Gendered Mobilities and Colonial Intimacies: Histories of Migration and Settlement in the Age of Empire

AHA Session 14
Berkshire Conference of Women Historians 1
Coordinating Council for Women in History 1
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 1
Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Gramercy (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Durba Ghosh, Cornell University
Durba Ghosh, Cornell University

Session Abstract

This panel explores the shifting dynamics between gender, intimacy, and trans-oceanic mobility across various colonial terrains in the 19th and early-20th centuries. During this era, nation-states and empires systematized and regulated labor migrations, and at times, promoted settlement in order to foster racialized ideals of marriages, communities, and national bodies. Building on recent scholarship that places gender at the forefront of histories of colonial migration, our panel seeks to center the lived experiences of mobile subjects through the analytic lens of the intimate. It considers how the varied patterns of gendered mobility across empire – from Indian female convicts to British settler families – shaped diverse practices of intimacy, sociality, and family formation. Offering a comparative survey of imperial geographies across Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and North America, the panel illuminates how the divergent political stakes in each locale informed the permutation of intimate possibilities in unexpected ways. Sometimes, migrant intimacies were characterized by the quiet endurance of transnational marriages. Other times, they were defined by elopement, small rebellion, or exclusion from heteronormative households. Collectively, the presentations not only integrate narratives of women to fundamentally retell histories of colonial migration, but they also reconsider gender and intimacy as domains of power. The resulting investigations reveal how mobile subjects engaged in a gamut of intimate arrangements that colluded with, challenged, and negotiated the hierarchies of state and community power.

Laura Ishiguro interrogates the analytic possibilities and limits of intimacy in writing about white settler families in 19th-century British Columbia. Attending to the dissolution of settler marriages, the maintenance of long-distance relationships, and the silence surrounding mixed-race families, she underscores how these family patterns simultaneously supported and challenged the colonial racial order. Sandy F. Chang explores the formation of mixed-race intimacies as politically charged sites of racial knowledge production in a different context – in British Malaya during the early-twentieth century. Focusing on intimate encounters between Chinese migrant women and Malay men, she argues that these inter-Asian relations exposed the unstable categorical distinctions between “indigene” and “alien” in colonial Southeast Asia. Focusing his gaze on the port cities of Singapore and Penang, Anand Yang examines the “invisible” history of Indian female convicts in the late-18th and 19th centuries. He elucidates their sexual and reproductive roles in the male-dominated penal settlements. Finally, Hardeep Dhillon traces the migration trajectories of Punjabi men to the British dominions and the United States, offering a new interpretation of transnational marriages, sexual deviance, and the contest for rights. Gender as an analytical category, she contends, can unravel the various migration sites where imperial, state, and local power is articulated, legitimized, criticized.

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