The Story of the Tattooed Lady: Scandal and the Colonial State in British Burma


  • Special thanks are due to Andrew Abbott, Joseph Fischel, Bernard Harcourt, Rochona Majumdar, Dan Slater, Matthias Staisch, and Ian Storey for valuable comments and sustained encouragement on this article. Early drafts have also benefited from feedback provided by the anonymous reviewer of Law & Social Inquiry and participants of Panel 47-4: Policed Sex and Politicized Sexualities at the 2010 American Political Science Association's Annual Meeting (September 2010) and the Theory and Practice in South Asia Workshop, University of Chicago (December 2010). Archival research at the British Library (London, UK) was supported by a grant from the Nicholson Center for British Studies at the University of Chicago.


This article centers on Branded Woman v. Unknown, an unusual 1889 trial that gave birth to the “ordinarily accepted significance” of Burmese tattoos. What began as a snippet of gossip from a colonial village became a scandal involving the highest echelon of Britain's metropolis. I explain why this dynamic of escalation occurred and how colonial officials in Burma utilized a courtroom to transform tenuous fictions of tattooing into a seemingly coherent fact about Burma. My argument that this process—shaped through cues from a fragmented audience of peers (rather than a single audience of subordinates)—represents the production of an elite public transcript highlights how colonial scandals worked as eventful moments for an always precarious state to reconfigure its claim to power by prompting local agents to enact expressions of certainty. It further carries implications for scholarship on symbolic state power and the construction of legal facts and public knowledge.