The UCI historian’s newly revised collection examines the interrelated history of colonialism and sexuality
How have colonial powers tried to control the most intimate aspects of people’s lives? Chelsea Schields, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, explores the afterlife of colonialism, including the regulation of sexuality, childbirth, and child-rearing by colonial powers. With the work of dozens of international scholars, Schields’ co-edited collection expands the field of colonial research. The Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism (Routledge, 2021) was published together with Dagmar Herzog, Distinguished Professor of History at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and contains over 30 interdisciplinary essays on the globally networked history of colonialism and sexuality.
Below, Schields discusses the impetus for the collection and why it is important to examine colonialism through the lens of sexuality.
What was the impetus for this collection of essays?
In a way, the volume pays homage to the literature that piqued my own interest in history. For about three decades, an interdisciplinary group of scholars – historians, but also anthropologists as well as legal and literary scholars – has insisted that sexual regulations and fears profoundly shape colonial projects. This finding has led to extensive research, with new studies appearing every day.
Co-editor Dagmar Herzog and I wanted to take stock of the development of this literature, especially with the interdisciplinary contributions of indigenous studies and black research. These areas of knowledge have always been driven by social movements. And as we enter an era of activism again, the questions related to studies of intimacy and colonialism have also changed. In the 1980s and 1990s it seemed very important to scientists to emphasize the mutual constitution of gender, race, sexuality and class – for example, when “decent” was used to describe people, behind it were ideas of white sexual decency and gender-specific behavior. Race categories in the colonies were therefore not a matter of course; they were created and re-created by laws and conventions on “who can do what with whom”. Scholars of the 1980s and 1990s seriously hoped and believed that paying attention to the fragility and socially constructed nature of these categories would destabilize their ongoing political, economic, and social effects. But the scientists are now grappling with new topics: not only with the persistence of racism, but also with the difference and the difference in the past. These scholars discover how colonized subjects imagined and experienced their intimate selves in ways that differed from the colonizers. Understanding these forms of selfhood, they argue, could reinvigorate the struggles and survival of today.
How does the study of sexuality improve our understanding of colonialism?
As the historian Ann Stoler wrote almost thirty years ago, there was nothing more addressed in colonial archives than the subject of sex. The study of sexuality shows that intimacy was a place of regulation that was equally important and inextricably linked to the more traditional spheres of power: economics, high politics, and law. For example, empire profits rose when European colonists outsourced the reproductive care of European soldiers to undeserved indigenous women in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Sexual and domestic arrangements have always been considered in empire management.
Equally important, however, was that intimacy wasn’t just a place of control. The contributions of historian Rachel Jean-Baptiste, cultural scholar Wigbertson Julian Isenia, and others in this volume also reflect on the opportunities for pleasure, self-actualization, kinship, and community that could ensure survival in often violent and hierarchical colonial contexts.
Finally, the study of sexuality and colonialism challenges many standard assumptions. What the colonial authorities identified as illegal or dangerous practices varied greatly in time and place. For example, the contribution by historian Nora Jaffary shows how the Spanish authorities in New Spain (Mexico) in the 17th and 18th centuries were relatively uninterested in abortion and infanticide. It was the post-independence government that opposed these reproductive practices. Often times, we know best about those practices that have been condemned and monitored. But if we read the archive from the side, we can also learn what went on in the interstices.
The scholars represented in this collection conducted research using a variety of visual, literary, medical, administrative, and legal sources. How has this interdisciplinary approach shaped the book?
Herzog and I were guided by the realization that archives are not neutral stores of knowledge; they are products of power. Anthropologists and literary scholars have really helped change the way historians think of archives, and especially colonial archives, which are notoriously occlusive – they block and hide things by what they do and what they don’t, and by the way how your documents are categorized. For this reason it was necessary to think with, against and beyond the documentary files. The contribution of the literary scholar Santanu Das about Indian troops on the western front of the First World War, for example, recreates the lives of Indian soldiers using novels, photographs and paintings of their war experiences. In this way, he resurrects forms of intimacy, including deep male friendships and physical touch and closeness that were not all about sex. These types of sensations and relationships would not have been apparent in the written record. At the same time, the volume contains a number of entries that work with “traditional” archives, but use very clever methods for doing so. The essay by historian Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara works with the will of mixed race women in Guatemala in the 17th century. Not a very likely source of access to sexuality! But she reads these documents as an expression of the self-expression in which unmarried, non-elitist women claimed persons of Catholic piety and morality, which they were often denied in society.
In the introduction you will give examples of how settlers controlled and monitored sexuality, fertility, childbirth and marriage in order to enforce their conquests and promote the expropriation of land and its redesign as white space. Why was it important for settlers to control such intimate aspects of indigenous lives?
Reproductive control has played an important role in various types of colonial projects. In the context of settler colonialism, as historian Gregory Smithers and sociologist Laura CL Landertinger argue, the point of reproductive control in places like the United States, Canada or Australia was to break the ties of the indigenous peoples to the land; To eliminate indigenous territorial claims in the legal sense, but also in a deeper sense to destroy the categories through which the possession could have been asserted. The idea was to eliminate alternative land-people relationships that differed from the settlers’ ideas of private property and rule over nature. To break these ties to land, relatives and communities, not only were tribal peoples forcibly evicted from the country, but tribal children were also removed from their families.
In other types of colonial projects, reproductive control took various forms, but was also intended to serve the social, political, and economic goals of various colonial projects. The interdisciplinary scholar Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci writes about how Japanese colonists promoted the reproduction of the colonized Korean population in the 20th century. The reproduction of workers was seen as an economic boon to the empire. In the context of racial slavery in America, laws such as Françoise Vergès and Brooke Newman show ensured that the mother’s slavery status followed. Enslaved women of African descent not only had to work, but also had to do reproductive work. Reproductive control was therefore at the heart of racial slavery.
On your faculty page, list the afterlife of colonialism as one of your research interests. Are there any guidelines or laws in the book that we can see the effects of today?
Colonial laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy remain on the books in many former colonies, particularly the former British Empire. Legal scholar Tracy Robinson’s essay examines how anti-sodomy laws traveled from the British metropolis to Jamaica in the 19th century, where they were envisaged as a way of disciplining the black male body after slavery. In the 1960s, in order to gain legitimacy, Jamaica’s nationalist leaders had to refute the stereotypes of sexual irregularity that had long justified blacks’ bondage. They stuck to these criminal codes (which, I should add, took decades to reverse in Europe too). In recent years we have seen a dramatic turnaround: suddenly European actors are claiming to defend the rights of LGBTQ people and threatening to refuse aid to countries that do not provide legal protection to same-sex people. They often do this without recognizing or considering the role of colonialism in creating discriminatory laws.
What do you hope this book will add to the field of colonial exploration?
The amazing group of authors in this volume (you can see the full list of contributors here) not only reminded students of colonialism of the central importance of sex to power, but also revealed the amazing variety of ideas about intimacy. Her work expands our definition of intimacy beyond sexual liaisons or encounters and also includes the conscious construction of kinship, friendship, and fluid and multiple identities.
The Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism was officially released on May 25, 2021 and is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Routledge.