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Book Review


Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, editors, Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History  (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005). 445 pp, $24.95.

     For reasons we can probably guess, students are fascinated with bodies.   Should we be?  In Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton's 2005 collection of essays, Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History we learn that yes, there are world historical reasons why we should.  In this volume, the editors compile essays (most previously published) that demonstrate how bodies, in imperial contexts, have often been "a subject of concern, scrutiny, anxiety, and surveillance in a variety of times and places across the world." (4)  This volume focuses on the particular context of colonial encounters made evident through "bodies in contact."  The editors build upon Mary Louise Pratt's notion of "contact zones," as "real and imagined spaces in which cultures and their agents come together in circumstances of asymmetrical power." (406)  Here, Ballantyne and Burton assemble essays that highlight the centrality of the body to colonial encounters.  The body, they argue, "is in many ways the most intimate colony, as well as the most unruly, to be subject to colonial disciplines." (407)

     With an emphasis on bodies, this collection is centrally focused on gender.  Regulation of imperial bodies was usually a gendered exercise and, at times, also had sexual and racial implications.  The impact upon bodies that accompanied cultural contact and empire building is explored in section one: "Thresholds of Modernity:  Mapping Genders."  Essays here study race, gender and sexuality in various global contexts.  Topics range from an examination of the racial implications of medical theorizing in the eighteenth-century French colonies by Sean Quinlan, to Rebecca Overmyer-Velaquez' study of religious reform in colonial Mexico through the lens of Franciscan reform efforts concerned with the sexuality of Nahua women.  Readers will appreciate that the editors included studies focused on non-European empires, which will assist world history teachers in making cross-cultural comparisons.  In the first section, Emma Jinhua Teng's essay explores how Qing travel writing characterized the "strangeness" of Taiwan by emphasizing the "hyper-sexuality" of the region's women.  Ballantyne and Burton have also made a special point to present a complete examination of gender in this collection by including essays focused on questions of masculinity and empire building, including Rosalind O'Hanlon's study of masculine sociability in Mughal north India.  This important essay enhances Mrinalini Sinha's work on "colonial masculinity" in later Bengal (Sinha also has an essay in the second section of this collection, which focuses on the racial and gendered spaces of British colonial clubs).

     Section two is titled "Global Empires, Local Encounters."  Its focus is on specific colonial contacts in various regions from the late eighteenth through mid twentieth centuries.  These essays are concerned with how empires, "negotiated, policed, and reinforced" boundaries of race and gender.  We see the global context in which "dangerous hybrids" emerged at the imperial margins of British Columbia. Adele Perry interrogates the uniqueness of Canadian creolization while connecting it to historical understandings of hybridity in other colonial settings.  Her examination of racial identity formation juxtaposed to the realities of administering Britain's remote colonies uncovers practical ways states adapted to the particular bodies they governed.  Patrick F. McDevitt chooses the context of Gaelic team sports to explore how subjects targeted by imperial state regulation could use their bodies to "strike back."  In this case, Irish men developed a Catholic version of "muscular Christianity" in nationalist sports such as hurling and Gaelic football.  This is an under-explored arena of nationalism in which Irish men contested and sometimes embraced British notions of them as disorderly or unruly.  Fiona Paisley provides a fascinating account of "Race Hysteria" in 1938 Darwin, Australia.  Her essay examines the racial, sexual and gendered debates surrounding the legal case of an Aboriginal man accused of assaulting (and supposedly attempting to rape) a white woman.

     Section three, "The Mobility of Politics and the Politics of Mobility," moves out of a rooted locality and scrutinizes colonial encounters as they resulted from movement:  whether through travel, migration or war.  The focus in this section is on subjects and ideas moving between regions and empires, or empires clashing in conflicts as they expand.  All of these essays, "turn on the body," in their explorations of movement and conflict. (6)   Shoshana Keller's essay focuses on Soviet efforts to expand Bolshevik laws into Central Asia and exposes a cultural conflict over women's "proper" place—whether women in Uzbekistan should be veiled and in the home or unveiled and working.  This, of course, had implications for Muslim women's modesty as well as cultural assumptions that women's seclusion represented a family's wealth and status.  This study of one aspect of the Russian imperial experience illustrates how religious beliefs and cultural practices evolve slowly and resist reforms imposed by colonial authorities.  Melani McAlister's essay examines the "imagined community" of African American Islam through an analysis of two well-known men—Muhammad Ali and Amiri Baraka.  Her essay traces how the Nation of Islam evoked connections and shared understandings between themselves and the Arabic Middle East and transmitted that understanding through cultural products, especially the Black Arts Movement.  Islam's influence in turn shaped African American responses to Middle Eastern foreign affairs in the late 1960s.  McAlister's essay reveals, importantly, how the creation of a shared sense of "blackness" in the United States was shaped by a transnational movement that connected African Americans to people in the Middle East and beyond, displacing the common notion that the African American community defined itself only in relation to Africa.

     This volume does much to reorient "both imperial and world history" by demonstrating how "gendered relationships recur fairly consistently across empires, across the world," and in different temporal contexts. (13)  As the essays in this collection show, empires have often been "gendered projects." Gender and sexuality are central to how imperial states defined bodies within their realms.  This emphasis also demonstrates how individuals experienced, contested, and moved through empires and that imperial boundaries were often permeable. The editors made special efforts to present a complete view of gender here, focused on both masculinity and femininity, and to broaden their examination of "imperial webs" beyond European ones.  With notable exceptions, however, the focus remains European colonial contexts, but often includes regions not usually considered in examinations of European imperialism.  Several articles offer a welcome contribution by analyzing empire building and the construction of "manliness," redressing a gap in the field.  An exclusive focus in some essays on men and the construction of masculinity helps reverse a trend the editor's observe in the field of world history.  As they point out, "'masculinity' is an analytical category that remains unheard of in the field [of world history]", and these essays do uncover approaches world historians might use to interrogate "male-dominated archives" in new ways. (12)  In future studies influenced by this collection, it would be productive to do more to consider how masculinity and femininity operated together in imperial contexts.

     Bodies in Contact systematically interrogates the body in a variety of "imperial webs." (4) These essays offer historians new ways to conceptualize gender and sexuality in a world historical framework.  World historians can offer much to explorations of "Bodies in Contact" by analyzing this category across comparable historical regions.  The essays should also prompt world history teachers to consider the body in global contexts.   Ballantyne and Burton's book makes this easier—teachers can assign essays in conjunction and students can analyze and compare how imperialism was, in a variety of situations, a gendered project.  The short introductions to each essay are helpful in pointing out the global themes of each piece.  Beyond assigning these essays as reading, selections might inform thematic lectures on topics such as the gendered implications of traveling across empires. 

     Work remains to be done as world historians integrate considerations of the body, gender and sexuality into their understandings of global connections and conflicts.  In their conclusion, the editors acknowledge both a resistance by world historians to taking gendered approaches as well as a reluctance of women's and gender historians to placing their topics in world historical contexts.  Perhaps this volume will begin to break down this reluctance in each discipline.


Anne Wohlcke
Cal Poly Pomona


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