Essay Prize Series part 3: This Year’s Result and Last Year’s Winner

The Hakluyt Society is pleased to announce the award of its 2016 Essay Prize. From a range of impressive submissions, the committee selected European Conceptualisations of Southeast Asian Sexual Diversity, c. 1590–1640 by Nailya Shamgunova (University of Cambridge) as the prize-winning essay. The Prize will be awarded to Ms. Shamgunova at the Society’s Annual General Meeting on 22 June 2016. Last year, Owain Lawson (Columbia University) received the first ever Hakluyt Society Essay Prize for his essay Constructing a Green Museum: French Environmental Imaginaries of Syria and LebanonMr. Lawson reflects on the research leading to his prize-winning essay below.


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Owain Lawson (right) receiving the inaugural edition of the Hakluyt Society Essay Prize from the Society’s President, Michael Barritt. June 2015, London

In September 1922, Abbé Émile Wetterlé arrived at the port of Beirut as part of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon’s agricultural commission. In his subsequent publications, he remarked on the astonishment he felt upon seeing for the first time the gentle rangeland of the Lebanese littoral. Steeped in biblical and orientalist representations of Lebanon, Wetterlé expected to see the dense Lebanese cedar forests described in the Bible. The absence of these forests implied to Wetterlé that Ottoman mismanagement and Arab indolence had devastated Lebanon’s natural splendour, and that France must rehabilitate the Lebanese environment.

My essay, which to my great surprise and deep gratitude won the Hakluyt Society’s essay prize, inquires into what forces shaped Wetterlé’s expectations. It investigates the diverse intellectual, scientific, and cultural sources of his belief in a degraded Arab environment and traces its trajectory through nineteenth-century scientific and travel writing to its influence in legitimating French Mandatory rule in Syria and Lebanon following World War I. I originally prepared this essay as part of my MA thesis at the American University in Cairo. It owes a great debt to the work of Richard Grove and Ussama Makdisi, but most importantly to Diana K. Davis and her concept of the “environmental imaginary.” This term is useful to capture the confluence of scientific, economic, religious, intellectual, emotional, and ideological forces at work in descriptions of nature.

Nineteenth-century visitors such as Ernest Renan, the Comte de Volney, and Alphonse de Lamartine, and later Mandatory officials such as Wetterlé and General Gouraud, had access to a great variety of textual and artistic representations of Greater Syria. These included classical and Arabic geographies, biblical accounts, and contemporary archaeological, climatological, and ethnographic science. They mobilized these sources to not only describe the Lebanese environment but to imagine its ancient natural state and prescribe methods to return Lebanon to that idealized condition. Biblical Lebanon’s dense cedar groves epitomized that ideal. Through a century of travel, writing, painting, and research, rehabilitating Mount Lebanon’s forests became part of France’s mission civilisatrice in the Levant and contributed to justifying their occupation and Mandatory rule. Syrian-Lebanese intellectuals did not passively receive this narrative, but rather contributed to its production and actively contested, negotiated, and reaffirmed it for their own purposes.

My interest in this subject emerged from my own work in reforestation, which provided a unique window into the relationship between efforts to extract natural resources and to preserve natural landscapes. Profound technological, economic, and scientific transformations over the last centuries have rearranged how most humans engage with the natural world. Indeed, many of us, myself included, can now only imagine nature as diminishing and fragile. In this light, environmental conservation efforts appear to be unambiguously positive practices. How then can we understand the discrepancy between these apparently noble intentions towards nature and the ease with which colonial officials translated them into a justification for colonial domination and violence? My intention with this essay was not to simply expose colonial conservation efforts as hypocritical, or debunk the nineteenth-century science that informed them, but to think about the longer trajectories of this relationship between nature and power.


Owain Lawson is a PhD student at Columbia University’s Department of History. His research focuses on the history of science, technology, and the environment in Lebanon and Greater Syria during the early twentieth century. He is in the early stages of developing a dissertation that explores the history of Lebanese hydroelectricity. Born in Ottawa, Canada, Owain received a B.A. from Concordia University in Montréal and an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo.

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Tancrede R. Dumas, “Beirut Port”, Beirut, 1860-1870, Nawaf Salam Collection, Arab Image Foundation, Beirut.

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