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Jonathan Saha: Colonizing Animals. Interspecies Empire in Myanmar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2021, XIV + 234 S., ISBN 9781108839402, GBP 75,00
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Rezension von:
Sabine Hanke
Historisches Institut, Universit├Ąt Duisburg-Essen
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Paul Blickle
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Sabine Hanke: Rezension von: Jonathan Saha: Colonizing Animals. Interspecies Empire in Myanmar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2021, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 2 [15.02.2023], URL:

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Jonathan Saha: Colonizing Animals

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Jonathan Saha's well-written book contributes to recent scholarship that reconsiders the agency of nonhuman animals within the (post-)colonial realm, furthering the disciplinary exchange between postcolonial and animal studies. [1] It is based on rich archival research and attempts to uncover the encounters between humans and animals as well as colonizers and colonized in colonial Myanmar between the late nineteenth century and 1942. It argues that animals were both physically and symbolically influenced and altered by colonial rule. With his focus on interspecies relationships, the author provides a new understanding of imperialism in Myanmar, problematizing the role of difference, which critical animal studies and postcolonial theory have referred to differently. Whereas species difference has been understood as an embodied and not self-evident category, postcolonial difference has been analysed through its phenomenological and epistemological role. Saha's study contributes to the growing number of research that deals with human-animal history in colonial contexts while also advancing method- and theory-building based on a postcolonial reading of interspecies archives.

Throughout the book's six thematic chapters, Saha examines the ways in which empire unfolded as an interspecies endeavour. The first chapter analyses working animals and their commodification throughout the nineteenth century. Through Foucault's approach of the biopolitical order, Saha shows how animals, just like humans, were evaluated based on their perceived utility. Building on Donna Haraway and Karl Marx's concepts of capital, Saha understands working animals as "lively constant capital" (35) which requires interspecies relations and labour in order to generate excess value. Based on their perceived biopolitical utility, these working animals were categorized into the groups of "subject", "object" and "abject" (41) as they helped reproducing an animal labour force, preserving the people's health and sustaining colonial hierarchies.

Chapter two digs deeper into the role of working animals for the colonial realm, introducing two species in particular: elephants and cattle. Elephants' special abilities and high levels of cognition created a form of elephant power, which was also recognized in the pre-colonial era. The colonial administration understood these utilities and changed the wielding of the animals' power throughout the nineteenth century, using them initially as a military and logistical resource while starting to sell them to the timber industry. However, Saha describes the repeating frictions that the colonial state encountered in attempting to harness the animals' power and wildness and its failure of turning elephants into commodities. Cattle, on the other hand, grew more important for the rice production across the Irrawaddy Delta. As the delta provided only limited resources and competition with other animals rose, such as the Indian plough cattle, the Indian breed was seen as a problem, especially its cross-breeding and spread of diseases. Saha describes the similarities in attitudes towards animals and people as the protection of these Burmese cattle was rhetorically aligned with the protection of Burmese people from negative Indian influences.

Protecting and commoditizing animals was also at the root of regulating killing of certain species. In his third chapter, Saha highlights how the biopolitical order of animals led to their eradication and how routinized acts of killing supported imperial structures and authority. The colonial state regulated killing in order to protect useful animals and to curb the dangers of others. Crocodiles were rendered as abject, and intended to be killed. Yet Saha convincingly shows how the colonial state's environmental policies did not produce definite outcomes. His analysis of the failures of the colonial state to act against unlicenced killing presents a persuasive argument that challenges John MacKenzie's views on the successful protection of wildlife through colonial legislation. In contrast, Saha's sources and conclusions point to the problems in translating this theory into practice.

The fourth chapter looks at the affective nature of interspecies empire through its physical and emotional closeness to animals and is arguably the most compelling chapter due to its comparison of sensibilities towards animals and its upholding of colonial society. British depictions of closeness to animals were differentiated by who was in close proximity of what type of animal. British representations of Burmese relations with animals were judged based on perceived racial hierarchies and the case studies of oozies, elephant drivers, and their elephants as well as sexualized snake charmers and interspecies breastfeeding women were understood as inappropriate human-animal relations, not just physically, but also emotionally. Yet, Saha remarks correctly that these descriptions reveal more about the British writers than the Burmese actors. Whereas similarities in relations with animals were apparent among the colonizers and the colonized, the politics of "colonial sensibilities" (109) kept these spheres apart, highlighting how animals were entwined in producing differentiations within imperial societies.

In his fifth chapter, Saha shows how a perspective on animals informs national imaginaries and influences the modern colonial society by looking at how Burmese writing aligned positive attitudes towards animals with Buddhist traditions and the transfer of Western scientific knowledge of animals into Burmese understandings, which challenged imperial structures. Mainly focusing on the Burmese-language press, he highlights the ambivalent role of animals within Burmese anti-colonial national efforts. One case in point was the nationalist newspaper The Sun with its column 'Town Gossip by Town Mouse', which satirically commented on colonial urban life from an ever-present animal, a rodent.

The final chapter focuses again on the role of animals for maintaining the colonial order, underlining the diverse and ambiguous role shown through the example of the Hsaya San rebellion in the early 1930s and the fall of Rangoon in 1942. For the rebellion, Saha does not show radically new insights into this topic, rather he stresses the materiality of animals present and the diverse character of the anti-colonial symbols used. One might have expected more of an intervention into the existing discussions on the revolution as the environmental policies discussed earlier have highlighted the frictions of the colonial state and imperialism more broadly. Besides these minor points, Saha presents a convincing argument for the importance of combining ecological and historical research that is very attune to different minority voices across the colonial archive, human and non-human.


[1] See Philip Armstrong: The Postcolonial Animal, in: Society & Animals 10 (2002), Nr. 4, 413-419; Rohan Deb Roy: Nonhuman Empires, in: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 35 (2015), Nr. 1, 66-75; and Aritri Chakrabarti: (Post)Colonial History, in Mieke Roscher, André Krebber and Brett Mizelle (eds): Handbook of Historical Animal Studies, Berlin 2021, 325-339.

Sabine Hanke