Antoinette Burton is professor of History and Swanlund Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign where she directs the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. A feminist scholar of Britain, empire and its aftermath, she is currently working on animals and empire, and on the empire of detective fiction as well. Her article, Accounting for Colonial Legal Personhood: New Intersectional Histories from the British Empire,” appeared in the February, 2020 issue of Law and History Review.
In an interview with Nikita Samanta (University of Warwick) and Laura Lammasniemi (University of Warwick), Professor Burton discusses her scholarship on age of consent and the Empire:
Q1: As someone who has been writing about the history of age of consent in the British Empire for three decades, how have you seen the scholarship over this theme change over time?
When I started my work in the 1980s, empire history and “domestic” or national history were not seen as belonging in the same frame of analysis. Nor were questions of women, gender, sexuality or even domesticity seen as relevant to the imperial experience, which tended to be limited to the official mind and government policy. Now that historians work across these boundaries, the field is much richer, of course. Scholarship on age of consent has required us to understand how and under what circumstances specific forms of conjugality were considered critical to social and political order by colonized and colonizers alike, and how entangled systems of race and gender and class were to debates about minority and majority — in real and symbolic terms. It’s hard now to imagine teaching about empire or gender history without age of consent cases serving as a key example of how bound up the rule of law has been with competing convictions about the rights and sovereignty (or lack thereof) of the “female” body. Those cases offer a contrapuntal narrative to linear, progressive histories of both nationalism and the so-called civilizing mission as well.
Q2: There are certain cases such as those of Rukhmabai and Phulmonee in India that have captured the imagination of many researchers working on age of consent. Is there a case or an individual story that has been influential to your research and thinking in the field?
These are both tremendously important cases and they should be known and taught as examples of the kinds of struggle — legal, social, political and ethical — that were waged over women’s bodies in the 19th century. In addition to being important legal cases, the transimperial public debate about them backlights so much about Indian nationalism, British imperial legal history and the centrality of women, gender and sexuality to the fractious relationship between the two. Because (unlike Phulmonee) Rukhmabai survived well into adulthood and became a medical doctor, she is perhaps the more well-known of the two — there was a movie made about her and there’s a TV series coming as well. But the painstaking work that Tanika Sarkar has done around the case of Phulmonee was and continues to be crucial for understanding the stakes of the patriarchal bargain (Deniz Kandyoti’s phrase) between colonizer and colonized in India.
Q3: What new avenues would you like the scholarship on history of age of consent to explore?
I’d say that tracking cases beyond the Raj (as Nafisa Essop Sheik has done in the recent issue of the LHR) and determining if there is any cross-fertilization between colonial sites is important for understanding the transimperial history of this issue. I’d say too that recent work by Ashwini Tambe and Ishita Pande move us beyond consent per se and locate age and maturity in a wider matrix of issues that admirably demonstrate how prismatic age of consent is.
Q4: Could you tell us and the readers about your current project?
I’m working on a few things right now — most immediately is a co-edited collection with Renisa Mawani called Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times (forthcoming from Duke University Press). She and I, together with Sam Frost, are working on a larger project on the history of biocultural empires.