Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity

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9780812244830: Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity
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Through literary and historical documents from the early sixteenth to late seventeenth centuries—epic poetry, private correspondence, secular dramas, and colonial legislation—Carmen Nocentelli charts the Western fascination with the eros of "India," as the vast coastal stretch from the Gulf of Aden to the South China Sea was often called. If Asia was thought of as a place of sexual deviance and perversion, she demonstrates, it was also a space where colonial authorities actively encouraged the formation of interracial households, even through the forcible conscription of native brides. In her comparative analysis of Dutch, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish texts, Nocentelli shows how sexual behaviors and erotic desires quickly came to define the limits within which Europeans represented not only Asia but also themselves.

Drawing on a wide range of European sources on polygamy, practices of male genital modification, and the allegedly excessive libido of native women, Empires of Love emphasizes the overlapping and mutually transformative construction of race and sexuality during Europe's early overseas expansion, arguing that the encounter with Asia contributed to the development of Western racial discourse while also shaping European ideals of marriage, erotic reciprocity, and monogamous affection.

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About the Author:

Carmen Nocentelli is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of New Mexico.

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Introduction

Around the year 1625, the birth of a child revealed a secret liaison between John Leachland, an English East India Company factor at Surat, and an Indian woman named Mānyā. When company officials pressured him into leaving her, Leachland refused, wishing "rather to be suspended the Companys service and Wages then to be constrayned to abandon her Conversacyon." On 20 February 1626, Leachland had his wish, and was suspended. He was not, however, subjected to further discipline: anything more severe than cashiering, it was feared, would simply "have hastened his marrying to her and for consequentlye have forsaken his Country and freinds or, in case of faile therof, to some other desperate undertaking to his aparente Ruine."

Such an outcome East India Company officials were obviously keen on avoiding: at a time when few employees survived their terms of service, Leachland boasted ten years of experience, having arrived in India in 1615 as a purser's mate on the ship Expedition. Three years later, he had joined the Ahmedabad factory as a buyer of silks, an occupation for which he seems to have had skill and training. Between 1621 and 1623 he served at Burnhānpur, Baroda, Ahmedabad, and Cambay, acquitting himself well enough to have his wages increased. Despite his affective foibles, in short, Leachland remained a man "of fayre demeanor, sufficient Abillities, and cleare of Accounts with the Honorable Company in India"—a combination of qualities that made him especially valuable. No wonder his superiors held out the hope that he might be reclaimed and made "sensible of his own Errors."

The hoped-for change of heart did not occur, though, for in 1632 John and Mānyā were still together, eking out a precarious existence on the margins of the East India Company community at Surat. Because of a labor shortage following the famine and pestilence of 1630-33, John had been contracted for some convoy work, but had not been fully reinstated. The English traveler Peter Mundy, who accompanied him on a trip to Agra, summed up his story in the following terms: "Mr John Leachland, an Englishman, sometymes the Companies servant, haveing done prime offices, for the love of an Indian Woman refused to returne to his Countrie . . . and soe lives with her in Suratt, by whome hee had sundrie Children; and by reason of the great mortallitie [of 1630-33] hee was imployed in the forementioned service, haveing now noe referrence to them [the Company], but lives of himselfe. The English sometyme resort to his howse to visitt him and to passe away the tyme."

Leachland died in poverty not long after Mundy penned his story, but the legacy of his affections would haunt East India Company officials for years to come. They especially worried about John's half-English daughter, for both her sake and "the honor of our religion and nacion." She had been baptized as Mary Leachland and was being raised as a Christian, but English authorities in India still worried that she might "perish"—as Surat president William Methwold put it in a 1634 letter—in the care of her mother, since the latter was "undoubtedly a most wicked woman." Repeated overtures were made to obtain custody of the child; when it became apparent that Mānyā was unwilling to part from her daughter, the directors in London went so far as to contemplate a plan for Mary's abduction, instructing factors at Surat "to gett possession of the daughter of the said Leachland, which hee had by an Indian, and to send her for England by the next shipps." In response, mother and daughter disappeared, and nothing is known about the pair until 1643, when Mānyā petitioned President Francis Breton for permission to marry her daughter to an Englishman named William Appleton. Although this was "a new thing never before desired or granted," East India Company officials thought well to condescend to the request. As Breton himself explained in a report to London, it was nothing short of a miracle that Mary Leachland still retained her virtue, "though shee wanted not provocations enough from her mother to tempt her to prostitution."12 Marrying her off had seemed to those concerned the best way to spare the girl from corruption, and keep "her honor and honesty unteinted." By January of the following year, Mary Leachland and William Appleton had been joined in marriage by the English minister at Surat, where the couple was, by all reports, "poorely yet honestly and decently subsist[ing]."

