Next week, on 7 April, the Animal History Museum will begin exhibiting an on-line collection of images and short essays on the theme of ‘Animals and Empire’ (I have an exhibit in there about working elephants in colonial Burma). Reflecting on the exhibition got me thinking about the art critic John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’ In it he argued that zoos, wildlife photography, pets and cartoon animals were popular in modern Western societies because animals themselves were becoming increasingly marginal. In earlier times, animals were materially and spiritually important. Now they were distant and disappearing from people’s daily lives.
It is an elegant and seductive argument, but I think that he is wrong. As demonstrated in a brilliant recent book by Joanna Bourke and in the theoretical work of Donna Haraway, studying animals remains central to the politics of how we define what is human. However, his argument also does not work for colonial contexts. Animals were not marginal to the lives of the colonisers, as the Animal History Museum exhibition amply shows. So, why did colonisers look at animals?
There are probably many reasons why, but here are some that I have found from my research: curiosity; boredom; commerce; and racism. They were curious about seeing (and often times, hunting) exotic creatures in their natural environments. More banally, dabbling in natural history was viewed as a pleasant, healthy past time for bored officials unable to face more paperwork. In addition, some animals, such as elephants, had material uses and commercial value. And finally, through descriptions of the Burmese and their relationships with animals, the colonisers presented them as less civilised and closer to nature. But whatever the reason, animals were not invisible in imperial cultures.