that working at such great heights, with altitude sickness then being poorly understood, combined with rigorous travel took on bodies. There was another danger too, of local opposition to these expeditions, which required secrecy to mitigate and explains the need to dress in “native dress” to fool Tibetan border guards or suspicious maharajas. There was also the challenge of relying on early scientific equipment such as barometers or thermometers which often broke down or which were fiddly or unreliable. Fleetwood explains how rudimentary equipment was made to replace the fragile equipment that was so often smashed on the way to India from London or having to boil thermometers to reset their values. He details the motley crew and ragtag scientific explorers in well drawn caricatures of these scientists and their mixture of desire for personal glory and scientific endeavour that drove them. He also portrays contemporary scientific understandings with examples, such as when the discovery of the Himalayas being the highest mountain range in the world was made by Robert Colebrook, the then Surveyor General of Bengal in the early 1800s, which meant that Chimborazo in Ecuador was no longer highest mountain. This discovery was not met with congratulations but rather with heavy public scepticism.

This is not a rose-tinted view of imperial explorers but one well-grounded in a political context and understanding. Fleetwood explains how measuring mountains created fixed imperial borders and was vital for imperial control, expansion and consolidation of power. There are detailed explanations of how political developments such as the 1814-16 Anglo-Gurkha War saw greater access to the Himalaya that resulted in further scientific discoveries. The book also provides a vivid picture of how laborious science in these extreme environments was impossible without the leverage of local indigenous knowledge systems, yet as he points out, these local contributions were conveniently forgotten when these European scientists wrote up their accounts. He draws heavily on period sources to ground developments in context of the time. These carefully selected sources give a good indication of then attitudes and understanding of both the Himalaya and natural sciences as a whole. This is supported by some beautiful reproductions of period illustrations, pictures and maps.

The book contains a vast amount of information. While aimed at those in academia with a particular scientific bent, the layperson will learn a lot about scientific exploration, frontiers and the legacies of colonial knowledge systems.

Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.