Spanning two generations, the Leachland story affords a rare glimpse into what Ann Laura Stoler has called "the sexual interface" of Europe's expansion overseas—the often-improvisational system of sexual prescriptions underwriting the practices and discourses of Europe's presence abroad. Admittedly, it is no more than a glimpse. The protagonists never get to speak for themselves, and crucial aspects of their drama remain opaque at best. We never learn, for instance, what made Mānyā "a most wicked woman," or why John's relationship to her was so unpalatable as to warrant his suspension from service. It is true that the early East India Company looked none too kindly on the expenditures and distractions that women could cause: standing orders stipulated that any employee found to have a wife in the East should "uppon knowledge thereof be forthwith dismissed of his place and service and sent home." Yet there is evidence that at least some company employees brought their wives overseas, and that many more established long-term liaisons with local women. Just as Leachland was being cashiered, East India Company factors in Japan were taking wives and mistresses from among the local population without much fuss, stigma, or repercussion. Nor was Japan the only place where this happened. William Hawkins, who led a diplomatic mission to India in 1608, wedded an Armenian Christian from the Mughal court. Gabriel Boughton, the surgeon credited with opening trade with Bengal, wedded "a Mogullana or Morish woman"; and gossip had it that Francis Day, one of the founders of Madras, chose the site because it was near his mistress's home. Against this background, John and Mānyā's relationship stands out only because of the attention—and resistance—that it elicited.

The British official and amateur anthropologist Richard C. Temple, who at the beginning of the twentieth century traced the outline of John and Mānyā's story, chalked up this resistance to the "irregular nature" of the liaison. But the record does not seem to support this hypothesis: as a matter of fact, some of the documents that have come down to us unequivocally identify Mānyā as Leachland's wife, suggesting that at least a few people must have regarded the couple's union as legitimate. If there is one problem the documents hint at with some insistance, it is that East India Company officials saw Mānyā as sexually suspect, if not outright deviant. Not only did they define her as "most wicked," they also indicted her as a prostitute—a term that, as Ruth Karras has argued, denoted just as much a professional occupation as a deviant sexuality. The fact that prostitutes took money for sex, in fact, was often secondary to the fact that they made themselves generally available to men. It was this promiscuity that defined them, marking them off as a category of women whose sexuality was quite literally out of (patriarchal) control.

Mānyā's alleged promiscuity likely informed the efforts made to separate the mother from the daughter, and was certainly a factor in the decision to license Mary's marriage to William Appleton. There is also evidence, however, that issues of sexual propriety were never too far away from issues of racial belonging. The Court of Committees, for one, seems to have kept Mānyā's Indianness firmly in sight: missives from London identify her neither as John's wife nor as Mary's mother, but rather as "an Indian" by whom John Leachland happened to have a daughter. Issues of racial belonging also informed the decisions made by East India Company authorities at Surat—or at least the letters in which they reported on those decisions. It is certainly significant that they regarded John's possible marriage to Mānyā as a renunciation of identity, a "desperate undertaking" that would set him adrift from his country and friends. Even more significant, perhaps, is their belief that Mary's honor could be best safeguarded by being palmed off onto an Englishman, despite the fact that a similar course of action had conspicuously failed to safeguard her mother's reputation. If Francis Breton and his fellow East India Company officers failed to grasp the irony of the situation, it was likely because they saw a fundamental difference between Mānyā and her daughter: the former was an Indian, whereas the latter could claim partial English ancestry. Being married to an Englishman according to the rites and ceremonies of the Anglican Church vivified that heritage, serving simultaneously as a guarantee of sexual probity and a marker of racial identity.

