Natural hazards and empire An exhibition framed around student responses to the Royal Geographical Society's Collections

By Sarah Evans, Arjan Gosal, David Lambert, James Poskett, Thomas Simpson, and Catriona Sharples.

When we think about natural hazards, we tend to focus on physical processes. We might study the collision of tectonic plates that causes an earthquake, or the build-up of gas that results in a volcanic eruption. However, natural hazards also have a human element. They are studied and experienced by people, and the responses to natural hazards are shaped by societies.

In this exhibition, we explore how natural hazards were studied and experienced under the conditions of empire, drawing on examples from the Royal Geographical Society's Collections. For many people, colonialism itself was a disaster. When combined with the shock of an earthquake, an avalanche, or volcanic eruption, the effects could be especially damaging and long-lasting.

The exhibition was put together following an undergraduate workshop held at the Royal Geographical Society in collaboration with the University of Leeds and the University of Warwick. This was an exercise in participatory research.

What do undergraduates, studying geography at university today, make of the historical Collections held at the Royal Geographical Society? And what does ‘decolonisation’ mean for them as the geographers of the future? Student responses to the artefacts are presented as quotes in italics that weave through the exhibition.

“The Collections highlight how recognition and prestige is directed towards colonial powers and European 'heroes' involved in early documentation of natural hazards, but the local people who mainly facilitated the research aren't recognised” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

“Who else have we not heard about? What other stories do we not know? What are the cultural beliefs, traditions, superstitions involved around natural disasters in other cultures?” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

Volcanic imperialism

Tempest Anderson (1843–1913) was a wealthy surgeon and amateur vulcanologist. He spent much of his later life travelling around the world photographing volcanoes. In 1902, Anderson travelled to the Caribbean in the aftermath of two major eruptions in this volcanically active region. He visited the French island of Martinique and the British island of St Vincent, which, like much of the region, were both part of global European empires at the time.

Volcanic studies in many lands, plate xxii, Dr Tempest Anderson, 1846-1913. RGS-IBG: K259559
Volcanic studies in many lands, plate xv, Dr Tempest Anderson, 1846-1913. RGS-IBG: K259559

The Mount Pelée volcanic eruption in the northern part of Martinique began in the April of 1902. It was one of the deadliest ever, killing around 29,000 people and destroying the town of Saint-Pierre, as pictured in this photograph.

Volcanic studies in many lands, plate xxiii, Dr Tempest Anderson, 1846-1913. RGS-IBG: K259559

The nearby island of St Vincent also experienced an eruption at La Soufrière around the same time as that in Martinique. Although far less deadly in its impact, it did serve to hasten the long-term decline of the colony’s plantation system.

Volcanic studies in many lands, plate xix, Dr Tempest Anderson, 1846-1913. RGS-IBG: K259559

Evidence, including photographs, gathered in the aftermath of both the Mount Pelée and La Soufrière eruptions was important in helping to advance the field of vulcanology. On his return from the Caribbean, Anderson gave public talks about his observations, showing slides and maps based on the photographs he had taken.

“Maps are important to show the physical and political state at the time of production. Using these maps…is important in the wider context of colonialism because of how resources may have been traded.” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

Maps to illustrate recent volcanic eruptions in the West Indies, by Dr Tempest Anderson, 1903. RGS-IBG: rgs560591

The volcanoes of Guatemala and St. Vincent, by Dr Tempest Anderson. RGS-IBG: rgs235072

Anderson was not alone in being fascinated by volcanoes. This piece of lava was collected by the French naturalist Eugene André (1861–1922) from St Vincent, and gifted to the Royal Geographical Society. Such specimens not only enhanced scientific understanding but also helped men like André to be elected Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society.

Piece of lava ejected by the Soufrière volcano, St. Vincent, 1902. RGS-IBG: Artefact F 13.

“Those with the money and the position could travel and have control over what they reported back and how, such as Tempest Anderson” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

“The Collections examined all came from previously colonised or historical parts of the empire, which makes it interesting to think about who collected the data and why it ended up in the Royal Geographical Society.” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

Avalanche and empire

During the 1920s and 1930s, a series of British expeditions journeyed to Mount Everest, employing Himalayan men as climbing partners and baggage carriers. Hostile weather, the lack of oxygen at high altitude, and avalanches frustrated their attempts to be the first to reach the summit.

