The anti-imperial beasts

New volume examines animals' role in the British Empire, racial politics
Image of John Bull
“Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times,” co-edited by Illinois history professor Antoinette Burton, examines the roles that animals played in the British Empire – both in advancing and in disrupting British imperial power. This image from the Second Anglo-Afghan War shows John Bull trying to stamp on scorpions that are half insect and half Afghan tribal fighter. The cartoon reflects “the challenges that the colonial creature world posed to British imperial ambition,” Burton wrote. “Stamping It Out,” by John Gordon Thomson. From Fun, Aug. 11, 1880. Courtesy of Bodleian Library.

Animals played a central role in the British Empire. Sources of food and labor, animals symbolized the power of the empire. They also hindered the efforts of the British to control colonized lands, and they destroyed ecosystems.

A new book examines their relationships with imperial authorities and colonists through essays about 26 animals – one for each letter of the alphabet, from Ape and Boar to Yak and Zebu – and how those human-animal relationships reflect on the empire’s presumption of racial supremacy. “Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times” was co-edited by Antoinette Burton, the director of the Humanities Research Institute and a history professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Burton contributed two essays.

“Animalia” offers a counternarrative of empire in examining the disruptive force that animals presented to imperial expansion. Burton and co-editor Renisa Mawani, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote in the book’s introduction that animals “did pose recurrent challenges to modern British imperialism, interrupting the best-made plans and reminding would-be colonizers on a regular basis that the terrains they sought to conquer were not uninhabited but were populated both by humans and by unruly animal species that refused to go away.”

The book connects critical race studies and animal studies in looking at human-animal relations and how racial assertions of supremacy played out in animal form. British imperialists coming into a new environment expected to be the dominant species and to impose their will on native populations and native animal species, Burton said.

Antoinette Burton and book cover
History professor Antoinette Burton is the co-editor of “Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times.” (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.)

“You can’t disentangle white supremacy from species supremacy,” she said. “There was a lot of white supremacist violence happening in the British Empire. But some of that was being thwarted in small, ordinary ways by animals. Some of them are quite spectacular examples of how the animal world worked against the empire.”

The lion has long symbolized the British monarchy, and its iconography often features a lion wearing a crown or holding a scepter, Burton wrote in her essay “L is for Lion.”

“The lion conjured ‘might is right’ by linking imperial power with the hierarchy of natural law in the animal kingdom,” she wrote.

Lion hunting became associated with coming of age for certain white men. Burton recounted the story of the man-eating lions of Tsavo, Kenya, that were attacking laborers on a railway project before being killed by a British railway engineer with the help of his local scout. A fictionalized account of the story appeared in the 1996 film “The Ghost and the Darkness.”

“Intended as a tale of derring-do, ‘The Man-Eaters of Tsavo’ also tells stories of struggle, reversal, near failure, and one small, fleeting win for the lion population,” as one lioness escapes being killed, she wrote.

Mosquitoes that transmit malaria and yellow fever were seen as “tiny, mobile threats to a British sovereignty,” and mosquito control was considered necessary for expanding colonial development. The British devoted significant resources to controlling the transmission of parasites and viruses via mosquitoes, while Indigenous people and enslaved Africans took advantage of their immunity to yellow fever to challenge colonial rule, according to the book’s essay on the insect.

Scorpions were a common feature of household life in the British colonies, and they also were used as a metaphor for agents of anti-colonial struggle, Burton wrote in her essay on that creature.

“Because of their potentially deadly stings, scorpions were feared and even loathed. They were also seen as ‘enemies,’ ‘combatants,’ and in some contexts, instruments of war,” she wrote. “The scorpion was a commonplace colonial menace that brought all kinds of danger to the doorstep.”

The book looks at jackals in southern Africa, which preyed on small livestock and were made stronger when efforts to eradicate them resulted in more adaptable animals surviving.

Cattle were a source of food and labor, as well as a symbol of agricultural progress, wealth and status, and domesticity. As Indigenous lands were transformed into grazing lands, cattle functioned as “agents of colonization in their own right” – a new way to dispossess Indigenous people of their lands and natural resources, according to the essay describing cattle’s role in the empire. They initiated processes of deforestation that continue today. British imperial pursuits were among the causes of climate change, Burton and Mawani wrote.

The style of the book – an illustrated ABC text – was popular during the Victorian era. Interest in zoology was soaring during that age of exploration and conquest, and books celebrating animal life were plentiful. The format is more accessible than an academic monologue, Burton said. The essays cross-reference other entries, allowing readers to jump to different sections and making it easier to find connections between species and geographical locations.

“The form is different and playful, but the content is deadly serious,” Burton said. As the British Empire attempted to legitimize its supremacy through a mastery over animals throughout its territories, “the real story is in the struggle over whether and to what extent such supremacy was actually achieved.”

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Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau