Over the weekend I attended the annual conference of the British Animal Studies Network to present a paper on human-animal interactions in colonial Burma. It was a fantastic conference, and the papers will soon be available for you to listen to on-line. When I got back home, I had a quick search through the British Pathe videos available on You Tube looking for clips from colonial Burma. I found this one. It illustrates one of the points I tried to make in my paper.
The film starts with 1920s footage of Burmese elephants and their drivers. It then moves on to shots of a monkey being taunted by a White man inter-spliced with a Burmese young man climbing a tree. Before moving on to the standard repertoire of ‘Burmese scenes’ usually depicted by British visitors to the colony: young women smoking and pagodas. One of the ways that the colonial British population in Burma attempted to differentiate themselves from the colonized was by suggesting that the Burmese were closer to the animal world. The opening scenes from this clip reveal how this was done through racist comparisons between the Burmese and animals. By flitting between the monkey and the man climbing the tree, the film makes a less than subtle comparison between them. This is what Philip Armstong has called ‘the dreaded comparison’. Being compared to an animal was an insult in imperial rhetoric, and remains so for many today.
This colonial history should remind thinkers working towards a new post-human emancipatory politics — a form of activism that encourages people to acknowledge their connections to the environment and ‘become animal’ — that for post-colonial populations ‘becoming animal’ for many years meant being denied their full humanity.