Please join the Eighteenth/Nineteenth Century Graduate Research Cluster at 4:30pm on Thursday, October 24 in Allen Library Research Commons Seminar Room Red C for a presentation by Dr. Katherine Anderson (English, Western Washington University) entitled “Angry White Men: Torture and Settler Sovereignty in Colonial Fictions of South Africa and the Pacific.”
Reception to follow in the Petersen Room (Allen Library 485).
When “The Methodical Mr. Burr of Majuru” (1895) discovers his wife on the verge of committing adultery, he acts swiftly. Mr. Burr, a fictional British trader in the Marshall Islands, follows his indigenous wife to her assignation and cuts off the head of her lover with one hand while holding her in place with the other. He then forces his wife to carry the head into town and stand on display with it, while singing the song her lover used to woo her. Ned Burr’s deliberate use of spectacular cruelty seemingly situates him far outside the bounds of a liberal British government, an anachronistic loner whose grasp at sovereignty stands in stark contrast to the humanitarian bureaucracy of a modern civilization. Yet he is not alone. Late-Victorian colonial fictions by authors such as Louis Becke (Mr. Burr’s creator), Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bertram Mitford often depict white settlers asserting their absolute sovereignty through the torture of indigenous subjects. This paper argues that in implementing torture to quell rebellion, citizens of empire actually appropriate the state-of-emergency rhetorics originally used to justify the British state’s torture of citizen-subjects in reaction to perceived social crises. In both cases, whether perpetrated by the state or by the individual outside the law, torture serves as a means of justifiable terrorism meant to reassert British sovereign authority. By transferring the state’s rhetorics of sovereignty, emergency, and sanctioned violence onto individual citizens within the Empire, these fictions undermined state terrorism and made significant contributions to evolving definitions of citizenship and human rights at the close of the nineteenth century.