* * * * *

How did perceptions of sexual propriety inflect ascriptions of racial difference during the early modern period? And how did ascriptions of racial difference affect the boundaries of proper sexuality? Taking these questions as a point of departure, Empires of Love charts Europe's fascination with the eros of "India"—as the vast coastal stretch from the Gulf of Aden to the South China Sea was then often called—and explores how it shaped the ways Europeans imagined and represented their own sexual and racial identities. It argues that this fascination was not only about policing the contact zone but also, and just as pressingly, about "inventing" European sexuality. Resisting the tendency to view sexual ideologies as if they emerged, fully formed, from within Europe alone, it proposes that the European-Asian encounter deeply inflected the ways in which the West came to define what was acceptable in matters of eros.

In doing so, Empires of Love also participates in a broader effort to read race and sexuality together, as overlapping structures of identity rather than as parallel or analogous analytic spheres. Since the early 1990s, when Judith Butler asked how we might go beyond juxtaposing "race," "sexuality," and "sexual difference" to think about their relation to one another, several excellent studies have taken up this challenge. But while scholars have devoted much attention to post-Enlightenment intersections of race and sexuality, we are only beginning to study how eros and ethnos intersected during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Given my training as a literary scholar, Empires of Love participates in this endeavor by scrutinizing discursive domains that are particularly amenable to the methods of literary criticism—historical chronicles, epic poetry, travel narratives, and secular drama—but it also complements this focus by reference to illustrations, private correspondence, colonial legislation, and military reports.

Because I understand both race and sexuality as cultural constructs that are always context-bound and historically contingent, I employ these terms without quotation marks, with the obvious caveat that neither one of them should be understood to mean what it generally means today—or, to be more precise, that neither one should be expected to match the nineteenth-century epistemologies that still underwrite current understandings of both categories. Race, for instance, was less a category of biological difference than a broad spectrum of practices and discourses concerned with religious affiliation, cultural habitus, geographic origin, and humoral composition. Likewise, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century understandings of sexuality revolved less around notions of sexual orientation than around an interlocking set of marital injunctions and proscriptions against nonreproductive sex. The marital injunctions combined a reproductive mandate with an effort to regulate spousal intimacies; the proscriptions against nonreproductive sex included not only a rigorous interdiction of sodomy—itself an "utterly confused category" that ran the gamut from zoophilia to interfaith copulation—but also prohibitions against coitus interruptus and sexual positions held to inhibit conception.

As unfamiliar as they may appear, such constructions of race and sexuality hardly require us to postulate an absolute discontinuity between past and present. Part of what sustains this project is the belief that the economic, political, and cultural developments associated with early modernity are still very much part of our world, and that this world cannot be adequately apprehended without attending to the recyclings and reinscriptions that brought it into being. As Ania Loomba has noted, race as an identitarian category did not suddenly spring into existence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; instead, modern racial discourses tapped into conceptual repertoires accrued during the course of previous centuries. The same can be said about modern sexuality, which, as David Halperin has argued, resulted from the "historical overlay and accretion" of various earlier categories. Indeed, much of the epistemological arsenal that later periods would bring to bear on definitions of human identity and diversity was developed precisely during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at a time when the experience of overseas expansion catalyzed both a significant transformation in the discourse of race and a substantial shift in the ways that erotic desire could be directed and distributed.

In the domain of race, a veritable explosion in the production and circulation of ethnographic writing culminated in the elaboration of classificatory systems that parceled out humanity on the basis of select physical and mental traits. In 1566, Jean Bodin's Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem distinguished among northern, middle, and southern peoples, attributing to the latter small statures, dark skins, and a marked propensity for sexual excess. In 1650, the German geographer Bernhard Varen included body morphology, social customs, and moral makeup among the characteristics central to the study of human geography; and in 1676, the English scientist and political economist William Petty divided humankind into groups based on physiognomic characteristics, natural manners, and mental capacities. In a related vein, the London physician John Bulwer explored morphological and cultural variance through a world survey of body parts such as heads, breasts, and genitals. Taken collectively, these and other works reveal the tortuous process through which religious and environmental mappings of difference were progressively edged out, identity "implanted" in the body, and intimate corporeal practices invested with special significance.

The intensified scrutiny brought to bear on the private parts and private lives of non-European peoples coincided with a reorganization of erotic life within Europe itself. In both Protestant and Catholic countries, there was a progressive move "away from viewing procreation as the chief justification for marriage and the only justification for sexual intercourse" toward an understanding of marital sex as both an expression of spousal affection and an instrument of domestic harmony. Valerie Traub has ...

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