Colonising the corporeal: embodiment and difference in the context of Empire

Session Abstract : Writing in 2001, E.M. Collingham, drawing on Bourdieu, made a strong argument that the British experience of the Raj was ‘intensely physical’. From sea sickness, mosquito bites and prickly heat, to fatigue, disease, and the threat of sudden death, Collingham argued bodily experiences were formative. She traced the refashioning of British bodies in the Raj, from the flowing dress, indolent stature and Orientalised habits of the ‘Nabob’, to the self-disciplined and exercised masculinity of the ‘Sahib’, to demonstrate that the body was fundamental to the creation of the colonial ‘self’. Since then, a range of work has argued that the body was an important site of colonial identity formation. This panel builds on such work by placing the body at the centre of our analysis to interrogate the role of the body in colonial rule; and exploring the role the body played in the ideologies and practices of colonial societies. The papers complement each other by looking at three very different situations across three different colonial sites: New Zealand, South Africa and Imperial Britain, but each returning to questions about colonialism, practices of embodiment, the power invested in the human body, race, and gender.Writing in 2001, E.M. Collingham, drawing on Bourdieu, made a strong argument that the British experience of the Raj was ‘intensely physical’. From sea sickness, mosquito bites and prickly heat, to fatigue, disease, and the threat of sudden death, Collingham argued bodily experiences were formative. She traced the refashioning of British bodies in the Raj, from the flowing dress, indolent stature and Orientalised habits of the ‘Nabob’, to the self-disciplined and exercised masculinity of the ‘Sahib’, to demonstrate that the body was fundamental to the creation of the colonial ‘self’. Since then, a range of work has argued that the body was an important site of colonial identity formation. This panel builds on such work by placing the body at the centre of our analysis to interrogate the role of the body in colonial rule; and exploring the role the body played in the ideologies and practices of colonial societies. The papers complement each other by looking at three very different situations across three different colonial sites: New Zealand, South Africa and Imperial Britain, but each returning to questions about colonialism, practices of embodiment, the power invested in the human body, race, and gender.

Session Chair: Onni Gust

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘Scalping and Masculine Mastery: A Western History of Chinese Hair, c. 1906’.

Rachel Bright, University of Keele

On 22 September 1906, a South African newspaper published a picture of a Chinese man’s scalp, sold to the newspaper by a former British prisoner in Pretoria Jail. The picture accompanied an affidavit from the seller stating that the traditional queues Chinese men wore were regularly taken from the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners and sold to high ranking colonial officials in Pretoria jail as curiosities for their private collections. However, the one procured by the paper was not merely the plat or braid; it was the scalp itself. How is one to understand such an event? This paper will place this incident within the wider social history of hair and human trophyism (souvenir collecting of human body parts). Hair has been a powerful social signifier and a means for society to regulate itself throughout human history. As a public marker of identity, hair can identify ‘us’ or ‘them’, ‘male’ or ‘female’, ‘young’ or ‘old’. The Chinese queue represented gender, class and race most obviously, but it also represented power: the power of societies to represent and regulate themselves. In China, the queue was deeply political, connected to the ruling Ming dynasty, and its ban in 1911 was indicative of its overthrow. In settler colonial contexts, understanding the social role of hair helps us get to the heart of broader questions of power within British colonialism itself. In particular, exploring both visual and written depictions of Chinese hair within settler societies, as well as the practice of collecting Chinese hair as a souvenir (occasionally through violence), allows an exploration of the public performances and contestations of masculine identity which occurred both in China and in settler societies at the turn of the twentieth century.

Paper 2 Abstract : Rethinking embodied difference: race and disability in Imperial Britain, c 1800-1914

Esme Cleall, University of Sheffield

When the hearing journalist and author James Hatton (1841-1907) visited the Margate Deaf and Dumb Asylum he experienced it as the exploration of an unknown territory, writing of himself as ‘a sojourner in Deaf-and-Dumb Land’ and the latter as a ‘strange, sad, interesting country’. Hatton’s description of ‘Deaf-and-Dumb Land’ evokes contemporary imperial travel writing which represented non-European places as spaces of adventure to be ‘discovered’, and ‘conquered’ by intrepid Europeans, and indigenous peoples as exotic curiosities. ‘Deaf-and-Dumb Land is a new country to me’, he wrote, ‘For a time it affected me as might have done the discovery of a new country…. I experienced some of the sensations of a discoverer’. Hatton was not the only writer to experience institutions for disabled people as overseas territories, others explored ‘Kingdom’s of Silence’ and ‘Crutch-land’. This paper makes an argument for looking at disability as a category of colonial difference. In the nineteenth century there were many more disabled people, proportionately to the general population, than there are today. Illnesses such as measles, scarlet fever and meningitis that caused blindness and deafness were common, industrial and agricultural accidents were frequent and assistive technology such as glasses and hearing aids were rudimentary and prohibitively expensive meaning that impairments that today would be ‘correctable’ were profoundly disabling in effect. Little, however, has been done to examine these disabled populations. Further, just as ‘blackness’ helped to define ‘whiteness’ so did ‘disability’ help to define what was considered to constitute ‘normalcy’. As scholars of disability have established, disability is a category that was mutually constituted with that of gender and race, leaving disability out warps our understandings of other forms of embodied difference.

Paper 3 Abstract : How about ‘Living a dream: Marianne Williams and the experience of colonial embodiment in the 1830s Bay of Islands.’

Fae Dussart, University of Sussex

Missionary households on mission stations in New Zealand were places of transaction, exchange and compromise, productive of and produced by an emergent and distinctive colonial society. This society was fragmented, often unstable and its structure intersected with the inequalities associated with race, gender and class. But it was also hybrid, built out of dialogue between particular people engaging with one another in a particular context, navigating the assemblage of their myriad histories, their connections to other places, the assumptions of their beliefs and their dreams and imaginings of other ways of being. This paper will use the letters of Marianne Williams, an influential missionary wife and pedagogue in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand in the 1830s, as a case study to explore some of the ways in which bodies in colonial households were sites of colonial engagement, contest and negotiation. The paper will suggest that the entanglements out of which hybrid colonial places were made, happened not only between, but within bodies, asking what it was to embody the role of coloniser, and what the affective dimensions of that were. It will consider Marianne’s attempts to control Maori bodies and Maori resistance to such efforts, but also will think about how everyday life in 1830s New Zealand affected Marianne’s experience of her own body – its vulnerabilities and capacities, and the containment, or not, of her emotions within it.

 

 

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