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  • Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity by Carmen Nocentelli
  • Anne J. Cruz

Amboina, Bartolomé, Leonardo de Argensola, Asia, British Empire, Luís de Camões, Anne J. Cruz, John Dryden, Early Modern Europe, East India Company, Empires of Love, Europe, Asia, The Making of Early Modern Identity, John Fletcher, Genital Modification, Richard Head, Early Modern Identity, Interracial Marriage, Jan Huygen Van Linschoten, Heterosexuality, Antonio Pigafetta, Polygamy, Racial Difference

Nocentelli, Carmen. Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2013. ix + 262 pp.

In this wide-ranging yet no less rigorously argued study, Carmen Nocentelli proposes that the early modern concepts of sexuality and race proceeded from contextually and historically contingent constructs. Rather than viewing them as parallel categories, she posits that both developed from an extended continuum of interrelated social practices and discourses that revolved around religion, culture, geography, and contemporary biophysiological notions. Her main focus, however, is the European obsession with sexual difference, and its resultant transformation into racial distinctions. In response to the question of how sexual propriety, as perceived in the early modern period, inflected what was ascribed to racial difference, and vice versa, Nocentelli analyzes a profusion of texts—mainly chronicles and treatises, but also epic poems, plays, and a picaresque novel—that classified systems of race and erotic desire during the period of European overseas expansion. With a nuanced nod to anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli’s The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality, and its problematization of oppositional modes of individual freedom and social constraint, Nocentelli provides an overarching interdisciplinary framework for understanding the formation of identity through the social structures of early modern European settlements across the vast lands of what was then known as India. [End Page 245]

Starting from her premise that “matters of eros” quickly turned into “matters of ethnos” (5) when colonial societies were formed, she studies the cultural practices recorded by the abundant travel literature of the early modern period as markers of sexual and racial identity. While these narratives were shocking readers with their ethnographic accounts of Asian lewdness and debauchery, Nocentelli tells us, colonial governments were busily supporting interracial marriages. She is quick to point out that there were differences across the numerous Asian “contact zones,” just as she has taken care to read an impressive number of sources in, among other languages, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, as well as English, respecting the variances among European states. Nonetheless, she also finds that, in Asia even more so than in the Americas, European colonizers similarly colonized by means of interracial unions. Her study concludes that the category of race developed from Asian challenge and resistance to the “education of desire” imposed through heterosexual marriage.

The book’s six chapters investigate the changing responses by Europeans to their encounter with Asian sexual practices as detailed in travel narratives. Chapter one is dedicated to penile implantation, first recorded by the Italian explorer Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Magellan’s navigation to and death in the Philippines. Genital piercing and modification (still commonly practiced in Southeast Asia) drew continued attention from early modern travel writers as aberrant customs that threatened the social order, becoming signs of the culture’s bestiality and—paradoxically, because they were also viewed as control measures against them—sodomitical practices. Nocentelli argues that these customs served as racially identifiable masculine traits, unlike the scant accounts of female genital modification such as infibulation, which allowed for women’s cultural, and thus racial, malleability.

Chapter two elucidates the convertibility from one culture to another by analyzing the “Isle of Love” episode in Camões’s Os Lusíadas as a literary example of imposed intermarriage. In imitation of legendary Roman imperialism, the episode’s violent scenes between Portuguese sailors and island nymphs, while referencing classical mythology, stand also for Portuguese expansion, first as intermarriage with Islamic women during the Reconquest (although this remains questionable), and then as imperial “conquest marriages” that kept Asian deviant sexualities at bay. Yet the marriages depended on racial profiling, since fair-skinned, upper-caste Indians were preferable to black lower-caste wives...


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pp. 245-248
Launched on MUSE
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