Anti-Colonial Primatology

Animal histories often attempt to de-centre the human in their narratives. They show instead how the actions of non-human animals have made possible and frustrated human activities. They also show how definitions of what it means to be human have been premised on contrasts with the animal other. In both of these arguments, animal historians are working along anti-humanist lines in that they question the idea that the human is an unchanging historical agent. But, as Zoe Todd has blogged about brilliantly, this animal turn has erased colonized peoples from its canon. The bibliographies of theoretical literature drawn upon by animal historians are often overwhelmingly dominated by White authors. As an incisive recent review article by Iman Jackson Zakiyyah argues, this overlooks the work of the postcolonial thought of Black and indigenous peoples that also critiques a-historical definitions of the human.

These problems came to my mind again as I began reading a book written by one of Myanmar’s foremost anti-colonial thinkers of the early-twentieth century: the nationalist activist, journalist and poet Saya Lun, later known as Thakin Kodaw Hmaing. He wrote a number of books satirizing colonial society that mixed prose and poetry in the style of religious commentaries called htikas. Several of these were about animals and I’ve begun, very tentatively and slowly, to read his Monkey Htika (1923). Historians have long argued that monkeys have held an important place in changing definitions of the human, particularly as new natural history taxonomies, influenced by evolutionary theory during the nineteenth century, brought the two together under the order of ‘primate’. But this is usually an imperial intellectual history; one playing out among White male scientists. Where might Thakin Kodaw Hmaing’s writing fit in this history?

First page of the Myauk Htika (1923)
First page of the Myauk Htika (1923)

I haven’t yet got further than his explanation of the structure of the book, in which he acknowledges the problems of categorizing the writings he is engaging with and the difficulties of getting to the roots of knowledge. However, I found the image at the start arresting. A very human-like monkey is intertwined with Burmese script that spells out the title of the book, Myauk Htika (Monkey Htika), whilst it looks out from the page at the reader with a wary gaze. The animal and its textual representation are entangled in the image; a conceptual point much emphasized by animal historians. I’m looking forward to learning more about how Thakin Kodaw Hmaing deploys the monkey to shed light on the colonial condition in Myanmar. At the same time, I think that engaging with his writings, and those of other colonized thinkers who consider animals, might expand the theoretical and methodological foundations of animal history itself.

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