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  • Intimacy and Colonial Knowledge 1
  • Lynn Zastoupil

This essay will examine the role that intimacy played in the construction of colonial knowledge. It seeks to bring together new views on the origins of colonial discourses and recent scholarship on the hybrid nature of early colonial societies. The goal is to explore how the multiple ways in which Europeans and non-Europeans entered into intimate relationships—including fictive, symbolic and actual familial ties, as well as sexual affairs—contributed to the authoring of “colonial” texts containing ambiguous cultural and political loyalties. Using two British men and their respective fictive and real families in India and South Africa as case studies, this essay will suggest new ways to understand the textual productions of early colonialism. It will contribute to the argument that colonialism had no universal essence, but was instead made and remade over time by men and women on both sides of the imperial divide bearing diverse worldviews and pursuing various agendas. 2 In particular, it will second the opinion that early colonial societies contained hybrid characteristics that were undone, forgotten, or repressed in later stages of colonialism. 3

Scholars are increasingly challenging the idea that colonial discourses were primarily products of a European will to power, many by pointing to the role of native informants, symbiotic relationships, and dialogic encounters between colonizers and colonized. 4 Norbert Peabody has recently brought into sharp focus the main arguments of this emerging school of thought. Arguing that “colonial discourses often built upon indigenous ones,” Peabody calls for more attention to the part played by “native actors and indigenous forms of knowledge within the formation and unfolding of colonialism.” This will lead, he suggests, to a new understanding in which “‘the colonial’ becomes less European and more fully the product of an encounter (however asymmetrical) between European and non-European societies.” Using census data from western India as an example, Peabody demonstrates that one early British attempt to classify Indian society along caste lines was deeply influenced by local informants pursuing their own agendas, ones that benefited local banking groups at the expense of land-controlling castes. 5

This alternative understanding of colonial discourses, with its emphasis on native agency and dialogic encounters, is quite valuable, but also limited. Limited because primary attention has been directed at those local informants—mostly males from elite groups—whose literacy skills, access to strategic information, and traditions of political service enabled them to help shape early colonial knowledge, often to the advantage of themselves and the groups they represented. A growing body of scholarship on interracial intimacy and hybrid families in colonial societies indicates the need for more expansive notions of the role of local agency and symbiotic relationships in the construction of colonial knowledge.

Ann Laura Stoler has drawn attention to the ambiguous identities that resulted from cross-cultural intimacy in colonial societies. As she demonstrates, the boundaries separating Europeans from their colonial subjects shifted over time and often proved permeable because of the uncertainties engendered by extensive miscegenation. Her focus has been on changing legal and cultural efforts to maintain racial divisions, or what she calls the policing of colonial borders. But Stoler also depicts a hybrid social world spawned by interracial intimacy, a world populated by individuals “who ambiguously straddled, crossed, and threatened…imperial divides.” 6

This hybrid experience is well known to North American historians through the phenomenon of the cultural broker. 7 Often the products of unions between European men and indigenous women, individuals capable of moving between cultural worlds were in great demand on frontiers as intermediaries and interpreters. Their ability to straddle and to cross cultural borders was legend as observers were often hard pressed to identify them as either European or Native American. 8 Sometimes these “go-betweens” were individuals symbolically adopted into host families of another culture, which allowed them to gain intimate cultural experience and valuable linguistic skills. Many were European captives adopted by Native Americans, in some cases by women seeking surrogates for lost relatives, 9 while some were Native American children raised as servants in European households who became intermediaries between their natal and adoptive communities. 10

The boundaries between metaphoric and real familial ties...

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