Archival Research

Archival research

The archival exploration is one of the primary tools of the project that significantly addresses the delta’s political ecology and its historical evolution from a floodscape to a riskscape. Archival research enabled the examination of historical data, processes, and narratives that have shaped the understanding of, and response to, climatic events in the Sundarbans. These records encapsulate a range of experiential narratives—from colonial administrative responses to natural calamities, to local adaptations over centuries. These explorations illuminate the transitions and (in)consistencies in climate risk management, thus offering a deeper comprehension of the region’s current climatic vulnerabilities. Archival materials, such as administrative reports, surveys, and correspondences, provides a critical lens to the historical adaptation mechanisms, as well as the socio-economic and political contexts that catalysed or obstructed such initiatives. The application of this tool is crucial in understanding the past, which itself is essential in crafting adaptive strategies tailored to the socio-cultural ethos of the Sundarbans. 

Map 1: Map of Sundarban, 1873 completed by James Ellison (Surveyor of Sundarban )

The West Bengal State Archives, Kolkata serves as a repository of colonial climate data from the Lower Gangetic Delta, with mention to floods and cyclones occurring in parts of Sundarbans and the relief work carried out to tackle such situations. Understanding the format of arrangement of the records was a tricky task considering most of them lack digital compilation. In the West Bengal State Archives, the records could be tracked through a consolidated index, the majority of which requires manual handling. These consolidated indexes are yearly compilations of proceeding names and types, similar to a TOC (Table of Contents) classified into particular branch or departments and categorized into several volumes in alphabetical order (Image 1). The majority of the well-preserved colonial records are from mid-19th century onwards and contain proceedings from the Departments of Revenue, Education, Finance, legislative, Miscellaneous and Municipality. Each of these departments are further categorized based on sub-branches and years. Identifying the baseline for these records required consultation with the archivists in-charge who guided towards relevant sections for further investigation.





Image 1: Archival Index, Judicial Department, Bengal, 1898

Image 2: Index Folder uploaded in the Google Drive

The ‘C’ section of the Index holds record of cyclone proceedings throughout India, from 19th century onwards, where the concerned case sites could be identified through the mention of ‘Sundarbans’ or regions specific to the region such as ‘Backergunge’, ‘Cyclone in North 24 Paraganas’ etc. in the list. As there were hundreds of proceedings in these indexes, it was imperative to collect and store the records relevant to the Sundarbans, which were compiled in excel sheets and promptly uploaded in the project google drive. A targeted index list was compiled that only consisted records of proceeding titles relevant to Sundarbans climate occurrences, categorized into different departments (Image 2). Each of the folders contain list of the proceedings and the year-month of the occurrence, that helps the reader in comprehending the types of records available in the repository, a sample of which has been showcased in Image 3. The archives contained a separate ‘B-index’ that comprises of either damaged or destroyed proceedings and unfortunately many of the relevant proceedings which were noted from the B-index during the initial study were later found to be destroyed or unavailable (Image 4).

Image 3: List of Proceedings relevant to Sundarbans in Forest Branch, 1861-1908A

The agricultural branch A and B provided maximum relevant records on climate related risks. The gradual exploration of the archival materials assisted in ‘de-linearing’ the idea of risks that was revealed numerous demarcations and interconnections present in the Sundarbans. While the exploration began with search for records related to cyclones and floods, which are considered to be the primary risk in the Sundarbans, the index revealed numerous post climate disaster health risks like cholera, malaria and dysentery that plagued the region.

Image 4: Damaged Records


Sundarban’s low lying topography and proximity to the Bay of Bengal renders it susceptible to the dual impacts of rising sea level and frequent cyclonic disturbances. The exploration through the archival records shed light on the historicity of climate vulnerabilities in the Sundarbans and the colonial perception of risks. The occurrence of cyclones, floods and subsequent epidemics were categorized (Image 5) and recorded both statistically and descriptively by the colonists, with focus on loss of life land, revenue etc. and costs of reparation (Image 6). These proceedings, majorly written from colonial officers provided details of the veracity of the disasters, the efforts by different stakeholders in rescue and relief operations and various strategies taken by the administration to contain the aftermath.

Image 5: List of some documented Cyclones

Image 6: Account of Causalities from Cyclone


Analysing these documents shed light on the climate practices of the state, reflecting upon the conflicts between imperial science of disaster management and traditional adaptive knowledge. This conflict can be attributed to the overarching colonial objectives of administration and control of the environment rather than understanding and adapting to it. Floods and cyclones were a hindrance to the revenue generation, and focus on shifted towards taming the unruly waters through embankments, overshadowing indigenous skills and understanding of the space.

This colonial strategy of resilience can be divided in to two broader heads – Immediate & Long term, which focused on the economic consequences of disasters to colonial commerce, rather than the broader socio-economic resilience of the native populace which is parallel to the contemporary strategies we see today (Image 7).

Image 7: Colonial Resilience Strategy

The archival proceedings provide glimpses of disaster management efforts by the state with local stakeholder contributions. The Immediate Resilience strategy can also be termed as short-term strategies that are mostly a reaction to the calamity or the first assistance which was provided in order to tackle the distress caused by the risk. It provides institutional supports which comprises of fund allocation to different relief operations, appointment of different civil servants in the affected areas, appointment of native workers to do jobs which will otherwise not be done by the colonial officers like crematory works or bringing in the ground report. the medical strategies include the appointment of doctors and medical professionals along with supply of medicines to the affected tracts, removal of bodies and performing crematory work, establishing dispensary etc. The record shows that in the aftermath of cyclones epidemics like cholera, malaria and dysentery was very common and caused huge amount of mortality. The local strategies include activities that require management and repairs from the ground unit, mostly the distribution of relief goods and essential commodities to the affected population, repairing of the embankments and bunds to protect the fields from the river water. This however also attests to future preparedness and is part of Long Term Resilience Strategy as well, which majorly focused on the prediction model and the experimentation procedures in the delta. The prediction model is mostly based on the meteorological developments in the Bay of Bengal and port regions and take precautions beforehand in order to reduce the damage in trade and commerce. The experimentations included scientific studies which were carried out in order to increase production of crops and revenue generation through introducing new varieties of grain and cash crop which was a lucrative business during that time. The archival indexes show us that there was a massive growth in the number of agricultural societies and colleges during this time.

There is a vast difference in the colonial understanding and mapping of the space, which was being reclaimed at the time and current transboundary Sundarbans. The deltaic islands connected by webs of riverine tracts were grouped and conformed with singular approaches without acknowledging the changing topographical, social and cultural agencies. Few excerpts reflect on state-society interactions, limited to local politics but the colonial resilience strategy unfortunately fails to recognize this heterogeneity of the Sundarbans, clubbing the region’s history, geomorphology and socio-ecological reverberations together and presenting the ‘Same size fits all’ model of disaster management. There are very few records of native voices that share snippets of local agencies, their interactions, contributions and traditional coping mechanisms. However, this lack of voices also narrate silent tale, of the transformation of the Sundarbans, from a densely laden mangrove delta to an imperial property, the muffling of the native voices accounting to the suppression of Sundarban’s naturality.