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Reviewed by:
  • Orientalism and Race: Arynamism in the British Empire
  • Mrinalini Sinha
Orientalism and Race: Arynamism in the British Empire. By Tony Ballantyne. Palgrave: 2002.

In the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Pantheon,1978), explorations of the historical connections between European knowledge and power have become something of a mini-industry. Even in this crowded field, however, Ballantyne’s Orientalism and Race stands apart. While individual parts of the book—the colonial India origins of the ‘Aryan’ race theory or the textualization of Maori religion and culture—will be familiar to scholars of colonial India and New Zealand, the book as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. When the cultural work of Aryanism in India and New Zealand, including the complex acts of translation that led to the codification of “religion” in South Asia and the Pacific, are brought together, as they are in this book, the result is to defamiliarize these supposedly discrete histories. The conceptual framework of the book that rests on an expanded unit of analysis—the “webs of empire”—enables Ballantyne to take a well-mined topic, the history of colonial knowledge-production, and cast it anew.

The metaphor of the “webs of empire,” which Ballantyne uses to chart the traffic of ideas between colonial South Asia to South-east Asia and beyond to the Pacific, has far-reaching resonance. The image of the empire as a spider’s web helps take us beyond the “metropolitan-focused imperial history (where the empire is viewed from London out) or histories of individual colonies (where the view is from the colony towards London)” in order to foreground the “relational nature of the empire” and the horizontal inter-colonial exchanges on which it was made (15). As such, therefore, Ballantyne’s model allows for a more nuanced understanding of the circulation of colonial ideas and concepts: that is, not simply as a two-way traffic between metropole and colony and back again, but as a crisscrossing between multiple nodes of the empire that occupied varied positions in relation to one another. The image of the web, as it is invoked here, also emphasizes another crucial aspect of the empire: the simultaneous instability and resilience of the imperial system that subjected colonial knowledge to moments of crisis as well as to being constantly reworked and remade. This “webbed” approach to empire provides the basis for the unexpected juxtapositions and insightful nuggets of analysis that sustain Ballantyne’s expanded genealogy of “Orientalism.”

The book’s focus on “Aryanism” is especially well suited for this purpose. The fact that Aryanism, which would became so deeply embedded in nineteenth and twentieth century European culture, was not European but had its origins in Vedic tradition make it a perfect case-study for charting the hybrid and circuitous traffic of ideas in the global operation of empire. The largely Indian provenance of Aryanism, from its emergence in the works of early British Indologists to its impact on the understanding of Indian ethnology in British India and from its continuing legacy on the interpretations of ancient Indian history to its widespread influence across Europe, has already been the subject of excellent studies by such scholars as Romila Thapar and Thomas R. Trautmann. Ballantyne’s project, however, is somewhat different. His focus on Aryanism as a hybrid product of the empire leads him to explore the further trajectory of the concept in the cultural connections and intellectual exchanges between India and the Pacific. The various arguments for, and against, the Aryan origins of the Maoris provide an additional layer to our understanding of the circulation of Aryanism in the empire. If Ballantyne’s account thus pushes the intellectual history of Aryanism in the empire beyond India and Europe to the Pacific, it also serves to remind New Zealand historians who emphasize the Eurocentrism of settler Aryanism as a “whitening discourse” in colonial New Zealand of the Indocentric underpinning of the concept (76). This more complicated trajectory of Aryanism, which identified Maoris, South Asians, and Britons as members of a common Aryan family, provides a picture of a more subtle and contradictory racializing project. While confirming a racialized vision of history, for example...

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