Europe's Indians by Vanita Seth
History (2010 - 232 pp.)
Europe's Indians sits in an interesting place in the body of literature concerning early modern Europeans' contacts with overseas peoples. Its double-entendre on the word "Indians" invites the reader to think of multiple intercultural contacts simultaneously, much like in a book like Vermeer's Hat, but with an emphasis on India that many global history books lack. Specifically, the relationship between race, thought, and fingerprinting in 19th-century India was a selling point given the relative paucity of material on it in a global history setting.
Seth's first overarching thesis, that descriptions of self and other as a binary when discussing Europeans and non-Europeans is woefully incomplete, is a very good one. It's similar to what I've argued in a lot of situations discussing, for example, First Nations issues in Canada. Seth expands upon and argues against Edward Said's thesis from Orientalism, that the West needed a non-Western other to define itself, by stating that we do not really know what the West's self is. England, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and every other country that ever engaged in exploration all had radically different ways of viewing themselves, as did non-European civilizations within one continent, let alone all around the world.
Seth discusses the body as a precondition for race in an enlightening way. From her notions of the Renaissance body as fluid, to the Classical (circa 1600-1800) body as mutable, to the 19th-century body as immutable, she presents race in a really interesting way. Her second overarching thesis, that a modern understanding of race requires a 19th-century outlook, is convincing as well.
My only issue with Europe's Indians is how much time Seth devotes to overviews of European intellectual history. Although examples from Europe are important, and many of the great thinkers of the period she discusses write extensively on the body, it would be more interesting to read more of what sets her research apart. A particularly egregious example is in Chapter 4, ostensibly about fingerprinting. The chapter is 54 pages and only the last five discuss the subject, the previous 49 being about European intellectuals. Less mainstream intellectuals could also be mentioned more, like Josiah Nott's specifically racial writings rather than more material on the titans of the day.
This book was a great idea. Its execution occasionally falters but it is still well worth the read. Here's hoping Seth follows it up with some more subject-specific material.
Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 7