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  • Animal Labor and Colonial Warfare by James L. Hevia
  • Kendra Coulter (bio)
Animal Labor and Colonial Warfare. By James L. Hevia. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 328 + xiv pp. with black and white illustrations. Paper. $30.00. ISBN: 978-0-226-56228-5.)

Historian James L. Hevia provides an extensive and detailed look at how animals were used as part of the British colonial project, with a particular focus on south Asia and Afghanistan in the mid to late 19th and early 20th century. The animals considered are those that were employed by the British military: camels, donkeys, mules, and, to a lesser degree, horses.

In keeping with historical scholarly practice, the story is told primarily through the careful piecing together of archival sources. When seeking to uncover the role of animals, historians may revisit previously interpreted sources but use a more-than-human lens, or seek out distinct materials given less attention in the writing of anthropocentric history. The growing interest in environmental and animal histories, combined with the diligent work of historians, is helping us better understand humans' past, animals' earlier roles, and the multispecies nature of all of world history.

This book has a sweeping topical reach. There is extensive explanation of the evolving nature of British military strategy and infrastructure in these regions. Hevia offers an intriguing outline of the development of veterinary science and knowledge dissemination. Careful attention is also given to the two primary processes through which animals were acquired. The first is military impressment, the taking of local people's animals, a process not unique to this time period or place. The second is breeding, including through transnational trade and importation. There is also some consideration of the people employed to work with and care for the animals directly. At its core, the book is about human (mis)management of pack animals in the context of military and colonial relations.

Hevia begins with two different sets of questions, one provided in the preface, the other in the book's introduction. The questions posed in the introduction concentrate primarily on how historical human actors relate and conceptualize the animals toiling for the military, and Hevia provides some answers, as they pertain to the specifics of the British imperial project.

The questions asked in the preface raise more substantive issues with the contradictions and complexities of not only using but remembering animals' roles in military and colonial campaigns, and how these dynamics are entangled with understandings of service, contribution, and sacrifice. Given [End Page 96] the book's title, perhaps the most signifi-cant of these more complicated questions is: "What are we to remember about the sorts of labor these animals performed, especially when we recall that animals such as camels, mules, and elephants were used in colonial wars of conquest, and campaigns of retribution, in Africa and Asia?" (p. xiii).

Possible answers to this question and the constellation of related queries—those that would be of most interest to interdisciplinary scholars of animal ethics—are less developed. Similarly, the animals themselves only figure in parts of the book. For a book ostensibly about animal labor, there is a notable lack of discussion of animals and the sorts of labor they performed.

Engaging with more contemporary scholarship would have "fed" these intellectual birds. Integrating recent scholarship on animals and war would have helped expand and connect this specific case to the larger and longer context. Equally as important is that engagement with even some of the contemporary scholarship on animal labor would have offered helpful theoretical frameworks and concepts to both illuminate and elucidate what types of work animals were actually doing and how their experiences figured in these human-driven political projects in nuanced ways.

Undoubtedly, telling animals' stories by building from archival materials is a challenge, but historians have been drawing on not only recent social science but on animal behavior and welfare research to do so, and to better understand what is contained in records from the past. In Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus, for example, historian Susan Nance uses current studies of elephants' behavior and cognition to explain what exactly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-1267
Print ISSN
2156-5414
Pages
pp. 96-97
Launched on MUSE
2020-04-21
Open Access
No
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