Beheading/Debodying: Violence, Spectacle, and Sovereignty, 1631–1858

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:00 AM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
William R. Pinch, Wesleyan University
Pinch's paper examines accounts of beheading from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries in north India, as well as their rippling global effects into the twentieth century. Of particular interest are the "sovereign beheadings" of Khan Jahan Lodi in 1631, Dara Shikoh in 1659, Sadashivarao Bhau in 1761, and Arjun Singh in 1792.  These four beheadings are chosen because of the considerable detail given in and varied genres of the accounts that depict them. They are deemed "sovereign beheadings" not because sovereigns were themselves beheaded or performed the act of beheading (indeed, in two cases the historicity of the beheading is in doubt), but rather because the eloquent accounts and, in some cases, images of the beheadings and their immediate aftermath offer clues to how sovereignty was expressed and perceived over time. Set alongside these "sovereign beheadings," particularly those of the later eighteenth century, is the practice of "blowing" rebels from cannon, a practice that gained increasing visibility after 1760 and culminated in 1857-58.  The paper suggests that this mechanized form of martial execution is better understood as a new form of "sovereign beheading," or rather "sovereign de-bodying".  Often described (and defended) as a continuation of Mughal practice, the paper will examine how "de-bodying" both drew upon and departed from "beheading", and what this reveals about evolving claims to sovereignty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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