Tattoos, forearm lengths and loincloth knots: telltale 'native' signs

Legible Bodies

December 3, 2004

For colonialists, the ordinary flora and fauna of their new domains were fascinating, but it was the human populations that seemed to merit the closest study. In the 19th century, when colonialism was at its apogee, such studies were almost always organised around the master concept of race, although the term meant rather more then than it does today. Their goal, in essence, was to identify the markers of racial identity and the determinants of what we might call cultural difference. In this intriguing book, Clare Anderson, who has previously worked on the transportation of South Asian convicts to Mauritius, shows how colonial administrators and assorted savants studied the physique and habits of the "native" populations of South Asia - and especially its criminal elements - in their quest for reliable markers of individual and group identities.

Anderson's study begins, however, with the colonial authorities' efforts to label certain individuals for good. Criminals, in the early days of colonial rule in India, were tattooed (or branded: both words were used in contemporary reports) with their names and the details of their offences.

This procedure, which was discontinued from 1849, was not effective as a deterrent. Supposed to facilitate the recapture of escaped prisoners, it may actually have encouraged reoffending by preventing ex-convicts from finding employment after release.

More typical of colonial ethnography were the many surveys of decorative tattoos and physical features that sought to classify the vast population by race and ethnicity. Anderson rightly differentiates the racial thrust in contemporary anthropological surveys of European populations from that in South Asian ethnographies. "Race", in the latter, always embraced concepts of caste and tribe, and this association was unique to South Asia. Colonial ethnography was concerned not just with bodies, but also with their social and cultural extensions and, indeed, with psychological traits that were allegedly unique to particular groups and communities (such as the fabled mendacity of Hindus). At the same time, however, colonial administrators also looked for ways to identify individuals with techniques such as anthropometry and fingerprinting, and Anderson tries to relate these procedures to the broader ethnographic projects.

Legible Bodies , based on an extensive and meticulous study of primary sources and marked by a deep knowledge of specialised fields, is a substantial contribution to the history of colonialism and to the broader historiography of concepts of the body. Anderson synthesises earlier studies of colonial anthropology and builds on them not only to establish the sheer variety of things that colonial ethnographers were interested in - from the colour of tattoos to the length of the forearm, from the shape of loincloth knots to the structure of the retina - but also to explain this striking and apparently bizarre diversity. It is not an easy book to read, but the issues it deals with are so fascinating and the research is so comprehensive that the reader stays hooked.

Chandak Sengoopta is senior lecturer in the history of medicine and science, Birkbeck, University of London.

Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia

Author - Clare Anderson
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 245
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 1 85973 855 9 and 860 5

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