Colonial afterlives

Colonial afterlives

 Office of the Dean May 27, 2021

UCI historian's new edited collection explores interlinked history of colonialism and sexuality

How did colonialist powers attempt to control the most intimate aspects of people’s lives? Chelsea Schields, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, researches the afterlives of colonialism including how colonialist powers regulated sexuality, childbearing, and child rearing. Featuring the work of dozens of international scholars, Schields’ co-edited collection is expanding the field of colonial studies. Co-edited with Dagmar Herzog, Distinguished Professor of history at The Graduate Center, CUNY, The Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism (Routledge, 2021) features over 30 interdisciplinary essays on the interlinked history of colonialism and sexuality across the globe.

Below, Schields discusses the impetus for the collection and why studying colonialism through the lens of sexuality is important.

What was the impetus for this collection of essays?

The volume is, in some ways, an homage to the body of literature that spurred my own interest in history. For about three decades now, an interdisciplinary group of scholars – historians, but also anthropologists and legal and literary scholars – have insisted that sexual regulations and anxieties profoundly shaped colonial projects. That insight has generated a voluminous amount of research, with new studies appearing every day.

Co-editor Dagmar Herzog and I wanted to take stock of how this literature has evolved, especially with the interdisciplinary contributions of Indigenous studies and Black studies, among others. These fields of knowledge have always been propelled by social movements. And as we enter an era of renewed activism, the questions brought to bear on studies of intimacy and colonialism have also changed. In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed really important for scholars to highlight the mutual constitution of gender, race, sexuality and class – for instance, when “respectable” was used to describe people, behind it were notions of white sexual propriety and gendered behavior. Racial categories in the colonies were thus not a given; they were created and re-created through laws and conventions about “who could do what with whom.” Scholars from the 80s and 90s earnestly hoped and believed that calling attention to the fragility and socially-constructed nature of these categories would destabilize their lingering political, economic and social effects. But scholars now are grappling with new issues: not just about the durability of racism, but also concerning the otherness and difference of the past. These scholars are discovering how colonized subjects imagined and experienced their intimate selves in ways that were distinct from the colonizers. Understanding these forms of selfhood, they argue, might newly invigorate struggles and survival today.

How does studying sexuality enhance our understanding of colonialism?

As historian Ann Stoler wrote nearly thirty years ago, no topic was more talked about in colonial archives than that of sex. Studying sexuality reveals that intimacy was a site of regulation at once as important as and inseparable from those more traditional domains of power: the economy, high politics and the law. So, for example, the profits of empires increased when in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries European colonists outsourced the reproductive care of European soldiers to unwaged Indigenous women. Sexual and domestic arrangements were always factored into the administration of empires.

Just as important, though, intimacy was not only a site of control. Entries in this volume by historian Rachel Jean-Baptiste, cultural studies scholar Wigbertson Julian Isenia and others also think about the possibilities for pleasure, self-making, kinship and community that could sustain survival in often violent and hierarchical colonial contexts.

Finally, the study of sexuality and colonialism challenges many standard assumptions. What colonial authorities marked as illicit or dangerous practice varied profoundly across time and space. For example, historian Nora Jaffary’s entry shows how Spanish authorities in seventeenth and eighteenth-century New Spain (Mexico) were relatively uninterested in abortion and infanticide. It was the post-independence government that cracked down on these reproductive practices. Often, we know the most about those practices that were condemned and policed. But reading the archive sideways, we can also learn about what went on in the interstices.

The scholars featured in this collection conducted research using a wide range of visual, literary, medical, administrative and legal sources. How did this interdisciplinary approach shape the book?

Herzog and I were guided by the insight that archives are not neutral repositories of knowledge; they are products of power. Anthropologists and literary scholars really helped to change the way that historians think about archives and colonial archives in particular, which are notoriously occlusive—they block and conceal things through what they do and do not collect and the ways their documents are categorized. For this reason, it was necessary to think with, against and beyond the documentary record. Literary scholar Santanu Das’ entry on Indian troops on the Western Front of World War I, for instance, recreates the life worlds of Indian soldiers using novels, photographs and paintings of their wartime experiences. In so doing, he resurrects forms of intimacy including deep male friendships and bodily touch and closeness that were not strictly about sex. These kinds of sensations and relations would not have been detectable in the written record. At the same time, the volume includes a number of entries that work with “traditional” archives but that use really clever methods for doing so. Historian Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara’s essay works with the wills of mixed-race women in seventeenth-century Guatemala. Not a very likely source for accessing sexuality! But she reads these documents as expressions of self-making, wherein non-elite, unmarried women claimed personas of Catholic piety and morality that were often denied them in wider society.

In the introduction, you provide examples of how settlers controlled and monitored sexuality, fertility, childbearing and marriage to enforce their conquests and to encourage the dispossession of land and its reimagination as white space. Why was it important for settlers to control such intimate aspects of Native people’s lives?

Reproductive control has played an important role in various kinds of colonial projects. In the context of settler colonialism, as historian Gregory Smithers and sociologist Laura C.L. Landertinger argue, the point of reproductive control in places like the United States, Canada or Australia was to break the ties of Indigenous people to the land; to eliminate Indigenous claims to territory in a legal sense but also in a deeper sense of destroying the very categories by which possession could have been asserted. The idea was to eradicate alternative relations between land and people that differed from settler notions of private ownership of and dominion over nature. To sever these ties to land, kin and community, there was not just violent displacement of Indigenous people from the land but also the removal of Indigenous children from their families.

In other kinds of colonial projects, reproductive control took different forms but was also intended to serve the social, political and economic objectives of various colonial projects. Interdisciplinary scholar Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci writes about how, in the twentieth century, Japanese colonists encouraged the reproduction of the colonized Korean population. The reproduction of workers was thought to be an economic boon to empire. In the context of racial slavery in the Americas, as Françoise Vergès and Brooke Newman show, laws ensured that the status of enslavement followed the mother. Enslaved women of African descent were relied upon not only to work but also to perform reproductive labor. Reproductive control was thus at the heart of racial slavery.

On your faculty page, you list the afterlives of colonialism as one of your research interests. Are there any policies or laws in the book whose effects we can see today?

Colonial-era laws that criminalized same-sex intimacy remain on the books in many former colonies, especially within Britain’s former empire. Legal scholar Tracy Robinson’s essay explores how anti-sodomy statutes traveled from the British metropole to Jamaica in the nineteenth century, where they were envisioned as a way to discipline the Black male body after slavery. By the 1960s and in an effort to gain legitimacy, nationalist leaders in Jamaica had to rebut the stereotypes of sexual unruliness that had long justified Black unfreedom. They held fast to these criminal codes (which, I should add, also took decades to reverse in Europe). In recent years, we’ve seen a dramatic reversal: suddenly, European actors are claiming to defend the rights of LGBTQ people and threaten to withhold aid to countries that do not extend legal protections to same-sex desiring individuals. They do this often without acknowledging or reckoning with the role of colonialism in the very creation of discriminatory statutes.

What do you hope this book will add to the field of colonial studies?

The amazing group of authors in this volume (you can see the full list of contributors here) have not only reminded students of colonialism of the centrality of sex to power,  they have also revealed the stunning multiplicity of notions of intimacy. Their work expands our definition of intimacy beyond sexual liaisons or encounters to include also the deliberate construction of kinship, friendship, and fluid and multiple identities.

Officially out May 25, 2021, The Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Routledge.