SATURDAY 13 APRIL 2019, 2-4 PM
COLLEGE PARK COUNCIL CHAMBERS
Katherine Anderson is an assistant professor of English at Western Washington University. Her work has appeared in Victorian Review and the edited collection Traumatic Tales: British Nationhood and National Trauma in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Routledge), and she has also written for Public Books. She is currently at work on a book manuscript entitled Twisted Words: Torture and Liberalism in Imperial Britain.
In 1854, scandal broke out in Britain when several Members of Parliament announced that Indian officials had, while collecting the British land-tax in Madras, resorted to “torture of a most disgraceful and revolting description.” But the torture out in the empire did not conform to the definition of torture as the British understood it; native tax collectors used locally available resources and ordinary objects such as biting insects and hot chilies as tools of their trade rather than state instruments designed solely for the purpose of torture. Darius Rejali argues that national histories produce their own folklores of torture in which pre-constructed memories are taken for granted as facts about patterns of torture. When allegations of torture in Madras surfaced, the British returned to their nation’s folkloric definition of torture as they tried to make sense of what was happening in India under their rule, but to no avail. The torture did not conform to Britain’s historical definition.
This paper argues that the Madras torture scandal serves as a key moment in the nineteenth-century evolution of the liberal Western definition and practice of torture: in fact, it inaugurates our modern definition of torture. The official Report of the Commissioners for the Investigation of Alleged Cases of Torture in Madras instigated a cultural shift within Britain in defining torture as word and as practice, breaking with the national history of torture and updating it with a modern understanding of torture as a systemic and everyday interaction between citizen-subjects and their government.
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