Driving around southern Utah on some amazingly well-maintained US highways encouraged my mind to fast forward to the upcoming AHA conference, where I’m participating in a panel focusing on the things that happen - political, scientific, economic, social - when people build roads.

Sadly, our panel has been scheduled for the dreadful time of Monday, 8:30am. Here’s to the last hurrah at AHA 2015! If you’re interested in thinking about roads or transportation and development more broadly, please do come join us before you pack your bags for the plane home.


People and Technology: Comparing Road Building across Three Continents

AHA Session 258

Monday, January 5, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM

Central Park West (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)

Chair and Comment:

Jo Guldi, Brown University


What Is Public Utility? Roads and Communities in Western France, 1757–90

Katherine McDonough, Stanford University

Views of Nature and Road Building in Central America, 1800–38

Sophie Brockmann, University of London

Trade Routes and Road Building in North India, c. 1820–1900

Jagjeet Lally, University College London

Session Abstract

How did roads impact people’s lives? What role do roads play in society and politics in vastly different environmental and cultural settings? This panel explores historical road construction projects in three different political and cultural settings: eighteenth-century France, nineteenth-century Central America, and Indo-Central Asia. The papers share an interest in understanding the consequences of trying to build and maintain permanent transportation infrastructure in places where shifting, seasonal routes or water-based transport had previously fulfilled mobility needs. Each paper explores how administrators and engineers conceptualized and built roads and analyzes roads’ impact on the populations they connected and the environment and cultural landscapes they passed through.

Katherine McDonough’s paper on road construction in eighteenth-century western France uses archival records of compulsory labor to study how the concept of public utility changed over time in space. Through a focus on the process of construction, she brings rural laborers, who were the primary work force on France’s highways before the Revolution, into the history of roads. Her paper highlights the relationship between technology, politics, and society. Sophie Brockmann’s paper explores views of nature and landscapes as expressed by administrators, engineers and local populations during the planning and construction of roads through Central America’s interior. She contrasts documents from the late-colonial and early republican period to demonstrate continuities and discontinuities in strategies of road surveys and road construction against the backdrop of changing political circumstances. Jagjeet Lally’s paper, dealing with the web of Indo-Central Asian trade routes and roads in the nineteenth century, shows how the choice between different sets of routes was shaped by changing political circumstances. He focuses on the reconstruction of the Grand Trunk Road from North India to Afghanistan in the context of the expansion of British political power in the region, and the ways in which this shifted and altered the trade geography of North India.

The history of roads and trade-routes has always been in dialogue with other disciplines, from geography to science and technology studies. This panel seeks to draw together connections between roads as they existed as material objects in their environment, and their human histories and cultural meanings. The contributors hope to stimulate a comparative debate on the role of roads, and the routes they constituted, across three continents.