Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity

Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity

Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity

Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity

Synopsis

Through literary and historical documents from the early sixteenth to late seventeenth centuries--epic poetry, private correspondence, secular dramas, and colonial legislation--Carmen Nocentelli charts the Western fascination with the eros of "India," as the vast coastal stretch from the Gulf of Aden to the South China Sea was often called. If Asia was thought of as a place of sexual deviance and perversion, she demonstrates, it was also a space where colonial authorities actively encouraged the formation of interracial households, even through the forcible conscription of native brides. In her comparative analysis of Dutch, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish texts, Nocentelli shows how sexual behaviors and erotic desires quickly came to define the limits within which Europeans represented not only Asia but also themselves.

Drawing on a wide range of European sources on polygamy, practices of male genital modification, and the allegedly excessive libido of native women, Empires of Love emphasizes the overlapping and mutually transformative construction of race and sexuality during Europe's early overseas expansion, arguing that the encounter with Asia contributed to the development of Western racial discourse while also shaping European ideals of marriage, erotic reciprocity, and monogamous affection.

Excerpt

Around the year 1625, the birth of a child revealed a secret liaison between John Leachland, an English East India Company factor at Surat, and an Indian woman named Mānyā. When company officials pressured him into leaving her, Leachland refused, wishing “rather to be suspended the Companys service and Wages, then to be constrayned to abandon her Conversacyon.” On 20 February 1626, Leachland had his wish, and was suspended. He was not, however, subjected to further discipline: anything more severe than cashiering, it was feared, would simply “have hastened his marrying to her and for consequentlye have forsaken his Country and freinds or, in case of faile therof, to some other desperate undertaking to his aparente Ruine.”

Such an outcome East India Company officials were obviously keen on avoiding: at a time when few employees survived their terms of service, Leachland boasted ten years of experience, having arrived in India in 1615 as a purser’s mate on the ship Expedition. Three years later, he had joined the Ahmedabad factory as a buyer of silks, an occupation for which he seems to have had skill and training. Between 1621 and 1623 he served at Burhānpur, Baroda, Ahmedabad, and Cambay, acquitting himself well enough to have his wages increased. Despite his affective foibles, in short, Leachland remained a man “of fayre demeanor, sufficient Abillities, and cleare of Accounts with the Honorable Company in India”—a combination of qualities that made him especially valuable. No wonder his superiors held out the hope that he might be reclaimed and made “sensible of his owne Errors.”

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