Interview Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times

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This post is part of an ongoing series called, “Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History” This series examines the intersections of race and environment in Canada’s past and asks how human-nature relations are affected by ideas of race and racism.


An interview with Antoinette Burton and Renisa Mawani

Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020)

In what ways have ideas of race and racial hierarchy influenced human-animal relations in the past? 

Animalization, as scholars of race and colonialism have long argued, has been a common racial trope informing the politics of empire in multiple registers. Animals – most notably apes, cockroaches, and rats – were used to dehumanize Indigenous, enslaved, and colonial populations in ways that motivated and unleashed colonial and racial violence. Attuned to these histories, Animalia is concerned with the representational and racist force of animal species and the wider relations of power in which they were embedded. Animals, we argue, were part of a multispecies imperial biopolitics that determined who can live and who must die.

The volume is organized as a bestiary and along the English alphabet. Each of the 26 entries (A is for Ape; B is for Boar, C is for Cattle; Z is for Zebu) is accompanied by an archival image and traces the representational force of animals and their wilfulness in different regions under British imperial control. Contributors examine how animal species reinforced but also challenged and disrupted the agendas and ambitions of British authorities and settlers. When viewed as a multi-species endeavour, the British imperialism becomes visibly fraught and unstable.

Animalia draws broadly from the field of animal studies and places it into conversation with British imperial history. By centering the empire and its virulent and violent politics of race, contributors ask how animals reinscribed but also troubled imperial power and control, thereby charting anti-imperial histories. Thus, Animalia considers how imperial power was extended but also disrupted by animal species, large and small, and of various kinds. Our interest in disturbing conventional narratives of empire extends to reading the book as well. You can read from A to Z, or in a non-linear fashion that skips between entries or follows the cross-referencing, so that you can see the connections between J is for Jackal and T is for Tiger, or between O is for Okapi and U is for Unicorn.

To what extent did non-human animals play a role in British imperial expansion?

Animals were vital to imperial expansion at every turn. They served as rich, powerful, and violent symbols but also as material figures, intimate companions, and wilful agents. Animals, such as dogs, often accompanied colonists as domestic pets; cattle were vital food sources and forms of labour; and lions were commanding symbols of imperial power and control. In many contexts, as our contributors show, animals were vital to expressions of imperial power. But they did not always follow the objectives, ambitions, or imaginaries of British authorities and colonists. What makes animals so interesting to think with is that they were unpredictable and disruptive agents. Animals ran away and fought back. Some became the unintended victims of deforestation and ecological destruction, which were the consequences of imperial aspirations, including resource extraction, consumption, and settlement.    

Did animals themselves, their behaviours and actions in the past, have an influence on racial thought and ideas of white supremacy?

Animals shaped the imperial imaginary in profound ways. However, the ideas, representations, and symbols they engendered were often contested and disputed. The Sacred Ibis, which featured prominently in Egyptian mythologies and cosmologies, for example, became key to nineteenth-century French, British, and American debates regarding imperial and racial science. Animals were central to British pursuits for new commodities and markets. Whales were vital to imperial expansion and trade via sea. Products derived from the bodies of whales produced new forms of civility and status. In Europe, whale oil became a source of light that marked the ostensible progress of industrialization, including labour exploitation. Whalebone inspired new forms of fashion, including corsets and umbrellas, which became markers of racial and class distinction among white upper class Britons.

How does thinking about racial, gendered, and sexualized forms of the politics of empire transform or expand scholarship in animal history?

Animals, as we well know, featured centrally in racial, gendered, and sexualized representations that were foundational to expressions of British imperial power. But as the contributors to Animalia argue, thinking with animals in British imperial history opens new angles and perspectives from which to examine the politics of empire. The raccoon, for example, has commonly been viewed as a symbol of American frontier history. In Animalia, however, the raccoon is an unstable racial figure that illustrates the entanglements between British imperial projects, which relied on Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous violence. In the U.S., during the periods of antebellum slavery and Jim Crow, the “coon” was a symbol of Black animality. For Algonquian speaking peoples, however, the animal that is now called “raccoon” was identified by the Algonquian Powhatan word, arakunem, and was a neighbor, relative, and companion to Indigenous peoples. Thus, the “raccoon” was a distinctly British creation that has obscured these longer histories.    In recent years, species extinction has become a key measure of climate catastrophe. But much of the discussion on what we call the “Anthropocene” neglects imperial and colonial history. Discussions of capitalism and its role in the destruction of the planet have received attention of late. But as the contributors to Animalia suggest, we need to pay greater attention to British and European imperialism, and how the appropriation and destruction of Indigenous lands and waterways, the dispossession and deracination of Indigenous, enslaved, and colonialized peoples, and the large-scale extraction of resources from land, sea, and air have contributed to the ongoing destruction of the planet. Many animal species featured in the book – including the Quagga and the Northern Right Whale – are either extinct or approaching extinction due to British imperial pursuits, including settler agricultural practices and the whale hunt, respectively. Thus, Animalia points to the symbolic and material politics and practices of empire that are vividly represented today in the planetary threat of climate catastrophe and species destruction.

Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times will be published by Duke University Press later this year.


Image by Vinayak Harshvardhan from Pixabay

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Sean Kheraj is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and associate dean of programs in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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