I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History

Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton

  • Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005). 

Tony Ballantyne is a New Zealand and “new” colonial historian who is a member of the History Department at University of Otago. Antoinette Burton is a professor of history and Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, Ballantyne and Burton present a collection of essays which are meant to broaden the cultural considerations of the field of world history. Like Nicholas Thomas, they assert that the world has been shaped by a diverse intermingling of cultural encounters; European empires, typified by trade knowledge, migration, military power, and political intervention, have created an intense imperial web connecting diverse sections of the world. Most importantly, these cultural encounters are not limited to high politics and state practices, they argue, but rather deal with the occurrences of everyday life. At the center of these cultural encounters is the human body. The essays in Bodies in Contact approach the topic of human bodies in world history from a wide variety of topics, which seek to illustrate the mass-complexity of cultural interaction that has accompanied globalization. By looking at a vast assortment of local events, Ballantyne and Burton argue, one can reevaluate the connections that have shaped the contemporary condition.

Similarly to Thomas, Ballantyne and Burton argue that the European empires did not simply transplant their western culture into foreign lands, but instead created hybrid societies based on the agency of its native inhabitants and their decisions as to whether to adopt or reject certain new cultural practices and material items. Although the male body has been important in cultural exchanges, female bodies and how they are portrayed and managed have played a crucial role in the exchange of culture during the imperial era. With this essay collection, Ballantyne and Burton write, they “are seeking a way to dramatize how, why, and under what conditions women and gender can be made visible in world history.” (4) This is a challenging goal, they state, because women are typically left out of typical, primary source material. However, although women are not directly involved in these documents, the scrutinization of their bodies and concerns and anxieties over the management of their bodies can be frequently found within the documents. The presence of these descriptions elucidates how women were viewed by imperialists and how gender assumptions shaped the empire building process. Bodies in Contact contains three sections of essays. The first section is “Thresholds of Modernity: Mapping Genders,” which looks at the use of body descriptions in the communication of imperial ideologies, and how these descriptions affected the view of the body at a global level. The second section is “Global Empires, Local Encounters,” which includes a wide selection of local studies, which demonstrates the variety of cultural understandings of the body that existed around the world. The third section, “The Mobility of Politics and the Politics of Mobility,” looks at the impact of mobility had on global cultures. The main purpose of the essays is to offer a new way of looking at world history, one in which the individual body plays a major part, not just in intimate sexual and social relations, but also as objects of subjection, action, and struggle.

The idea of the body playing a major role in imperialism can be directly applied to American and Canadian frontier expansion and western mythology. Indians often had cultural forms of dress and ornamentation which were considered uncouth by European explorers and settlers. Indian men were often portrayed as having unusually strong bodies fit for warrior activities or were portrayed as being weak and unfit for long-term survival. Raymond Stedman provides one of the best summaries in Shadows of the Indian of the way in which Indian women were portrayed cultural by way of sexualized stereotypes, being either promiscuous or naively inexperienced.

Feature Photo: Body painter Sydney, Eva Rinaldi, June 11, 2013.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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