- Imperial Bodies. The Physical Experience of the Raj, c. 1800–1947
E.M. Collingham’s aim, in this slender volume, is to argue that British imperialism in India cannot be understood apart from the physicality and the symbolism of the Anglo-Indian body. The British experience of India, the author claims, was a deeply physical one. This is a persuasive and interesting position, though handled here rather disappointingly. The author claims to derive a methodology from Pierre Bourdieu and from Norbert Elias, but this remains a curiously under-theorized reading of a topic that has, in recent years, been heavily and often brilliantly investigated by a dazzling range of scholars as diverse as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Ann Stoler, and Emily Martin. Stoler and Foucault merit sketchy reference in Collingham’s bibliography, while neither of the others are even mentioned. The palpable lack of attention to feminist theory gives this book an oddly old-fashioned cast, untouched by any understanding of the body as gendered in any ways beyond the obvious. This is a study wholly empirical in its understanding of the body. Bodies here are merely things that walk and sweat and exude and which, when proper, wear clothes. For Collingham, these clothes and activities may be symbolic of certain kinds of power or authority, but the body as a source of power itself is simply not investigated. The body itself is a given here; under investigation is only what is put on or in the body. Thus the body becomes here a transhistorical entity, rather than something itself constantly affected by, altered and shaped by, and therefore integral to the politics of the moment. Collingham does not see the body and its importance as historically contingent, but only the body’s ornamentation and sustenance.
Collingham’s arguments are based largely on the experience of civil servants in India, a concentration discussed and justified in the book’s introduction. The author argues that it was this group who were the principal focus of medical and official interest. Not so in the nineteenth century, by any means. What of the 60,000 British soldiers always posted on Indian soil after 1858? Royal Commissions, Select Committees and other instruments of governance constantly discussed their health and safety, the effect of tropical climates upon their efficiency and their discipline. What of the planter class, the merchants and salespeople who increasingly sought a living in commercial rather than bureaucratic India in the nineteenth century? The black suit which Collingham argues acted as a barrier distancing the Anglo-Indians from those they ruled was surely not a routine item in the wardrobe of the rank-and-file soldier. And indeed, Collingham acknowledges that as the sober suit gained ground amongst the civil servants, military uniform was, in fact, moving in the opposite direction, becoming more ornate, more colorful, and more ceremonial. Why, then, is the suit and not the cummerbund and turban of the cavaliers which is so profoundly symbolic?
Moreover, what of the Indians whose profiles in this book seem to follow rather too faithfully the opinions of the colonists to be taken seriously? Collingham protests the racism, the snobbery and the pettiness of much of the Anglo-Indian tradition but seems nonetheless to have imbibed some basic colonial views of Indian society. The most bizarre example has Collingham blaming Indian clerks for souring Anglo-British relations by wielding their power to keep high status Indians waiting for appointments with British officials (56). Certainly the book does not limit culpability to this class, but arguments such as this—briefly argued and frankly silly—are akin to those which Claudia Knapman (White Women in Fiji, 1835–1930. The Ruin of Empire? Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1986) identified and discredited some fifteen years ago, and which blamed women for the deteriorating relations between colonists and colonised. In short, an argument which palpably intends to be something very different and far more egalitarian has mired itself in an unintended morass of racism, sexism, and elitism. The power of the body in this volume is...