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:
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.
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