6 Oct. 2023 — 12:00 noon — GAR 4.100

Raymond Hyser (UT)

“What’s a Forest to a Jungle?: Tropical Forestry in British Ceylon’s Coffee Culture” 

When one thinks of tropical forestry, few, if any, would think of Coffea arabica. This evergreen tree has dominated the coffee trade since its dispersal from the southwestern foothills of Ethiopia sometime in the sixth century CE. In this paper, I highlight the importance of C. arabica in understanding tropical forestry and forestry knowledge in the nineteenth century. I examine the extensive cultivation of C. arabica in British Ceylon by conceptualizing the island’s coffee plantations as complex, anthropogenic forest ecosystems. By exploring these plantations as forest landscapes of natural, human, and human-made elements, I illustrate how tropical ecosystems influenced the construction and maintenance of coffee plantations and, in turn, how coffee planters transformed the island’s tropical environments. In particular, I will demonstrate how perceived knowledge of tropical forest landscapes conditioned plantation development by exploring the categorization of “forest” and “jungle” land. By examining the processes surrounding the creation and management of coffee plantations in the central highlands of Colonial Ceylon, I hope to highlight how coffee cultivation played an integral role in shaping tropical forestry on the island and, subsequently, transforming Ceylon’s forest landscapes.


Raymond Hyser is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the University of Texas at Austin History Department. He situates his research at the intersection of agricultural history, environmental history, and the history of empires. His dissertation project, “Caribbean Ceylon,” traces the development and movement of agricultural knowledge systems of coffee between the circum-Caribbean and South Asia to explore how European perceptions of the “tropics” and the environmental realities of these landscapes shaped agricultural knowledge of coffee.