Smells Like Empire

Historians who have studied the senses have written about the racist claims, often made in colonial and slave societies, that people of colour smelt unpleasant. I have certainly come across such statements in the writings of some British imperialists regarding the Burmese. In addition to being a way of distancing themselves from colonised populations, describing smells could serve a number of other imperial purposes.

The British judge and colonial ethnographer, Cecil Champian Lowis, discusses the power of smell to open his 1913 novel Fascination.

I have heard it said, by those who ought to know, that the nose is the subtlest and most potent memory tickler that exists; and, for my own part, I can certainly say that what brings my days in Burma with most startling promptness back to me are things like an unexpected whiff of sandal-wood perfume, or a lingering odour of cocoanut oil, or maybe a marshy exhalation that serves to recall the acrid smell of rich squishy paddy fields in the snipe season.

Lowis is pointing out that the smells of Burma can be smelt in Britain, and that they bring with them the memory of the colony. But here we must heed the warnings often given by historians studying the senses: that although we might be able to find out what people smelt in the past, we should not assume that from this we can access how things smelt in the past. Sandal-wood did not inherently smell of Burma, and not everyone smelling sandal-wood in the past would have connected the smell to Burma. The connotations and associations of smell are specific. In this case they are specific to British imperial sensibilities. The odours he lists do not really smell of Burma itself, but they conjure Burma in the mind of the author because of his class background, experiences in the country, and his own nasal sensitivities.

Lowis goes on to discuss the difficulty of conveying smells in writing.

these pregnant… smells are of no manner use to me in attempting to bring my milieu home to you, or at any rate to those of you to whom durian and ngapi are mere dead inexpressive vocables

There are odours in Burma, that cannot be smelt in Britain. Words themselves, he says, are insufficient in providing the readers with the smell of the colony. But here Lowis is making an in-joke. The smell of the durian fruit and the condiment ngapi are two of the odours in Burma most disliked by the British, according to their writings. Lowis is indicating to readers familiar with Burma, his insider knowledge.

A durian (Durio zibethinus): an entire and sectioned fruit. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A durian (Durio zibethinus): an entire and sectioned fruit.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Smell is being used in the opening of Lowis’s novel to a display his imperial caliber. He has access to both the sensory worlds of Britain and of Burma, and through this claims to have more sophisticated and heightened sensibilities. This is intended to distinguish him from others in Britain, who only know the smells of home. It is also to distinguish him from the Burmese, who eat foods whose smell he finds unpalatable. But these sensory experiences are not innate or natural, they are learned and historically contingent. For a historian, more important than the actual smell of a durian (which still has a notorious reputation) are the meanings that are attached to how it smelt.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Richard says:

    Corbin’s Foul and the fragrant is great on France

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