Race, place and bodily difference in early nineteenth-century India

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Abstract

Changing ideas of race, place and bodily difference played a crucial part in the way in which the British in India thought about themselves, and more especially about Indians, in the half-century leading up to the Mutiny and Rebellion of 1857. But in seeking to make this case, this article aims to do more than merely illustrate the importance of ‘the body’ to the ideology and practice of nineteenth-century colonialism in one of its principal domains. Without, I hope, invoking too crass and simplistic a binary divide, it seeks to restate an argument about colonialism as a site of profound (and physically-grounded) difference. Binary divisions and dichotomous ideas may have passed out of favour of late among historians, with a growing barrage of attacks on Edward Said and Orientalism.1 But even if Orientalism provides an unreliable guide to the complex heterogeneity of imperial history, there is an equal danger that, in reacting so strongly against ideas of ‘otherness’, historians may too readily overlook or unduly diminish the ways in which ideas of difference were mobilized, in ideology and in practice, in the service of an imperial power.

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