The Nation and its Threats

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted here, a longer gap than usual. Events on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border have created a fraught context for writing on the country’s past; it has become imperative for historical work to address the bleak humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya. Returning to my research with the escalating exodus…

The Limits to History

Public discussions around Rohingya people currently fleeing violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar, have often involved arguments about history. While critical historical analysis is useful in offering insights into conflicts, History—if treated as a single, knowable past—is not. This is especially true when dealing with ethnicity. Whatever the past was, no amount of historical research can…

A Diarist on the Edge

At the start of the summer I visited the British Library to take a look at some Japanese propaganda leaflets that had been dropped over British Burma during Second World War. They accompanied the diary of John Biggs-Davison, who served as a Forward Liaison Officer on the Arakan front in 1943 (India Office Records Mss…

Seeing, Shooting, Saving, Seeing…

The preambles to colonial legislation designed to protect wildlife managed to be at once condemnatory and fatalistic. The blame was placed on the Burmese people for failing to recognize the value of wild animals. At the same time, the retreat of wildlife was presented as an inevitable consequence of modernity. So, as well as being…

Podcast

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by Luke Corbin for his “Myanmar Musings” podcast. We talked about some of my recent work on the history of animals, particularly elephants and cattle. Luke is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University researching the history and anthropology of beer in Myanmar. During his trip…

What’s the Difference?

I’ve recently been thinking about “difference”. While animal historians often write about the changing understandings of the difference between humans and animals over time, I don’t think that they have fully unpacked what they mean by “difference” itself. Was the difference between human and nonhuman animal species and same as the difference between colonizer and…

Animal Actors in the “Burmese Tarzan”

Animal historians routinely describe animals as “actors”. This is to emphasize the way that nonhuman creatures can effect change through their own actions and behaviours. They’re not bystanders in history, but active participants. But what about when animals are literally actors. Like, in films. What can animals acting tell us about animals as “actors”? This…

Burmese Nationalism and the Dietary Habits of Peacocks and Crows

During my last visit to the British Library I found this cartoon strip in the Burmese nationalist newspaper Thūriya, published in 1939. The cartoon character speaking on the platform is a reoccurring one in the newspaper. He is a bit of a hapless individual. His candid, ill-advised manner of speaking often gets him into trouble….

Charting Colonial Animal History

At the end of my module “Colonizing Animals: More-than-human Histories of Empire in Asia” my students and I charted the historiography. On a large sheet of paper I drew two axis. The vertical axis indicated the amount of attention the historian paid to the agency of the animals that they wrote about. The horizontal axis…

Undead Capital

Earlier this week I was really pleased to have had an article published as part of a special issue on animal agency in the history of science. It came out in the journal BJHS: Themes, an open access journal related to the British Journal for the History of Science dedicated to addressing provocative themes. The…

Tragedy and Thūriya

Last week I managed to squeeze in a couple of days at the British Library to complete some research. I was studying the fall of Yangon to the Japanese Empire in 1942. I ordered the relevant microfilm copies of Thūriya, a Burmese nationalist newspaper, but I received a mislabeled 42nd anniversary edition from 1953. The…

Gharry Drivers and Armoured Dog Coats

On my way back from a trip to London, I was able to get a couple of hours in the Newsroom of the British Library to take a look at some colonial-era newspapers. Scanning through the microfilm of the English-language daily The Times of Burma for the year 1905, I stumbled across an odd story….