Modern colonial rule relied not only on the military and economic power of conquering nations, but also on domination over forms of cultural representation. The period of Europe’s political expansion, starting in the late fifteenth century, witnessed the development of significant new cultural technologies. From the printing press to photography, film, and sound recording, technical innovations enabled novel ways of documenting and disseminating knowledge about Europe’s encounters with the non-Western world. Through newspapers, travelogues, popular magazines, and documentary films, European officials and travelers made images of distant colonial settings available to larger, more diverse metropolitan audiences. While such work rapidly expanded knowledge about hitherto remote regions, it was frequently riddled with stereotypes and assumptions that classified societies according to Eurocentric hierarchies. The power to represent colonized populations played an integral role in their subjugation, as narratives of backwardness and primitivity were essential elements in the justification of colonial rule.
Modern colonialism possessed a particularly ocular character, and based its ruling practices on the development of novel conventions for viewing and representing conquered lands. The earliest encounters of Europeans with Native Americans of the New World, for instance, produced an entirely new popular genre of eyewitness travel writing. In contrast to older speculative geographies, the credibility of such early ethnographic work derived from the firsthand nature of the accounts. Many were sensationalistic survival-adventure narratives that featured voyeuristic descriptions of primitive, foreign societies, with their colorful native costumes and spectacular rituals. Not coincidentally, this was also a period when modern techniques of observation and verification were reshaping claims to scientific authority in other fields. Breakthroughs in the study of optics and new scientific procedures for conducting experiments had emphasized the importance of visual evidence, and the accurate representation of observed phenomena. Valued for their observational insights, colonial travelogues often gained both scientific and commercial success. Many became best-selling publications and were reissued and translated into numerous different European languages.
Travelers’ descriptions of colonial encounters helped European readers imagine the rest of the globe, and their place within it. By the early sixteenth century, images and descriptions of faraway places could be enjoyed, as vicarious journeys, directly from one’s location in the metropole. Travelogues were frequently valued for their accompanying illustrations, as much as for the narrative descriptions of exotic cultures. For many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers, the New World was first made familiar through the engraved illustrations of the Dutch publisher, Theodor de Bry (1528-1598). While some of these representations, including his famous woodcut prints of ritual cannibalism in South America, might today be dismissed as sensationalistic distortions, images of faraway people and places helped to structure the wider social imagination of the early modern European public. By representing the non-European “other” as a definable object of visual scrutiny, such work also helped Europeans establish a sense of cultural and scientific supremacy within an emerging global order. Such a planetary consciousness, as literary theorist Mary Louise Pratt (1992) has argued, helped direct and organize colonial expansion. Just as the iconic images of National Geographic helped define American political and social sensibilities in the middle of the twentieth century, early modern Europeans understood their role in the world through the production and consumptions of such images. It helped them imagine both the unity and the fault lines of a globe that was growing ever smaller through trade, discovery, and conquest.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, images of non-European societies had spilled over from the pages of print media into new forms of visual display. The Great Exhibitions, for instance, attempted to reproduce distant parts of the globe in painstaking detail. European audiences imagined that they were in fact walking through the bazaars and alleyways of Egypt or India, all for the price of an entrance ticket. Putting the world on display served not only to represent cultural differences, but also worked to define them and turn them into objects of modern consumption. Such displays, through world fairs, museums, and travel brochures, determined the way that the non-West was perceived by both casual visitors and colonial officials. The bird’s-eye view employed in book illustrations, postcards, and travel guides was frequently reproduced in the work of official colonial cartographers. Such conventions for viewing and representing colonial people and places formed part of a formal repertoire, used by official cartographers and surveyors to demarcate boundaries, to catalog monuments, and to assist ethnologists and criminologists in categorizing racial types in the colonies. Documentary photography later replaced hand-drawn illustrations as a popular method of recording and classifying data on the architectural and social features of the colonies. Such documentation, in attempting to make the colonies legible to metropolitan observers, fixed and naturalized complicated social boundaries, and opened these up as sites of official intervention.
European practices for viewing and representing colonial realities often made social differences more rigid, and exacerbated racial and gender hierarchies. The colonial gaze played a singularly important role in defining gender relations by marking out colonial women as objects of particular interest, either as targets of official sympathy or casual lust. Harems, zenanas, and veiled women figured prominently in European accounts. Colonial officials also paid particular attention to social rituals associated with female oppression, such as sati (ritual suicide by Hindu widows), the wearing of the veil, and foot binding. While these practices were condemned, they remained subjects of fascination, and frequently found their way into travel accounts and novels set in colonial contexts.
Similarly, racial distinctions are also reproduced and enforced by the colonial gaze. Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), a psychologist and volunteer during the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962), in his semiautobiographical critical work Black Skin, White Masks (1952), writes about the psychical trauma of being identified as an object of the white gaze. Robbed of the possibility of being a full-fledged modern subject, a person of color is determined from the outside, as a thing, an object of scrutiny. The colonial gaze, determined by a set of technologies and conventions for viewing colonial realities, underwrote colonial power. It turned people into observed objects, and authorized the official discourses of European viewers, whose representations determined and fixed the status and stature of colonized subjects.
SEE ALSO Colonialism; Fanon, Frantz; Gaze, Panoptic; Gaze, The; Media; Narratives; National Geographic; Other, The; Postcolonialism; Racism; Representation; Representation in Postcolonial Analysis; Stare, The; Tourism; Travel and Travel Writing
Fanon, Frantz.  1967. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove.
Lutz, Catherine A., and Jane L. Collins. 1993. Reading National Geographic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge.
Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.