Milking It?

I have just come back from an amazing interdisciplinary conference on food in Asia organized by the Asian Dynamics Initiative at the University of Copenhagen. It was attended by historians, anthropologists, food scientists and many others, who talked on topics that included the production of sake, the ethics of vegetarianism, the authenticity of Anglo-Indian curry-houses, and the geopolitics of food security. I presented a paper on dairy consumption in colonial Burma as part of a panel on the history of milk. This has caused some bemusement among my friends who see this as the peak (or perhaps trough) of how eccentric and esoteric my research is becoming. But milk is not a frivolous subject. Dairy in Burma was caught up in some of the central tensions of colonial rule. One of the those tensions was the growing rift between the Burmese and Indian communities.

In Burma, before, during and after the colonial period, cow’s milk was not widely drunk. Instead, the local cattle were mostly used for agricultural work. In the early-twentieth century, the British began to worry that cattle from India that had been imported by Indian milk producers were ‘mixing’ with the local ‘stock’ and ruining the ‘breed’. These pictures from a 1929 colonial report titled Supply of Plough Cattle in Burma were used to illustrate the point.

Crossbred Cow Pure Bred BullAlthough they were the same species (Bos Indicus), there were differences between cattle in Burma and India. These were the result of centuries of human domestication in distinct ecological contexts. However, in accordance with wider thought on breeding, the British identified particular features that they deemed to be distinctively Burmese physical traits. They then argued that to protect these traits the ‘bloodline’ should be kept ‘pure’. In this sense, the ‘breed’ was an invention of the British. In the process, Indian dairy cattle were marked out as a threat to the purity of Burmese blood. As a result, officials called for controls on their numbers, movement and reproduction. There are clear resonances between the idea of ‘breed’ and the idea of ‘race’. Even though the market for milk remained small throughout the colonial period, the introduction of milch cows was tied up with the history of racist thought and communal friction in the colony.

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