The western face of the North Col, showing debris of great avalanche, RGS-IBG: E06881

Colonel Henry Tanner was one of many British surveyors in nineteenth century colonial India who gathered information and produced maps of the strategically sensitive Himalayan region. Tanner’s photographs here focus on portions of forest felled in an avalanche nine years earlier. The area cleared and the size of individual trees—Tanner notes one was "30 feet in circumference"—serve as visual markers of the avalanche’s ferocity.

In Lahoul - from banks of Chandra river avalanche falling about 1,000 ft. Lahoul, RGS-IBG: rgs002666
Beas valley - result of a snow avalanche, RGS-IBG: rgs002705


The 1922 Everest Expedition ended in tragedy. British climber George Mallory attempted to reach the summit late in the climbing season when the snow was soft and unstable, and an avalanche caught his climbing party of 13 Himalayans and three Britons. Seven Himalayan men died. Following a protocol established for soldiers killed in battle, financial compensation was sent to bereaved families, as detailed in this document.

Everest Expeditions special collection; planning documentation. Mount Everest Committee/Foundation: rgs213342

“The stories of people who we don’t normally hear about. Everyone has heard of Mallory, but what about the dead Sherpas and guides on previous trips?” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

Men killed by avalanches on European-led climbing expeditions to the Himalaya were often commemorated by makeshift memorials. This photograph shows a Himalayan man kneeling at the grave of a fellow expedition member, marked simply by an ice axe.

“A coolie's grave”, killed by avalanche at 6,500m, 1930. RGS-IBG: rgs080338

“The photo of the Sherpa burial is an intrusion for the benefit of the geographer.” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

“Why were local people put at risk for our gain?” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

Disaster colonialism

The 1935 earthquake in Quetta, British India (modern-day Pakistan) destroyed an entire town and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 people. Photographs taken of the town by British officials, before and after the earthquake, reveal the extent of the structural damage. However, they show little trace of the impact of the earthquake on the people who lived in Quetta.

Bruce Road Quetta before earthquake, 1935. RGS-IBG: rgs079141
Bruce Road Quetta, after the earthquake, 1935. RGS-IBG: rgs079142

“The photos show a snapshot of this period, with little impact of what the local people were feeling and how natural hazards directly impacted communities.” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

The ruins of buildings, such as the Mastung Residency, were the focus of official photographs following the earthquake. Three Indian men in uniform stand in the rubble, assessing the damage.

“The Collections demonstrated the impact of colonisation on natural hazard responses, prioritising and displaying British buildings affected rather than local people. The lack of care and empathy can be observed through these images.” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

Quetta earthquake, the Residency Mastung, 1935. RGS-IBG: rgs032335

Damage caused by previous earthquakes in the same region was also recorded in photographs. This photograph captures the distortion of a local railway line in the aftermath of the 1893 earthquake (also in Quetta).

Once again, the photographer has chosen to record the damage to British infrastructure, prioritising this over documentation of any human casualties.

Photograph showing distortion of rails caused by earthquake, 1893. RGS-IBG: rgs079146

Filming disaster

News of the 1935 Quetta earthquake spread quickly. Colonial officials often doubled as amateur cinematographers, capturing the aftermath of the earthquake on film. Clarmont Skrine, a high-ranking member of the Indian Political Service, took much of the footage, which was later shown to audiences across the British Empire.

“The film conveyed a message that the native workers were exploited, which is a useful story to acknowledge the wrongdoings of past research.” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

Seismology for independence

Pakistan is located where the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates meet. It is a country with a complex geology, rich in a variety of minerals, but also prone to earthquakes. Pakistani geologists and geographers played a significant role in the development of seismology following independence in 1947. They helped to understand and manage risk, and often saw their work as part of the project of building a postcolonial nation.

In 1959, Noor Mohammad Khan became the first Pakistani Director of the Geological Survey following independence. Based in Quetta, the Geological Survey of Pakistan produced many maps of the region. This map shows fault lines and mineral deposits in both West Pakistan and East Pakistan.

