H-Diplo Review Essay 191 on Rotter. Empires of the Senses: Bodily Encounters in Imperial India and the Philippines

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Review Essay 191

13 February 2020

Andrew J. Rotter. Empires of the Senses: Bodily Encounters in Imperial India and the Philippines.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. ISBN: 9780190924706.

Review Editors: Cindy Ewing and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Dane Kennedy, George Washington University

What better way to show what a history of the senses can tell us about the past than to focus on the bodily experiences of the Western rulers of colonial Asia? “Empire,” Andrew Rotter observes at the start of this book, “was an embodied experience” (2), and, as such, it often involved an assault on the senses of those who were its agents. This was certainly the case for the British in India and the Americans in the Philippines. They found themselves in environments very different from their own, places where the sights, the smells, the sounds, the tastes, and the textures of life were strange, disorienting, and often anxiety-inducing. Their efforts to reshape these environments to suit their own sensibilities were no less challenging and troubling to the peoples they ruled. The main aim of this ambitious book is to argue for the centrality of these sensory impressions and experiences to the British and American imperial projects in these two lands.

Rotter conducts a comparative examination of these “empires of the senses,” starting with the establishment of formal British rule over India in 1858 and the American acquisition of the Philippines from Spain in 1898. His first chapter examines the connections between the senses and Western notions of civilization, showing how the standards of sensory conduct that the West associated with civility also served to define otherness and rationalize rule over those whose conduct was deemed uncivilized: “Each of the five senses—how it was exhibited, how it was deployed—was thus assigned a place on the scale of civilization and a racial identity” (33). The second chapter considers the sensory dimensions of colonial warfare, focusing on the violent and traumatic struggles that took place in India during the 1857-1858 rebellion and in the Philippines during the war for independence from 1899 to 1902. This is followed by a chapter on the systems of colonial governance that the British established in India and the Americans in Philippines. Echoing the argument made by James Scott and others, Rotter refers to these colonial regimes as “ocularcentric state[s]” (129) that scrutinized colonial subjects and often classified them on the basis of visually distinguishable attributes.

In chapter four, Rotter turns to soundscapes, arguing that the colonizers drew a sharp distinction between sound and noise, a distinction that corresponded in their minds to the contrasting attributes of civilized and uncivilized societies. Noise abatement, then, meant minimizing the clamor of temple bells and other sounds, not least the strange timbre of their subjects’ speech, which struck many Britons and Americans as discordant and irritating. Anglo-American colonizers’ complaints about fecal scents and other foul odors, the associations they drew between these smells and tropical diseases, and the impetus these associations gave to sanitation measures is the subject of chapter five. The following chapter covers some of the same ground, especially with regard to disease, but it focuses on physical contact between the races and the concerns this generated among the colonizers about the violation and pollution of their bodies. Rotter then turns to taste and foodways, suggesting in chapter seven that this was a sensory realm where colonizer and colonized managed in some respects to overcome the gulf between one another as they gradually acquired an appreciation of the other’s culinary practices and preferences. The conclusion reflects on the shifting sensory experiences that accompanied the process of decolonization.

There is much to admire in this book. Rotter makes good use of the scholarship on the history of the senses to frame his study. He gives an exuberant account of the sensory impressions of the British in India and the Americans in the Philippines, packing his narrative with vivid and often squirm-inducing accounts of senses under assault. He draws his evidence from a rich array of archival and published sources, especially letters, diaries, and other personal reflections, and he possesses a working familiarity with the historiography on British India (and, I gather, the American Philippines, though my own knowledge of its historiography is limited). Readers are introduced to topics as varied as the colonial treatment of leprosy, the food the colonizers liked to eat, and the construction of sewers system, including the one in Victorian London. As the latter example suggests, Rotter makes connections between the colonial and the domestic dimensions of empire, and he moves with ease between British India and the American Philippines.

Rotter even attempts in the closing section of each chapter to suggest how colonialism shaped the sensory experiences of Indians and Filipinos. He acknowledges, however, that his evidence for indigenous peoples’ sensory responses to colonialism is fragmentary and heavily reliant on the commentary of colonial masters. And given the immense size and diversity of these colonized populations, it seems futile to offer any meaningful summary of their sensory responses to colonialism. (A more analytically useful approach might have been to focus on the various Indian and Filipino students, politicians, and others who visited Britain or the United States and wrote about their impressions and experiences of these—for them—strange and disorienting societies.)

If Rotter’s admirable desire to provide the perspectives of the colonized is constrained by a dearth of evidence, the plethora of evidence he has gathered about the colonizers’ sensory experiences all too often overwhelms and obscures his arguments. Example is piled on example, page after page. When Rotter does pause amid his welter of illustrative anecdotes and quotations to reflect on their significance, the results can be rather vacuous. “Battle,” he tells us in his chapter on colonial warfare, “was hard on the skin and the body overall” (62). This is hardly an illuminating observation. Moreover, his efforts to assert the importance of the senses to the colonial encounter lead to some strained and awkward prose. Take by way of example this sentence: “Americans and Filipinos saw each other every day, an affront to vision” (71). And it is far from helpful to conclude that Britain’s retreat from India and the United States’ withdrawal from the Philippines occurred because “the time for occupation had passed. Both countries had had enough of it” (279).

Last, one wonders what purpose Rotter seeks to achieve by comparing—to quote the book’s subtitle—“bodily encounters in imperial India and the Philippines”? In his introduction, Rotter explains that he wants “to de-provincialize exceptionalist national narratives” by showing that “these empires were parallel undertakings with lateral connections” (5). While some historians may still hold such exceptionalist views, recent works by Julian Go, A. G. Hopkins, and others have largely discredited them.  And surely no one who ever read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” could possibly doubt that “Britons and Americans imagined themselves as part of a combined effort to civilize… others whom they regarded as backward” (6). So how does Rotter’s comparative analysis of their “empires of the senses” advance our understanding of these two imperial projects? What do we learn about the British experience in India or the American experience in the Philippines or their shared imperial habitus that we did not know already? I struggled to find answers to these questions.

To be sure, Rotter repeatedly points to similarities, as well as occasional differences, in British and American colonizers’ responses to the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of India and the Philippines (as well as differences within each of the two colonizing communities). And he certainly makes it clear that these sensory impressions were integral to the colonizers’ frequently bewildered, occasionally curious and receptive, but more often deeply suspicious and even hostile responses to colonized peoples and their environments. Yet his focus on the senses does not substantially alter our views of the colonists’ responses to the peoples and places they governed or enhance our understanding of how the two imperial projects converged and diverged.

The strength of Empires of the Senses lies less in its analytical acumen or comparative insights, then, than in its quotidian descriptions of the sensory experiences—and the meanings attached to those experiences—on the part of Britons and Americans who found themselves ruling strange peoples in strange lands. Confronted by communities, cultures, sounds, foods, climates, landscapes, and diseases they considered alien and often threatening, these agents of empire were, as Rotter makes abundantly clear, subject to conditions that placed their senses in heightened states and accentuated the importance of those senses as criteria for measuring Indian and Filipino colonial subjects against their own ‘civilized’ standards of behavior.


Dane Kennedy is the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, where he teaches British, British imperial, and world history. His most recent book is The Imperial History Wars: Debating the British Empire (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).