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E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies

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One of the most important developments in current historiography is the growth in imperial history. For many years this area of study was out of fashion, associated with the triumphalism and jingoism of the heyday of empire. However the revival of interest in the empire has drawn a very different set of parameters for its study. Instead of tracing the rise of British greatness, the new generation of imperial historians are drawn towards a postcolonialist approach, looking at the experience of empire from different angles, most notably that of the colonised people.

Even the study of the colonisers has undergone an important shift of emphasis. Where once historians would recount the policy and military decisions of colonial administrators, there is now much more interest in the social history of those who built and maintained the British Empire. Elizabeth Collingham’s book Imperial Bodies is a good example of the genre. Based on her PhD thesis, it looks at the experience of colonial life in India through an examination of its impact on the bodies of the colonisers. It has often been noted that the British in the tropics refused to adapt their mode of cress to the climate except to wear lightweight versions of what they wore at home. They were also fastidious about maintaining a physical difference between themselves and the Indians: there were various spaces in colonial society which were barred to Indians.

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