N.M. Khan, Geological Map of Pakistan (Geological Survey of Pakistan, 1964), with permission of the European Soil Data Centre,

“The maps show a strong legacy of Pakistani geographers and data collectors of natural hazards. It shows that they were and are still involved within the topic and the evidence is there, but we need to highlight it and expose the sources to the wider world.” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

R. A. Khan Tahirkheli, Geology of the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindukush in Pakistan, 1982. RGS-IBG: rgs364184

Rashid Ahmed Khan Tahirkheli was another pioneering Pakistani geologist. Born in British India in 1928, Tahirkheli studied at Aligarh Muslim University before joining the Geological Survey of Pakistan in the 1950s. Tahirkheli had a long-running relationship with the Royal Geographical Society, helping to co-organise the 1980 International Karakoram Project. In 1982 he published Geology of the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindukush in Pakistan.

Tahirkheli recognised the importance of teaching and research in geology for the future of Pakistan. These wooden models, which were donated to the Royal Geographical Society in 1984, were typical of the teaching aids used in geology departments in Pakistan at the time.

Wooden model of 'Geological section across Karakoram and Himalaya in Pakistan', 1982, RGS-IBG: Artefact H 2 (1)

Wooden model of 'Geological section across Himalaya in India', 1982, RGS-IBG: Artefact H 2 (2)

Wooden model of 'Section through Lawarai Top through Dir and Chitral Pakistan', 1982, RGS-IBG: Artefact H 2 (3)

“A question we had about the geological models was why it was donated to the Royal Geographical Society in London and not a local geographical society? The fact that it was donated from a researcher from Pakistan to a British researcher highlights the elements of colonialism embedded in the Royal Geographical Society.” BSc Geography student, University of Leeds

Decolonising geography

Geography has a long colonial history, deeply rooted in Eurocentric views of the world. There is a need to acknowledge and understand how colonial practices and power structures translated into the practices of geography as a discipline. Through this understanding we can work to decolonise geography in the modern day.

At the end of the workshop, students filled in a questionnaire, describing what ‘decolonisation’ meant to them. Here are some of their responses:

“To me, decolonisation is about broadening the sources and focus of geography away from a Eurocentric and Westernised subject.”

“It means an acknowledgement of wrongs in the past and a move to try and support each other going forward and to engage with locals and different people from different places with different knowledge and perspectives to capture a more realistic and broad view.”

“Decolonising geography must consider ethical ways to acknowledge past ownership… while giving minorities the opportunity to express their views and participate in future research.”

“As a white woman, I can recognise to a certain extent I am part of the current problem. However, we need to be part of the solution.”

RGS-IBG: S0020537, rgs026357

“Geography affects and involves everyone on the planet, and that means everyone should have equal opportunity to talk and learn about it. We need to all recognise that people have been knowledgeable on geography before colonialism and we can access this evidence.”

“It’s really important to decolonise geography so that the teaching of geography becomes inclusive to different backgrounds, cultures and people.”

“To me, decolonising geography means evening out the playing field, giving recognition and offering opportunities for previously voiceless communities to share both recent and historical knowledge in the field, completely openly and with transparency.”

“It can be addressed in many modules regarding sustainability, natural disasters and environmental management as socio-economic impacts are already being considered.”

“I think the bottom-up approach is important...starting conversations with younger children in primary and secondary education will help it to become a more frequent and highlighted issue to tackle.”

RGS-IBG: S0020885


This exhibition was funded through the Participatory Research Fund held at the University of Warwick. It was produced in collaboration with the University of Leeds and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Project contributors: Sarah Evans (Royal Geographical Society), Arjan Gosal (University of Leeds), David Lambert (University of Warwick), James Poskett (University of Warwick), Catriona Sharples (University of Warwick), Thomas Simpson (University of Warwick), Jan Turner (Royal Geographical Society). Digital exhibition created by Imogen Edmonds (Royal Geographical Society).

All images © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) unless stated otherwise

All text © Creative Commons BY 4.0