University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > 'Violence and colonial atavism: the British Indian state’s north-eastern frontier during the nineteenth century.'

'Violence and colonial atavism: the British Indian state’s north-eastern frontier during the nineteenth century.'

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From its expansion into the Assam valley in the mid-1820s until the turn of the twentieth century, the British Indian state came into various degrees and forms of contact with the inhabitants of the surrounding hill areas. In seeking to instantiate its authority in the face of persistent resistance and its own flimsy institutional and epistemological structures, a central part of the colonial state’s repertoire was displays of physical violence. In my paper, I argue that these displays were intended to communicate state power to distant and little-known populations. However, these performances often – and sometimes farcically – failed to achieve the aims of colonial officials. I also develop the category of ‘colonial atavism’, which seeks to explain how colonial states in outlying regions sought to derive power in situations of fragility through adopting, while simultaneously distancing themselves from, violent methods that they explicitly labelled as ‘barbaric’. Through examining the complexities and instabilities of these colonial deployments of violence, I hope to show that the colonial state at the fringes of British India was an endlessly protean and fragmented venture, founded on haziness and uncertainty rather than fixed and enduring structures.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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