The White Ant’s Burden
This blog accompanies Rohan Deb Roy’s Historical Journal article White Ants, Empire, and Entomo-Politics in South Asia
In February 1875 an anecdote appeared in the Times of India. While inspecting a parade at a military camp in the Bombay presidency, a British General had instructed the troops to stand at ease for about half an hour. On his return, he was shocked to notice that the soldiers no longer wore their boots! Apparently, termites had eaten them while the soldiers stood still, following the General’s orders.
British officials in India noted the persistent presence of termites (also called white ants). A well-known British writer of popular natural history, who was also a colonial customs official, jokingly wrote in the 1880s that India’s soil was ‘three-fourths white ants, and one-fourths earthy matter or stone’. My article explores the different meanings of these insects for the British empire in India.
On a practical level, what really concerned British officials was the ostensible ability of white ants to eat into paper and wood, the two principal material foundations of the nineteenth-century colonial state. Yet this notoriety gave them a wider significance: ‘white ants of India’ figured as a derogatory expression to articulate social disapproval and political antagonism in British newspapers.
Indeed, colonial officials associated the widespread presence of white ants with the lack of civilisation. These comments were often coloured with misogyny and racism. White ants were described as ‘the foe of civilisation… the Goths… of Indian life’, and the reproductive females within white ants’ nests were compared with the rebel Zulu king Cetewayo’s ‘very fat’ wives.
These associations persisted into the final decade of the British Raj, when an erstwhile British colonial official wrote a short story called ‘White ants’, which describes Indian participants at the lower levels of the colonial judicial apparatus as corrupt and evil. The author compared these Indians with termites, which made the ‘wooden pillars’ of suburban courthouses vacuous, and therefore rendered the foundations of colonial law and justice dysfunctional.
My article also shows how South Asians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries themselves internalised the British imperial rhetoric of white ants to pursue their own distinct political agendas. Thus, some South Asian commentators have used white ants as a symbol to denigrate pre-colonial Islamic rule, or as a metaphor for British imperial exploitation. Others have referred to the imagined social organisation within termites’ nests to uphold communism, democratic socialism, and even to justify the caste system.
Nor has this pejorative language disappeared. In recent years, the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has compared the Indian National Congress, one of the principal opposition parties, with termites. The then-president of the ruling party and current home minister, Amit Shah, described alleged illegal immigrants in India as termites. It is rare, if not unprecedented, for the topmost representatives of the Indian republic in the post-independence period to make such comparisons, and their appearance at that level is quite sinister. These statements are also episodes within the longer history of the political appropriation of the white ant metaphor in a South Asian context.
Main image: The polar and tropical worlds : a description of man and nature in the polar and equatorial regions of the globe, Year: 1874, Wikimedia Commons