Britain’s imperial dream catchers

By | July 7, 2019

Erik Linstrum writes:

Every state needs to know about the people it rules. Censuses, property surveys and tax records are familiar and tangible expressions of the state’s need to maintain power by accumulating knowledge. This is not just a matter of tedious bureaucratic record-keeping: especially when confronted with unfamiliar problems, states often turn to cutting-edge technologies and forms of expertise to make sense of the populations under their authority. In the early 20th-century Age of Empire, when European colonies stretched across the world, psychoanalysis was the novel technique of the moment. In an attempt to better understand their colonial subjects in those years, officials in the British empire undertook a curious and little-known research project: to collect dreams from the people of South Asia, Africa and the Pacific. The results were not what they expected.

Take, for example, the dream of Lhuzekhu, a man from the Naga Hills of Northeastern India who worked as an interpreter for the colonial administration. Lhuzekhu’s boss, a British district officer, recorded this dream in 1924:

I went alone down to the school. An elephant with no one on its back came up from the bazaar. I felt it was yours. I was frightened it might hurt me and threw a stone at it … Then I found myself in my house with my family … We all sat round the fire. There was a sudden gale of wind. I held the post fearing my house would be blown over. The gale stopped. I looked at all my posts and especially at the carved one in front of the door, and said: ‘If it had not been for this post, my house would have fallen and I should have had a lot of trouble.’

Lhuzekhu’s dream was among hundreds collected from across the British empire – from the Indian subcontinent, Nigeria, Uganda, Australia, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere – on the instructions of an anthropologist at the London School of Economics (LSE) named Charles Gabriel Seligman. Seligman was a longtime adviser to colonial governments, which funded his research and helped to train colonial officials at the LSE. Seligman made his career as a physical anthropologist at the height of racialist science. That meant defining human groups on the basis of physiognomy and locating them in evolutionary hierarchies. Seligman was, in short, an imperialist and a classifier par excellence. So what did he hope to accomplish by amassing dreams such as Lhuzekhu’s? [Continue reading…]

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