The ‘Civilising’ Violence of Colonialism

Indian Experiences and Legacies

Dr Deana Heath
University of Liverpool


This research group will bring together an interdisciplinary group of eight historians, English scholars and Museology scholars for a week-long workshop (to be held in Cambridge) on the structural, social and symbolic violence of colonialism in Britain’s largest and most culturally iconic colony, India. While there is an emerging body of scholarship on what Slavoj Žižek (2008) terms “objective” violence in India and other colonial contexts scholars have yet to develop a comprehensive understanding of the nature of colonial violence, particularly the nature of “objective” violence and the relationship between “objective” violence, which largely remains hidden, and “subjective”, or overtly visible forms.

This failure to reckon with the violence of Britain’s colonial past continues to have profound repercussions, most recently on Britain’s decision to leave the EU, since British perceptions of empire as the source of British ‘greatness’ and a force for global good played an important role in the vote to leave. But whether a result of “colonial nostalgia” (El-Enany 2016) or “the last throes of Empire working its way out of our system” (Tomlinson and Dorling 2016), Brexit reveals that, far from being merely a remnant of Britain’s past, empire continues to play a key role in shaping British identity and political culture. In light of the lack of education about empire in British schools (Heath 2016a) and the ongoing failure of cultural institutions, such as museums, to depict the reality of Britain’s colonial past (Heath 2015), a rosy perception of such a past is likely to continue.

The sensitivity of the subject matter makes funding such a project a challenge, at least in the U.K. ISRF funding would provide the opportunity to challenge British perceptions of empire through enabling the group to develop a new understanding of the nature of British colonialism and its impact.

The Research Idea

The historiography of colonial violence is largely a history of context – about, in other words, everything that happens around violence. This is largely because the emphasis in colonial historiography has been to analyse key ‘events’ or ‘moments’ of violence, particularly those enacted by Europeans on non-white bodies – on, in other words, what philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2008) terms “subjective” forms of violence (or what Johan Galtung (1969) earlier termed “personal” violence), namely forms of violence that are performed by identifiable agents.

Such an approach to colonial violence neglects, however, the history of quotidian violence in colonial contexts, its causes, the forms it takes, and its effects on bodies and minds. It also ignores the role of a de-humanising colonialism in generating interpersonal violence among the colonised, or what the psychologist Frantz Fanon (1963) characterised as “collective autodestruction”. It thus negates the agency of the colonised in enacting violence on each other’s bodies, and repudiates
interpersonal violence among the colonised as a form of colonial violence.

To understand the nature of colonial violence and its effects we instead need to turn our attention to what Žižek characterises as “objective” forms of violence (or, for Galtung, “latent” forms) such as structural, social or symbolic violence, which are generally invisible and lack clear agents, but which were central to the ‘civilising’ drive of colonialism. Focusing on colonial India, the aim of this interdisciplinary research group is to develop a new understanding of the nature of colonial violence, its effects, and its legacies.


It took Britain a hundred years to conquer the Indian subcontinent, which it then dominated for a further century. The subcontinent also witnessed a partition that led to over a million deaths and the largest migration of human beings in global history. Yet while the violence of colonialism is palpable even in such a cursory rendering of India’s past, the myriad forms such violence takes, the rationales that underpin it, and its impact on Indian bodies and minds have only begun to be elucidated. Violence makes an entry into the history of South Asia’s colonial past largely in terms of rebellion and resistance, religious or ethnic violence, and cataclysmic events – approaches that displace violence onto the colonised and underestimate the endemic, everyday forms of violence through which colonialism operated.

Yet as an emerging body of scholarship has begun to demonstrate, violence was not a peripheral or aberrant aspect of colonialism. For the colonisers violence was justified as being necessary for governing colonised peoples because such peoples were inherently violent. Violence was, as a result, an important means through which indigenous peoples were racialised, infantilised, de-masculinised and, ultimately, ‘civilised’. It served to delimit everything that the colonisers found unfamiliar or frightening among the peoples whom they sought to subjugate or who threatened their precarious systems of governance. Not only, therefore, was violence central to the ‘disciplining’ of colonised peoples, it was also a part of colonial intimacy, and played a key role in producing knowledge about the colonised.

The Focus

The concerns of this research group are both timely and pressing. Not only have the past two decades witnessed the global growth of modes of violence that can be understood in terms of what David Harvey (2003) and others have referred to as the ‘new imperialism’, but closer to home in Britain there have been renewed attempts, as witnessed most recently in the Brexit campaign, to ‘whitewash’ the violent histories of the country’s imperial past (Andrews 2016). Most Britons continue to believe theirs was a benign and benevolent imperialism, which rather than appropriating land, labour, and goods and reducing millions of people to what philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998) has termed “bare life”, namely individuals who could be killed with impunity, sought to impart the benefits of British civilisation to peoples deemed in need of it (Heath 2016c). India is regarded as a particular beneficiary of such largess (Lee 2013).

The perpetuation of such myths has prevented Britain from reckoning with the nature of empire and its impact. It has also elided the traumatic effects of empire on the colonised wrought not only by the physical impact of colonial violence but by its effects on their subjectivities and cultures. This research group aims to challenge public debate on empire through: (a) interrogating the myriad and intersecting objective forms of colonial violence and their effects; and (b) disseminating such research not only in academic publications but via a website, a blog and various media platforms.

