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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 233-235

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Book Review

Domesticating the Empire: Race, Gender, and Family Life in French and Dutch Colonialism

Domesticating the Empire: Race, Gender, and Family Life in French and Dutch Colonialism. Edited by JULIA CLANCY-SMITH and FRANCES GOUDA. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Pp. xi + 271. $59.50 (cloth); $19.50 (paper).

This collection of thirteen essays, by a group of historians, literary analysts, and anthropologists, seeks to contribute to the growing number of studies relating the perception and treatment of colonized people to social patterns in European metropoles, and encounters between colonizers and colonized.

Within this broad field, however, the essays by and large reflect the growth of interest in the study of colonized "discourses" or "the colonial gaze" (p. 173), particularly the use of gender-based images, metaphors, and tropes in the study of colonial places by European-born authors, or those born in the colonies of European or of creole stock.

Of the topics listed in the book's title, the topic of gender and gendered language attracts the most coverage. Author Yaël Fletcher finds, for example, that French colonial voices employed language that entailed the "masculinization" of French settlers and a "feminized" cultivated landscape (p. 199).

Attitudes illustrating Edward Saïd's notion of "orientalism" often exoticized indigenous women, and led to views of the unchanging nature of their societies. In addition, colonial discourse permitted the means by which colonial observers and colonists themselves often systematically mystified relations between men and women in the colonial societies.

One of the pervasive themes of the essays is the way that indigenous women's voices were stifled, misunderstood, misconstrued, and ideologized by European writers in the metropole or in the colonies themselves. It is ironic, therefore, that such voices are also largely missing from the book's chapters, the authors of which, with some exceptions, are much better at criticizing obliquely the blinders of European settlers than of offering independent findings about the colonized's own patterns of gender relations, "race," or family life.

Given the predominance of historians among the authors, it is surprising that there are so few studies that seek to go beyond the sorts of ideologized discourses of fiction writers or social commentators to a study of the societies that are scrutinized in the discourses themselves. Most of the texts assume that readers are well acquainted with the histories of French and Dutch colonialism, and thus dispense with much in the way of master narratives about the fundamentals of conquest, [End Page 233] settlement, or colonial administration. For nonspecialists, this may create some problems.

Certainly, feminist study of the language of novels, social commentary, and travel literature can give important insight into the mentalities of colonizers but this approach, taken alone, offers students little in the way of independent evidence with which to assess the relative credibility of the interpretations the authors put forth.

The texts seem, thus, to be designed more for an audience of other theorists in the field of colonial discourse than nonspecialists wishing to know more about the actual relations between European colonialists and colonized peoples as both parties experienced occupation and settlement.

There are several notable exceptions to this generalization, the best being by the anthropologist Rita Kipp, whose study of Dutch Christian missions among the Karo people of Sumatra constitutes the best historical treatment in the volume. Based on a wide range of primary sources from the mission movement itself, Kipp studies in very concrete terms the actual encounter between Europeans and Karo, thus illustrating the kind of study that other authors appear to advocate, but do not carry out. Moreover, in contrast to a number of other chapters which have the effect of suggesting monolithic ideological positions among European colonial voices, Kipp's study exposes the Dutch-Karo encounter in all of its ambiguities, continuities, and changes over the period from the later nineteenth century through the 1930s. She shows that the ambitions that missionaries entertained for their enterprise enjoyed great...