Published by Cambridge University Press, July 2023
Author: Matthew Holmes
The coffee plantations of late nineteenth-century Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) were rocked by a series of crises, including the appearance of numerous insect pests. Scholars have demonstrated that nineteenth-century plantations were both ecologically vulnerable and reliant on exploited labour, with entomology deployed in their defence across the British Empire. Yet this paper argues that, despite its global reach, colonial entomology was sometimes conducted by individuals in pursuit of such parochial concerns as their local reputation and social standing. This case study examines the beetles of Ceylon through the eyes of Scottish plantation owner and amateur naturalist Robert Camperdown Haldane. His 1881 tract All About Grub erroneously identified the island’s beetles as relatives of the European cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha). Although Haldane was a well-travelled individual who adopted a global science, he was also a product of Ceylon’s plantation society: touchy about his social status and dismissive of his Indian labourers. The insular priorities of individuals or tight-knit communities could direct an enterprise with superficially global characteristics.