#ShelfieSunday: Breeds of Empire



Breeds of Empire: The ‘Invention’ of the Horse in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa 1500–1950

Bankhoff, Greg; Swart, Sandra; Boomgaard, P. NIAS Press, 2007.

Review by Hylke Hettema

     As a Dutch person and a horse fanatic I have long wondered why I have never encountered an Indonesian or South African horse in the Netherlands. After all, the VOC and the colonising of both part of Southeast Asia and South Africa are a big piece of Dutch history; where is the evidence for horses travelling between the homeland and the colonies? This book answers that question: colonial government created their own breeds and horse markets in Southeast Asia and South Africa.

     Predominantly anthropologists/historians, some of whom have previously published works on horses, the authors are stepping into the interdisciplinary field of ‘Animal Studies’, briefly explaining the depths of this field to the reader in chapter one. Not only do they sketch a timeline for the introduction and subsequent history of horses in the colonies, the key theme explored in this book is the birth and role of the horse as an “imperial agent” in the creation of Empire.

     According to the authors there is a surprisingly large amount of source material, especially about the horse trade in the archipelago. After the Portuguese and the Dutch had introduced them, horses bred on the islands were a wanted commodity especially in British-India. Regional specialization of trade and the location of the Indonesian archipelago ensured that the VOC and the colonial government had no competition from overseas markets. William Gervase Clarence-Smith explains in chapter two how trade mostly focussed on the export of horses to India and China until the early 20th century, when the import of horses to South Africa was needed to supply the ongoing Boer Wars followed by WWI.

     The idea of the horse as trade commodity affects more than just the colonial treasury, explains Peter Boomgaard in chapter three. In order to supply the buyer with horses that met their demands the colonial regime as well as the VOC (who were facilitating the transport) needed to ensure the horse population in the archipelago contained the “right” traits. Therefore, they first Imported Persian and Arabian horses to “improve” their herds, and later Australian horses under English rule.  These imports were sometimes given away as diplomatic gifts, showing that local breeds were not yet considered worthy enough. The crossbreeding of imported horses and local breeds (which were previously imports as well) “created” what the authors call Breeds of Empire.

     In chapter four Bernice de Jong Boers takes a closer look at the process and motivations that lead to the “invention” of Breeds of Empire under colonial rule. In this chapter the horses are no longer seen as just a trade commodity, as the idea of connection to the identity of both settlers and indigenous peoples is introduced.  She notes that on one particular island, Sumbawa, horsebreeding predated European influence and horses were an important part of folklore.

     Dhiravat na Pombejra continues to explain the shift from Persian and Arab horses towards the Javanese horses as diplomatic gifts by sketching the history and demands of the Siamese (Thai) court buying horses from the Archipelago in chapter five.  The “invented” breeds were no longer considered inferior to the imported Persians and Arabians because they were now closely connected to the new colonial identity; a sophisticated imperial power.

     The horse is ascribed a new role in the colonisation process of the Philippines by Greg Bankoff in chapters six and seven. He portrays them as “agents of environmental transformation” because after their introduction to the Philippines, horses affected both the landscape and the eco system of the islands. On the one hand feral herds developed, causing large scale deforestation, while on the other hand the indigenous population started breeding horses, stimulated by the demands of the ever growing number of inhabitants of the islands and the horse trade in the Archipelago.

     Throughout the book the relationship between the horse and the social and economical status of the (white) settlers is stressed. Sandra Swart explains in chapters 8 and 9 how horses were an integral part of European settler identity in South Africa as the indigenous population had no contact with horses prior to the colonisation of the Cape. The horse distinguished the ruler from the ruled.  At first, possession of a horse was limited to white settlers and they considered that a confirmation of their superior identity. When the horse culture started to float into native hands, new ways to set white supremacy and indigenous identities apart were sought.  Through selective breeding of early stock to newly imported TB blood the Boerperd was created and became a symbol of Empire, a “true South African breed”, in the eyes of the white settlers, whereas the Basotho pony was created by indigenous peoples and represented their “traditional South Africa”. 

     Breeds of Empire is an eye-opening book for academics from all disciplines, the authors have succeeded in illustrating that the horse can truly be an “imperial agent” and influence history rather than its generally accepted supporting role as backdrop or aid to human activity throughout history. Through natural development, the initial imports actively participated in shaping landscapes, ecosystems, colonial societies and auxiliary human identities.  At the same time, the book draws attention to the connection between breeds and European imperial expansion, especially in the epilogue (chapter 10), where the idea of creating horse breeds is explained as typical to imperial discourse, a phenomenon which also gave birth to (equine) Orientalism due to white settler obsession with the need to dominate not only indigenous peoples but also the animals of the newly found colonies. The book concludes with a summary of interesting questions that could lead to further research to counter the predominantly white western angle of the majority of publications on the horse in relation to the creation of Empire and its effects on colonised lands and peoples.

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