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  • Empires of the Senses: Bodily encounters in imperial India and the Philippines by Andrew J. Rotter
  • S.P. MacKenzie
Empires of the Senses: Bodily encounters in imperial India and the Philippines
By Andrew J. Rotter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

The foundational assumption of scholars who study the past via the senses is that the human experience cannot be fully understood without reference to the entire sensorium—not just sight, but also sound, smell, taste and touch—among particular populations in various places at different times. Imperial projects, involving as they did extended encounters between peoples possessing often radically different sensory and related cultures, accompanied to a greater or lesser extent by efforts by the colonizers to "civilize" the colonized, are ripe for exploration of this kind. Adding a comparative dimension, in this case between the Britain in India and the United States in the Philippines, offers the prospect of an enhanced understanding of imperialism writ large.

To accomplish this mission successfully, however, requires not only a great deal of effort going through a dauntingly large number of potentially relevant primary sources but also developing a working knowledge of the secondary literature associated with not just sensory and colonial studies but also everything from foodways to the history of the body. Andrew Rotter, having established his reputation as a diplomatic historian, successfully demonstrates how it is possible to approach foreign relations from a radically different angle.

Following an introduction that lays out some key conceptual points, Rotter devotes his first two chapters to examining the relationship between the senses and concepts of civilization, followed by the assaults on the sensorium characteristic of the violence associated with the onset of formal empire in the context of the Great Rebellion in India of 1857 and the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898 in the Philippines. As has become something of a convention in the field, there follow five chapters each devoted to a specific sense.

Vision, of course, was of great importance, not least in identifying hierarchical distinctions between the governors and the governed in the context of what it meant to be civilized; though efforts by the former to make the latter fully legible might be frustrated by a tendency among subjects to reveal either too little or too much and to view things from a potentially incompatible perspective. Yet the other senses were also significant. Hearing was important not only in terms of communication but also in relation to what was and was not considered noise within specific soundscapes. Smells, particularly in reference to pungent odors accepted by the Indigenous population but offensive to Western noses, helped define the perceived gulf between the rulers and the ruled and were targeted for sanitary eradication. Haptic contact, both with the local environment and more especially with its inhabitants, meant among other things exposure to a range of tropical and other diseases. As for taste, this was central to perceptions of the value of food as well as forms of preparation and consumption.

The conclusion reflects on the sensory legacy of empire for all involved as the United States and Great Britain withdrew from, respectively, the Philippine Commonwealth in 1946 and the Indian Raj in 1947. In the former possessions the experience had altered sensory perceptions in numerous ways, influencing how people—or at least the educated elite—perceived everything from architecture and clothing to soundscapes and manners. The process of sensory and thus cultural assimilation, however, was neither complete nor entirely one way, as the beliefs and behavior of Gandhi and the British predilection for consuming certain types of Indian food vividly demonstrated.

The author is far too self-deprecating in describing this work as "an extended essay, really" (7) given its considerable length, large scope and great ambition. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that all five senses combined over many decades in shaping how both subject peoples and their rulers perceived each other and interacted. The comparative approach illustrates notable differences but also significant similarities that offer suggestive insights into the overall nature of the imperial experience. In short, this a stimulating book that deserves to be read and discussed by anyone interested...


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