26 June 2020
One would be hard pressed to find a more ironic address for an Institute of Post-Colonial Studies than Curzon Street. George Nathaniel Curzon, who after humble birth as a mere marquess rose to become first Baron and then Earl Curzon of Kedleston, was Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905. He presided over a famine which cost up to 4.5 million lives, having concluded that ‘indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralized the self-reliance of the population.’ In British India, on the other hand, no equivalent moral hazard attended the indiscriminate giving of arms, hence Curzon’s bloody conquest of Tibet in 1904, an intervention designed to forestall an entirely fictitious Russian threat.
From the Great Game to big game, a manifestation of the will to power which, by no coincidence at all, was first invented and glorified in British India. The above picture shows Lord Curzon with Maharaja Sir Madho Rao Scindia of Gwalior, and friends. Of the various apex predators, Curzon is the one on the right and vertical. The image is captioned “Lord Curzon Hunting.” Note the use of the verb, which evokes the romance of colonial virility, confirming the superior fitness of the Imperial specimen over the supine native. The legitimacy of the colonial project depended on such images of authority, hierarchy, and natural mastery. Colonialism, wherever it occurred, whether in India or Australia or the Americas, faced the contradiction between the utter foreignness of the place and the utter naturalness of their rule over it. Such oppositions, as Roland Barthes explained, are reconciled by myths which bind them together into a kind of ‘frozen speech…neutral and innocent.’ ‘For the very end of myths,’ Barthes concludes, ‘is to immobilize the world: they must suggest and mimic a universal order which has fixed once and for all the hierarchy of possessions.’
Curzon hunting tigers is just such a myth, fixing once and for all ‘the hierarchy of possessions:’ the native/animal eternally immobilized at the feet of the colonial ruler, the feminized prostrate form of the savage brought to heel by the masculinized Raj, the colonial subject rendered passive, and the governor in whom agency is vested. It is a myth in a more direct way, too. For this is not a picture of tiger-hunting at all. The tigers, not to put too fine a point on it, are well dead. Most of the hunting and the killing—as with all activity, destructive or productive, in the colonies—was outsourced to the locals. The hunting in this picture is a fantasy, a fantasy of authority and activity which required millions of invisible others in order to be realized, and yet whose very presence had to be excluded from the realm of representation. The picture reminds us not only about power and history but about the gulf that separates image from reality, then and now.
The figure of the Maharaja adds a layer of complexity. But it too speaks to the particularities of British colonial myth, characterized by alliances with local elites with whom Britain shared a few of the spoils of colonial rule, but ceded none of its ultimate authority. It would be possible to read the image as a subtle feminizing of the Maharaja’s relationship to authority, the orientalist excess of his dress and headdress, the tender supplication of his gaze and his careful position a step or two behind—and therefore noticeably smaller than—the Viceroy. Curzon, by all accounts, liked hunting tigers, or rather, liked the image of having hunted tigers. Here is another one, this time with Mary, his wife:
So, Curzon needed more than a dead tiger; he needed a subordinate power to place his own, inordinate power, into relief. That is the tripartite structure of the myth and the structure of colonial authority too: a viceroy, a witness, and a fetish-object to desecrate. One looks from Madho to Mary, and struggle to tell them apart, not least that there is something in both of them, in the haunted appeal in their eyes and the tension in their arms, which make you feel for them. They look like creatures trapped in someone else’s fantasy; not unlike the tigers, for that matter. The clichés were taken by and with the authority of the Viceroy’s staff. They were designed by and belong to Curzon. He may have shared the glory with the avatars of his authority. But the control over representation, over the colonial myths which were indispensable to the colonial project, was unshakable.
If this is the colonial tiger, what can we say of the post-colonial tiger? The Tiger King, recently unleashed on Netflix to a rare mix of nausea and acclaim, might be one avenue of approach. I will not attempt to summarize the story, which beggars belief. It is a documentary about the owners of rival big cat parks in the United States. Joe Exotic, depicted below on his throne, has delusions of grandeur.
It is clear that in the post-colonial period, colonial fantasies of dominion over the wild world have not gone away. Myths of rulers and the ruled, savage, and civilized, conquest and conquered, of unlimited resources and total power, are used as weapons to exploit others and as ideologies to transform that exploitation into an unchanging essence. On the contrary, they have expanded and mutated across multiple domains. At the same time, the diverse kingdoms of colonial abuse have been integrated into a single structure of global exploitation. As the Comaroffs, amongst many others, argue, there was nothing anomalous about colonialism or postcolonialism. We can see its logic at work—logics of extraction, hierarchy, discrimination, exploitation—all around the world. We ought not to speak, therefore, of colonialism as leaving a legacy, but instead as leaving a prophecy. It is not a trace of the past; it is a sign of the future.
