Broken Bodies, Fractured Empire

Session Abstract : This panel considers what it means to be broken in an imperial world. Combining stories of senility in South Africa, South Asian soldiers’ amputations after the First World War, and British officials’ defensive embraces of fascism in the British Empire, this panel looks at what individuals found to be “broken” in a world marked by war and empire. For some, the experience of empire meant a fractured mind, for others broken bodies, and for more still damaged political systems. This fracturing was part of a productive creation of hybridized bodies, minds, and ideas that responded to the challenges of the contemporary world through the scarred lens of empire.

Empire itself was both damaging and productive, fractured and united, hierarchical and inclusive. While elderly white settlers represented a source of imperial embarrassment, they also became vehicles of charitable engagement between metropole and colony. As soldiers faced the loss of status and influence in the colonies, they hoped that militarism and fascism could restore the strength and masculinity of the empire, at times finding unexpected allies among South Asians. Exposure to war and empire made soldiers broken in body, yet efforts to rebuild them were also ground for contested care and technological change between colonized and colonizer.

This panel represents a collaboration between scholars at all stages of their careers, including one postgraduate student (Hilary Buxton), a first-year Assistant Professor (Kate Imy), and a well-established Associate Professor with a strong record of publication (Will Jackson). It engages with the conference theme of ‘Fluid Presents, Turbulent Pasts’ to consider to what extent the fragmentation and discontent of the present is tied to the recent imperial past. The twentieth century British Empire divided individuals, groups and communities through inequalities of power, difference, ability, age, race, and rank. The destruction of certain forms of belonging or not belonging, as well as expressions of masculinity, meant the revitalization or remaking of others. Yet these solutions remained burdened by imperial inequalities. Definitions of what made a British man, a British body, a British mind, a British idea, or a British technology were constantly debated and renegotiated in conversation with empire.

Session Chair: Lucy Delap

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘No Country for Old Men: Old White Settlers and the end of empire’
Will Jackson, University of Leeds

This paper starts with the ideological problem that old age represents for settler colonial regimes. States everywhere constitute themselves to some extent by their care for vulnerable groups, but while care for (in the settler colony) children, single women, and ‘poor whites’ enabled (predictable) ideological work to be done, the elderly had no obvious ideological function. Yet throughout the twentieth century the problem of an aging population dogged Britain’s settler colonies in Africa. Institutional care for the old and infirm exposed the limitations in the capacity of the colonial state, while the very fact that old people came to the state’s attention highlighted the failure of family networks. Until the mid-twentieth century, however, the figure of the vulnerable old white settler is absent from public discourse; then, first during anti-colonial insurgencies in Kenya (1952-1959) and Southern Rhodesia (1964-1979) but continuing through decolonisation, the figure of the vulnerable old white settler emerged as a figure in the British charitable imagination. Yet through this imagining the voices of vulnerable old people themselves were obscured. The figure of the charitable appeal represented and spoke for elderly settlers – now ex-settlers – themselves. In the early twentieth century, however, the voices of the old can be heard. The paper asks what additional light their subjectivities shed on the social and mental life of colonialism at its height.

Paper 2 Abstract : ‘Fascist Utopia: Race, Religion, and Imperial Crisis in the 1930s British Indian Army’

Kate Imy, University of North Texas

In the summer of 1937, working class soldier H.H. Somerfield visited cinemas in India with Christian, Sikh, and Muslim soldiers. Together they trekked the foothills of the Himalayas, stayed in guest houses operated by British women, chatted with cigarette-smoking South Asian soldiers’ wives, and discussed ‘sodomy’ with a Hindu café owner. By the 1930s, British military spaces in India maintained an illusion of racial, religious, class and gender inclusivity. Yet this exciting tableau of sensory pleasure did not make men like Somerfield optimistic about the future of the British Empire. Instead, many imperial soldiers contrasted the clean and ordered military spaces with the apparent chaos of anti-colonial nationalism. They believed that strict military discipline and extreme acts of violence were necessary prerequisites for attaining social harmony. Some soldiers embraced fascism because they believed it would save the empire.

Army officials envisioned military cantonments as spaces in which the tensions of religious, racial and class difference were seemingly eradicated. Such idealization of the built space and social organization of the cantonment attempted to erase the mess of soldiers’ fractured bodies and military violence. While liberal nation states struggled to accommodate religious and racial difference, soldiers believed that militarism, racial hierarchy, and paternalist regimes of care and comfort could create a perfect society.

The army’s ‘Fascist Utopia’ succeeded in enabling certain types of welfare for the widely recruited groups—including Punjabi Muslim and Sikhs—who gained further representation in the army during the interwar years. Like their British counterparts, many of these men resented the threat of anti-colonial nationalism, fearing Hindu political domination. Yet by the end of the decade, Punjabi soldiers contemplated the possibility of an independent Muslim nation state of Pakistan, extending dreams of military control and discipline over the turbulent northwest frontier. While British soldiers felt that the military had successfully incorporated religious and racial difference, the illusion of inclusivity cracked under the weight of imperial crisis.


Paper 3 Abstract : ‘Contested Technologies & Prosthetic Subjects: Transforming Indian Bodies after WWI’

Hilary Buxton, Rutgers University

This paper takes up the question of imperial healthcare and bodily exchange through the development of prosthetics for colonial soldiers in the First World War. After mobilizing over 1.4 million servicemen from the British Raj, authorities faced a veritable crisis of debility.

Focusing on administrative and medical apparatuses in the British Raj, this paper follows the distribution of artificial limbs for disabled Indian servicemen, the development of orthopaedic workshops and factories in India, and the debates around the manufacture and provision of prosthetics for South Asian veterans. How similar or different were white and brown bodies wounded in war? Did British rhetoric around making limbless soldiers employable, masculine, and “modern” apply to disabled South Asian subjects? And how could bodies be physically and culturally transformed by rehabilitative care?

Limb provision was heavily determined by bureaucratic imperatives and pseudo-medical debates: administrative conflicts between the metropole-based India Office and the local Government of India, and between the Government of India and local Indian politicians, exacerbated sparse care and limited manufacture. At the same time, medics, officers, and the Ministry of Pensions frequently debated what type of surgical appliances “suited” South Asian ex-servicemen best. These disputes occurred alongside contentious conversations in the metropole over white British veterans’ care and changes in their orthopaedic provisioning, most notably in the shift from wooden prosthetics to duralumin metal limbs.

Yet while a large number of Sepoys attempted to access and petition for better limb provision and care, many rejected the Western-prescribed devices altogether. The 1930s and 40s saw greater attempts to build up prosthetic manufacture and distribution in a politically fractured Raj; however, these attempts were complicated by British manufacturers’ unwillingness to part with their ‘trade secrets,’ even to their colonial counterparts. In a period of technological innovation and evolving welfare initiatives, British technologies of care could be mechanisms of both hybridity and inequality.