- British Empire and the Literature of Rebellion: Revolting Bodies, Laboring Subjects by Sheshalatha Reddy
Sheshalatha Reddy’s British Empire and the Literature of Rebellion: Revolting Bodies, Laboring Subjects examines the ways in which British colonial ideologies constructed colonial populations as repellent and revolting, thereby justifying rule over them. Reddy argues that colonized populations actively and collectively resisted—revolted—against imperial control over their labor and land. The word revolting thus describes not only the colonial view of the colonized but also the latter’s active rebellion against British authority. Reddy illustrates this revolt through three critical “flashpoints,” the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion in India, the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, and the 1867 Fenian Rebellion in Ireland (xiii).
For Reddy, these rebellions were a response to the colonial disciplining of populations into a labor force suited to extracting surplus value. This disciplining was done through what Reddy, drawing on Michel Foucault, calls biopolitics, the disciplinary tools deployed by states and corporations to manage and regulate populations in an attempt to transform the varied subjugated peoples of India, Jamaica, and Ireland into a modern laboring force. Reddy argues that the revolts demonstrate that, at the height of industrial capitalism, the revolting body of early colonial rule was figured incompletely as a laboring subject. The oppressed colonized worker never could be transformed into someone whose identity was created and limited by labor. The last chapter of the book turns to the postcolonial nation state to show, through Manjula Padmanabhan’s play Harvest (1997), how the figure of the woman, occluded from both colonialist and nationalist discourses on the rebellions, is repurposed within our contemporary neoliberal state as the consummate disposable but laboring subject.
The book presents a valuable archive of primary and secondary texts surrounding key colonial revolts. Each chapter reads on average five or six main texts surrounding the rebellion in question drawn from a wide variety of genres. These include plays, poetry, novels, novellas, photographs, broadsheets, periodical essays, and political economic tracts, produced by both the colonizers and colonized. In this respect, it is a well-researched and thorough collection of readings of texts surrounding the rebellions, encompassing primary source material written since the 1850s. Reddy brings to our attention fascinating but lesser-known figures such as the Jamaican nationalist writer and artist Roger Mais (1905–55), who was the product of a middle-class creole family but evinced a commitment to black working-class politics and resistance, was imprisoned for his political activism, and wrote at least thirty plays and three novels. The book also excels in its [End Page 657] readings of better-known texts such as Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie (1936). Reddy argues that workers’ efforts to value themselves in this text depend on their reintegrating minds and bodies that have been dichotomized by industrial capitalism.
Reddy shines at portraying the complexity of resistance to colonialism, which took psychological, physical, and spiritual forms. She is less successful when it comes to arguing that the rebellions were reactions to the colonial disciplining of populations into a labor force suited to extracting surplus value. This is largely due to an incomplete and only tenuous focus on the concept of labor. Different colonial theorizations of labor, whether John Locke’s concept of “property in the person” or his ideas of labor’s property constituting capacity, or even Karl Marx’s concept of alienated labor, are not adequately developed or explained in relation to the literary texts examined (Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett [Cambridge University Press, 2013] 31). Nor are colonized people’s own views of their labor explored. Other historical arguments made about the transformation of colonial populations into labor, such as Andrew Sartori’s well-known Liberalism in Empire: An Alternative History (2014), are only briefly mentioned. The texts themselves are not consistently mined for passages focusing on ideas and experiences of colonial labor. This is because Reddy’s argument is less about the coercive transition to waged labor in the...