Theoretical Novelty

To develop an understanding of the “objective” nature of colonial violence and its effects in colonial India the research group will address the following questions:

  • What were the myriad forms that colonial violence took?
  • What, exactly, is ‘colonial’ about such violence?
  • What were the impacts of colonial violence?
  • What have been the long-term legacies of colonial violence?
  • How can or should colonial violence be represented, particularly for non-academic audiences?

To answer such questions, the group will draw upon a range of theoretical approaches, including on:

  • governmentality, biopolitics, and bare life (Foucault 1997; Agamben 1998; Mbembe 2003; Tickell 2012);
  • law-making and law-sustaining violence (Benjamin 1978; Minnow et al. 1995; Kolsky 2010);
  • states of exception (Hussain 2003; Agamben 2005);
  • pain, suffering and trauma (Scarry 1985; Sontag 2003; Das 2006; Ward 2014);
  • the psychology of colonial violence (Fanon 1968; Mannoni 1956);
  • colonialism, gender, and sexual violence (Sharp 1993; Smith 2005; Heath 2016b; Grey forthcoming);
  • violence and spectacle (Chaudhary 2012; Twomey 2013);
  • ecological imperialism and famine (Davis 2001; Mukherjee 2013);
  • animals and empire (Haraway 2003; Shukin 2009; Walker 2013; Kumar 2014);
  • representing and displaying empire (Simpson 2006; Mackenzie 2010; McAleer and Longair 2012).

Such an approach will enable the group to consider the many forms of structural, social and symbolic violence wrought by colonialism to ‘civilise’ the colonised and make them and their lands ready for exploitation, and the effects of such violence on Indian culture, society and subjectivities.


This interdisciplinary research group will consist of four historians, three English scholars and one Museology scholar. The group’s interdisciplinarity will also be broadened by the guest participants to include anthropology and art history. Each group member has undertaken pioneering, theoretically rigorous research on a different aspect of structural or symbolic violence in colonial India (and, often, other colonial contexts):

Elizabeth Kolsky (History, Villanova) will bring expertise in law-making and law-preserving violence and, like Daniel Grey (History, Plymouth), in sexual violence (including, for Grey, against children). Pablo Mukherjee (English, Warwick) and Jonathan Saha (History, Leeds) will bring expertise on violence against animals and the environment; with Mukherjee offering insights on epidemics and famines and Saha on animals and the colonial origins of the Anthropocene. Zahid Chaudhary (English, Princeton) and Emma Martin, an academic and curator (Museology, Manchester, and World Museum, Liverpool) will contribute expertise on aesthetics and the visual and material culture of colonial violence; Chaudhary on colonial photography and Martin on the collecting and display of objects acquired through violence. Finally, Alex Tickell (English, The Open University) and Deana Heath (History), will offer expertise on ways in which the colonial state in India reduced the colonised to “bare life”, such as through terror (Tickell) and torture (Heath).

Through bringing together scholars with such different areas of expertise the workshop will enable group members to share their different research questions and concerns, theoretical approaches and source bases to generate a new understanding of the ‘objective’ nature of colonial violence.

Work Plan

The group will participate in a week-long workshop, as follows:

Day 1: presentations by group members on forms of ‘objective’ violence in colonial India, attended by staff and students of Cambridge University’s Centre of South Asian Studies;

Day 2: to explore what is ‘colonial’ about such forms of violence the group will be joined by Clare Anderson, an expert on the history of colonial penal colonies;

Day 3: to consider the impact of colonial violence on Indian bodies, minds, and society the group will be assisted (via Skype) by anthropologist Veena Das, whose pioneering work examines the connections between violence, pain and suffering in India;

Day 4: to analyse the long-term legacies of colonial violence the group will be joined by Abigail Ward, a postcolonial theorist who works on colonial trauma;

Day 5: the group will take a field trip to view the South Asia collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and will hold a workshop there on representing colonial violence. It will be assisted by guest participant Clare Wintle, a lecturer in Art and Museum Studies who specialises in the material culture of empire;

Day 6: the group will focus on developing ideas for grant proposals; the day will include a visit to the Centre of South Asia Studies archive to survey its materials relating to colonial violence;

Day 7: the group will focus on outreach, namely on disseminating its research through a website, blog and various media outlets.


The final outcomes for the research group include grant bids, dissemination of the group’s research findings and events at World Museum, Liverpool as follows:

  • Grants: the group will apply for both mid-range grants to enable group members to develop collaborative research projects (such as the American Council of Learned Societies’ Collaborative Research Fellowship) and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation’s (which funds the study of violence and aggression) Research Grants. It will also apply for large (up to £1 million) ESRC and AHRC research grants and will seek funding for an exhibition (see below);
  • Dissemination and outreach: the group will disseminate its research findings through academic publications, including an edited volume on colonial violence in South Asia. It will also undertake outreach to disseminate its findings through developing both a website on colonial violence, which will include tools for teachers, and a blog. Group members will also make media contributions (through outlets such as The Conversation);
  • World Museum, Liverpool: drawing upon the museum’s collections, the group will organise a series of public talks at World Museum on colonialism, collecting and violence and will seek funding to organise an exhibition on colonial violence at the museum.
  • Zahid Chaudhary, Princeton University
  • Daniel Grey, Plymouth University
  • Deana Heath, University of Liverpool
  • Elizabeth Kolsky, Villanova University
  • Emma Martin, University of Manchester & World Museum, Liverpool
  • Pablo Mukherjee, University of Warwick
  • Jonathan Saha, University of Leeds
  • Alex Tickell, Open University