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Naked Truths: Bodies, Knowledge, and the Erotics of Colonial Power

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2013


If clothing can be said to have political and cultural meaning, then the same must surely be true of its absence. In the British Empire, where the calibration of difference was paramount, nakedness acquired hierarchical significance. The sensibilities of the Victorians clashed with those of their colonial subjects on this topic over and over again, and nakedness came to define savagery and subjecthood. Through the optics of scientific literature, popular photography, and art, this essay examines the colonial politics of nakedness, its gendered dynamics, and the tensions between the erotic and the scientific.

Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2013

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2 Letters to the editor, The Times, 23 May 1885.

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42 Elizabeth Elbourne argues that Saartje Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, on display in London in the early 1800s, was marketed as the antithesis of the domestic. One might perhaps see her as a grotesque for whom desire would reveal considerable—and primitive—perversity. See Elbourne, “Domesticity and Dispossession: The Ideologies of Domesticity and ‘Home’ and the British Construction of the Primitive from the Eighteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries,” in Deep Histories: Gender and Colonialism in Southern Africa, ed. Woodward, Wendy, Hayes, Patricia, and Minkley, Gary (Amsterdam, 2002), 43Google Scholar.

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47 A point driven home by Sandra Klopper, in “George French Angas' (Re)presentation of the Zulu in The Kafirs Illustrated.”

48 With thanks to David Smith of the University of Hong Kong for introducing me to this illustration.

49 The classic statement of the policy is to be found in Neville, A. O., Australia's Coloured Minority: Its Place in the Community (Sydney, 1947)Google Scholar. Neville did not originate the policy, but he was an enthusiastic advocate and practitioner of its advantages. Secondary works on this strategy include Jacobs, Margaret D., White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940 (Lincoln, 2009)Google Scholar; Haebich, Anna, Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families, 1800–2000 (Fremantle, WA, 2000)Google Scholar; Moses, A. Dirk, ed., Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History (New York, 2004)Google Scholar.

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51 Brock, “Nakedness and Clothing,” 39, et. seq.

52 Ibid., 33, 44.

53 Ibid., 35.

54 Vickery, Amanda, “An Englishman's Home Is His Castle? Thresholds, Boundaries and Privacies in the Eighteenth-Century London House,” Past and Present 199 (May 2008): 152CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 173.