Forestry as Foreign Policy: Anglo-Siamese Relations and the Origins of Britain's Informal Empire in the Teak Forests of Northern Siam, 1883–1925*

Gregory A. Barton** and Brett M. Bennett**

Nineteenth-century Europeans visiting Southeast and South Asia eulogised teak trees (Tectona grandis) for their value and beauty. Diplomatic diaries, travel memoirs, literary descriptions and geography books for children described the teak as a universal sovereign of the sylvan world, the regal “lord” of the forests. With dwindling supplies of oak in Britain, British elites saw teak as a vital component of the country's global naval supremacy in the nineteenth century. The fear of a dwindling supply of teak during the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries encouraged the creation of forestry departments and laws in British India that attempted to preserve the finite amount of teak in the sub-continent. Yet the finite ecologies of India and Burma could not supply all the teak required to fuel expanding demand. Britain would have to look beyond its formal empire in Asia to find more teak.


* We would like to thank the Department of History, the College of Liberal Arts, and the Graduate School at the University of Texas at Austin for funding Brett's research in London. We especially thank Wm. Roger Louis and A.G. Hopkins for providing constant insight and support for our research on the topics of “informal empire” and “gentlemanly capitalism”.

** Gregory A. Barton is permanent Research Fellow at the Research School of Social Science at the Australian National University. Brett M. Bennett is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin and will take up duties as a lecturer in modern history at the University of Western Sydney in 2011.