There are 3,890 wild tigers left in the wild. Like Indigenous communities around the world, or 60% – 80% of the world’s languages, they are on the verge of disappearing. In the US, on the other hand, there are over 5,000 tigers in captivity. That is the post-colonial tiger: it has been commodified, extracted, and tamed to the point of extinction. As under colonialism, this process satisfies desires for economic profit, but it also satisfies dreams of omnipotence to which Curzon was perhaps no stranger. If post-colonialism has only refined colonial strategies of wealth production and resource exploitation, it has expanded the reach of its fantasies and myths too. In the postcolonial world, even a farmboy from Kansas can become, not just the viceroy of tigers, but the Tiger King.
Above all, the fetish of desecrated and conquered flesh remains unabated. Money as fetish, as Marx observed, lies at the heart of capitalism. But his argument remains too abstract. The fetish, understood as a perverse desire for erotic objects to satisfy an unquenchable thirst, was an important colonial myth. It held the ‘hierarchy of theological possessions’ well and truly in place, by insisting on the idolatry, and therefore, it was thought, the falsity or ignorance of other beliefs. But more than this, it seems to me, the notion of the fetish was largely a projection by colonial anthropologists and missionaries—a displacement onto others of erotic and political insecurities that were theirs and theirs alone. Colonialism showed, and postcolonialism still shows, that those desires were at the heart of the colonial process and took material forms. It was they whose hunger sought constant and unavailing satisfaction in the possession and abjection of objects and of people as objects made flesh. It was they who needed to craft constant displays of mastery, control and objectification of things, animals and people. Witness Curzon’s tiger fetish. Methinks he doth protest too much.
Postcolonialism is like a hall of funhouse mirrors: distorted and multiplied reflections of some lost original, that nevertheless reproduces its exploitative and fetishistic desires for the mastery of the exotic. There are tiger kings everywhere. They patrol smaller domains than Curzon—perhaps—but they are larger than life and much, much more numerous.
What would it take to decolonize the tiger? Preserve its habitat, no doubt; stop the poachers who trade in live and dead tigers; protect the economic livelihoods of local communities; ban the big game hunting business, another one of those postcolonial distortions which attempts to fund the preservation of species by charging American businessmen extortionate fees to kill them. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Decolonization must mean more than a protection racket, surely. It requires us to do more than create reservations and reserves and museums in order to shelter the primitive from the modern. This is just another form of the fetish of the immobilized and passive victim. We will have to return not just life but power and voice to the colonized. That means different things in different places and amongst different communities. But a decolonized tiger?
In certain national parks in India and Bangladesh, I have read, tiger populations are on the rise. Poaching has ceased because the park lets the tigers do the policing. They patrol the territory, and they punish the intruders. It is an effective strategy. One might say that it gives back to the tigers some of the proprietary custodianship of the land they have lost. More crudely, it inverts the power dynamics of the hunter and the hunted. At the same time, it situates the tiger within a broader framework in which the fate of communities and eco-systems around the world are seen as connected. Our legal sense of rights and responsibilities has been relentlessly anthropocentric. Such a narrow focus served colonialism well but is coming under increasing scrutiny. The development of new ways of thinking of our relationship to the natural world can be seen in scholars from Chris Stone to Margaret Davies, Korsgaard, Kurki, Leimbacher and Rios, in legal documents from the Paris Agreement or the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act (Australia) to the Bolivian Constitution, and not least in ethical principles of environmental and global stewardship that form the basis of Indigenous legal systems around the world. We have begun to articulate a vision of responsibility that affords dignity and agency to animals, natural objects, and eco-systems. We can acknowledge the connection between problems of social inequality, exploitation and commodification, and environmental collapse; and between the crises faced by Pacific Islanders, Amazonian Indians, and the working poor, be they in India, Nigeria, or the US. We should recognize the role that colonial practices, myths, and representations have played in enabling and perpetuating those structures of injustice and domination. That would look like decolonization, not just to a tiger but to all of us.
Desmond Manderson is professor at the College of Law, Australian National University, and a friend of IPCS.