Charting Colonial Animal History

At the end of my module “Colonizing Animals: More-than-human Histories of Empire in Asia” my students and I charted the historiography. On a large sheet of paper I drew two axis. The vertical axis indicated the amount of attention the historian paid to the agency of the animals that they wrote about. The horizontal axis indicated whether the article was more concerned with the colonizers or with the colonized. We then placed the key readings that we had read on the module on this chart. Here’s what we ended up with:

Mapping Colonial Animal History
For details of the readings, consult the key below

We had a great discussion about how we identified agency in the articles, particular whether a historian’s engagement with a nonhuman creature’s subjective experience and intentional acts counted more than agency conceived of as an effect of interacting material entities. The exercise in itself was useful for embedding some key concepts and for reminding everyone of the content of the readings. But I also found it to be a really helpful way to visualize the historiography on colonial histories of animals in Asia.

It is a relatively small sample, one that is heavily reliant on my knowledge of the field, and our methods were far from scientific. Nevertheless, I think that the chart gives a strong impression about what is and is not well covered. The bottom right quadrant is the most full. These were the readings that focused most on the colonizers and provided less discussion of animal agency. The top left quadrant is the most sparsely populated, with nothing in the uppermost left-hand corner. These would have been readings focused on the colonized and that provided lots of discussion of animal agency.

This is the gap that historians of animals in colonial Asia should be looking to address. As Rohan Deb Roy has noted in his article “Nonhuman Empires”, the emergent hierarchies of imperialism were both predicated upon subaltern human groups and animals, and simultaneous served to marginalize them socially and in the historical record. It may be that we need to find innovative methods, new sources and creative narratives to incorporate both colonized and animal histories within one study.


  1. James Lorimer and Sarah Whitmore, ‘After the “king of beasts”: Samuel Baker and the embodied historical geographies of elephant hunting in mid-nineteenth-century Ceylon’, Journal of historical geography. , vol. 35 (2009), pp. 668-689.
  2. Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert and Helen Tiffin, Wild man from Borneo : a cultural history of the orangutan (Honolulu, 2014), 85-106.
  3. Mahesh Rangarajan, ‘The Raj and the natural world: The war against “dangerous beasts” in colonial India’, Studies in History , vol. 14, no. 2 (1998): 265-299.
  4. Peter Boomgaard, Frontiers of fear : tigers and people in the Malay world, 1600-1950 (New Haven; London, 2001), pp. 145-161.
  5. Shuk-Wah Poon, ‘Dogs and British colonialism: the contested ban on eating dogs in colonial Hong Kong’, The journal of imperial and commonwealth history. , vol. 42, no. 2 (2014), pp. 308-328.
  6. Anand S. Pandian, ‘Predatory care: the imperial hunt in Mughal and British India’, Journal of historical sociology. , vol. 14, no. 1 (2001), pp. 79-107.
  7. Rohan Deb Roy, ‘Quinine, mosquitoes and empire: reassembling malaria in British India, 1890–1910’, South Asian History and Culture , vol. 4, no. 1 (2013), pp. 65-86.
  8. Samiparna Samanta, ‘Dealing with Disease: Epizootics, Veterinarians and Public Health in Colonial Bengal, 1850-1920’, Poonam Bala ed., Medicine and colonialism : historical perspectives in India and South Africa (London, 2014), pp. 61-74.
  9. Sujit Sivasundaram, ‘Trading Knowledge: The East India Company’s Elephants in India and Britain’, The historical journal. , vol. 48, no. 1 (2005), pp. 27-63.
  10. Nandini Bhattacharya, ‘The Logic of Location: Malaria Research in Colonial India Darjeeling and Duars, 1900-30’, Medical history. , vol. 55, no. 2 (2011), pp. 183-202.
  11. Saurabh Mishra, ‘Cattle, Dearth and the Colonial State: Famines and Livestock in Colonial India, 1896-1900’, Journal of Social History. , vol. 46, no. 4 (2013), pp. 989-1012.
  12. Shufqat Hussain, ‘Forms of predation: tiger and markhor hunting in colonial governance’, Modern Asian studies. , vol. 46, no. 5 (2012), pp. 1212–1238.
  13. Christina Skott, ‘Linnaeus and the Troglodyte: Early Encounters with the Malay World and Natural Histories of Man’, Indonesia and the Malay world. , vol. 42, no. 123 (2014), pp. 141-169.
  14. Pratik Chakrabarti, ‘Beasts of Burden: Animals and Laboratory Research in Colonial India’, History of science. , vol. 48, no. 2 (2010), pp. 125-152.
  15. Ezra D. Rashkow, ‘Making subaltern shikaris: histories of the hunted in colonial central India’, South Asian History and Culture , vol. 5, no. 3 (2014), pp. 292-313.
  16. Needladri Bhattacharya, ‘Pastoralists in a Colonial World’, in David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha, eds., Nature, culture, imperialism : essays on the environmental history of South Asia (Delhi, 1995), pp. 49-85.
  17. Joseph Sramek, ‘“Face Him Like a Briton”: Tiger Hunting, Imperialism, and British Masculinity in Colonial India, 1800-1875’, Victorian studies. , vol. 48, no. 4 (2006), pp. 659-680.
  18. Meena Radhakrishna, ‘Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolutionary Science and Colonial Ethnography’, Indian Historical Review , vol. 33, no. 1 (2006), pp. 1-23.
  19. Jonathan Saha, ‘Among the Beasts of Burma: Animals and the Politics of Colonial Sensibilities, c.1840-1950’, Journal of Social History. , vol. 48, no. 4 (2015), pp. 933-955.
  20. Harriet Ritvo, Animal Estate: the English & other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA, 1987), pp. 205-242.
  21. Saurabh Mishra, ‘The Economics of Reproduction: Horse-breeding in early colonial India, 1790–1840’, Modern Asian studies. , vol. 46, no. 5 (2012), pp. 1116-1144.
  22. Sarah Cheang, ‘Women, Pets, and Imperialism: The British Pekingese Dog and Nostalgia for Old China’, The journal of British studies. , vol. 45, no. 2 (2006), pp. 359-387.
  23. Vijaya Ramadas Mandala, ‘The Raj and the Paradoxes of Wildlife Conservation: British Attitudes and Expediencies’, The historical journal. , vol. 58, no. 1 (2015), pp. 75-110.
  24. Sarah Amato, ‘The white elephant in London: an episode of trickery, racism and advertising’, Journal of Social History. , vol. 43, no. 1 (2009), pp. 31-66.
  25. Lilian Chee, ‘Under the Billiard Table: Animality, Anecdote and the Tiger’s Subversive Significance at the Raffles Hotel’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. , vol. 32 (2011), pp. 350-364.
  26. Saurabh Mishra, ‘Beasts, murrains and the British Raj: Reassessing colonial medicine in India from the veterinary perspective’, Bulletin of the history of medicine. , vol. 85 (2011), pp. 587-619.

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