LGS Student Spotlight | Anjuli Webster

By Kia Lisby

Kristen Patterson

LGS History PhD student Anjuli Webster was awarded a 2023 Dissertation Grant from the National Institute of Social Sciences (NISS).  

Webster's dissertation project reconstructs the intertwined histories of environment and empire in southern Africa over the nineteenth century, with a particular focus on water. In her project, she asks how riverine, estuarine, and coastal landscapes shaped the human history of a region bordered by ocean, brimming with small rivers but prone to drought.    

Using archival sources, indigenous oral traditions, and archaeological and geological data, Webster examines the complex ways waterscapes were claimed, contested, managed, and remade by African communities, English and Portuguese colonial officials, colonists, and Dutch-speaking Voortrekkers.   

"I analyze the effects of imperial landscaping – such as dredging estuaries and building ports, roads, and railways – on indigenous relations, networks, and sovereignty. By reconstructing how enslavement, imperial dispossession, and imperial infrastructures disrupted and reconfigured existing relations, shaping new land and waterscapes, I offer new insight into the environmental dimensions of imperial conquest and colonial rule," Webster says.   

The NISS grant supports one month of archival research in the Arquivo Histórico de Moçambique (Maputo, Mozambique), working with primary sources in the Administração do Concelho da Matola and Lourenço Marques collections on early colonial water infrastructure projects.   

To her benefit, Webster says, "My intermediate language proficiency in Portuguese prepares me well to work with the material in these collections."   

The grant will also fund travel to and accommodation in Maputo for one month of archival research. The primary source materials available in the Arquivo Histórico de Moçambique will supplement other materials she has already collected in South Africa, England, and Portugal.   

Furthermore, they will allow Webster to complete two chapters of her dissertation project - Chapter 4, 'Steel rivers: Imperial infrastructures from rail to port, 1870-1900' and Chapter 5, 'Slow conquest: Imperial infrastructures from rail to port, 1870-1900. Over the 19th century, the Portuguese and British empires and Dutch-speaking Voortrekkers reshaped the coastal and estuarine systems of the region, forming new networks of movement, enclosing communal African lands, and constructing colonial borders. Landscapes of dynamic movement and interaction were disconnected. Shared river ecosystems were then divided between early colonial nation-states.   

Webster's research will refine our understanding of empire by retelling the history of nineteenth-century southern Africa's environmental transformations.   

"This history has urgent relevance for reframing our understanding of resource equity and environmental justice in a water-scarce and drought-prone region. Colonial infrastructures and environmental regulatory frameworks established during the nineteenth century continue to shape political ecologies and human mobilities in southern Africa today."   

Webster believes that by understanding the material afterlives of empire, we might learn how to better manage human and non-human networks in a world of pronounced crisis.  

Check out more information about the NISS grant: https://www.socialsciencesinstitute.org/grants 
Anjuli's Bio: https://aas.emory.edu/mellon_sawyer_seminar/bios/webster-anjuli.html