Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



The destructive power of human villainy is a pervasive motif in the literature of empire. Writers who recreate history often concentrate on dramatic or evocative scenarios—for example, the spread of first-strike militarism in THUCYDIDES’S The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 B.C.), the description of severed limbs in Pharsalia (A.D. 63) by the Roman epic poet LUCAN, and the deaths of lovers in the Kurdish poet Ahmed-i Hani’s MEM-U ZIN (Mem and Zin, 1695). Alexandre Dumas, pere (1802-70) earned the disapproval of the Russian czar Nicholas I for serializing in the Revue de Paris a heroic romance, Le maitre d’armes (The Fencing Master; or, Eighteen Months in Saint Petersburg, 1840), a fictional glimpse of the imperial capital during a historic venting of liberal unrest by army officers. Rage produced the uprising of December 26, 1825, a day after the czar’s accession.

Creative plottings and killings invigorate GOTHIC court intrigues in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (1844), imaginative murder in Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE’S “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892), poisonings in the Roman imperial household in Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934), and the land grabs and pilfering of the landed gentry during a famine in imperial China in PEARL S. BUCK’S masterwork The Good Earth (1931). In revelatory passages about an agrarian mother’s upbringing of sons, Buck characterizes the lure of the military for boys dazzled by the glory of war and the desire for a uniform decorated with medals. The marauding of undisciplined troops overwhelms a villager: “There were soldiers in the very room where his wife lay ill, and he protested and they ran a knife through him as though he were made of lard—as smoothly as that—and it came through him clean to the other side” (Buck 1931, 234).

All too often, mayhem and catastrophe set the tone, mood, and atmosphere in the earliest recorded texts. During the Babylonian Empire from 1900 to 1600 B.C., court sages shared FABLES and agons, or contest stories, as models of WISDOM. Along with narratives on stalking animals—snakes, foxes, and wolves—are human death penalties, burning, disemboweling, rending of limbs, and blood sucking. According to Laozi (Lao-Tze), the Chinese antiquarian who wrote the DAODEJING (Tao-Te Ching) (Classic of the way of power, 300 B.C.), the cause is inherent: Violent people condemn themselves to unnatural deaths. The compilation of the Tibetan BOOK OF THE DEAD (ca. A.D. 775), describes savagery in the underworld in the first weeks after death before the soul can attain purification before reincarnation. Confrontation with demons threatens the naked spirit with a lord of death who can disintegrate the individual—“cut off thy head, tear out thy heart, pull out thy intestines, lick up thy brain, drink thy blood, eat thy flesh, and gnaw thy bones” (Tibetan 2000, xlvi)—all without killing the victim.

Women and Guile

Involvement of female heroes in violence enlivens the biblical book of Judges (ca. 1040 B.C.), which features the prophet and judge Deborah, the assassin Jael, and the seductress Delilah. In individual tales dating to 1100 B.C. and collected in an anthology during the Israelites’ exile in Babylon, the story of Deborah honors her for wisdom and bravery. She serves Israel as the strategist who sends General Barak against Sisera, leader of the Canaanite infantry. Deborah foresees a horrific conclusion to 20 years of enemy action—the volunteering of Jael, a self-appointed assassin and one of the mothers of Israel, to drive a tent peg into Sisera’s head. In the style of JUDITH, slayer of Holofernes, Jael accomplishes her task by posing as a submissive hostess and by beguiling Sisera with a bowl of milk and a dish of butter before hammering the spike into his temple. The two-stage episode concludes with a scriptural gem, the Song of Deborah, an ancient paean. The self-assured judge exults with General Barak, “I even I, will sing unto the Lord” (Judges 5:3). Of female daring in a border war, she boasts, “I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). The song contrasts her literary foil by celebrating Sisera's demise with a triumphal repetition: “At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:27).

In chapters 13-16, the introduction of Delilah, a sexually autonomous Philistine, pictures female strength on the opposing side. At the end of a hero cycle, Delilah's betrayal of her lover Samson, a Nazirite strongman, to secret agents precedes his shearing and blinding. After the female doubledealer recedes from the story, Samson's recovery allows him to pull the temple of Dagon at Gaza onto his own head as well as those of his adversaries, but the narrative says nothing of Delilah's fate. Mirroring the downfall of womanizers described throughout Hebrew scripture, the sacrifice of Samson is necessary to the establishment in 1050 B.c. of an Israelite empire. Above the righteous Deborah and Jael, art chooses Delilah as the femme fatale for representation in painting, statuary, epic, opera, and the film Samson and Delilah (1949), which pairs Hedy Lamarr with Victor Mature.

Male carnage far surpassed women's roles in murder and the slaughter of combat. The he-man motif, a basis of patriarchal literature, dominates the Viking lore of SNORRI STURLUSON, author of the Rose Edda (1225), a compilation of Iceland's mythology. Of the earth's creation from a giant's remains in the section called the Voluspa, Sturluson describes the filling of earth's “yawning void” with body parts of Ymir the giant: “Of his blood the sea and the waters; the land was made of his flesh, and the crags of his bones; gravel and stones they fashioned from his teeth and his grinders and from those bones that were broken” (Sturluson 1916, 20). The skull becomes the dome of heaven and the sparks that burst from the bloody fight light the night sky. The inventive dismembering concludes, “And of his brain the bitter-mooded clouds were all created” (21). In Norse battle lore, mercy lacks merit, and the vulnerability of women is unavoidable: “The sturdy king's bright Flare soared above the cattle's bulwark; the vikings burst in grimly: grief on the maid descended” (224).

Violence in the Caribbean and Latin America

A Spanish priest, BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS (1474-1566), warned European imperialists that their greed and carnage in the New World doomed the conquerors in the sight of God. In Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies, published in 1875), he honored Indian martyrs who had fallen since Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the West Indies in 1492 under the ensign of Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The chronicle compares Spanish atrocities in Hispaniola to barnyard killings: “They pitilessly slaughtered everyone like sheep in a corral” (Las Casas, 1971, 94). Persecutors chop hands, leaving them dangling by shredded skin, and place bets on how many slices they require to lop off heads or sever torsos. Among the chiefs they burn and hang is an elderly female Indian named Higuanama. The priest commiserates that the people “understood themselves to be so injured, so persecuted and so hopelessly desperate about finding a hiding place” that they surrender (95). In his summation of loss, Las Casas estimates that 2 million natives died during the invasion of Hispaniola. His poignant writings did little to stem New World violence.

The cruelty of conquest inspired defenders of humanity against racism and classism. In Latin American romantic novels, the Nahua poet and writer Ignacio Manuel Altamirano (1834-93) stressed that the essence of a country is the rooted peasantry rather than the race-pure usurper and ruling class who lacked ties to the soil. His articles for El Renacimiento (Renaissance) supply details of manners, native ritual, dress, and diversions during the Mexican empire, when a growing indigenous sense of belonging coincided with bursts of anarchy and nationalism. In Clemencia (Mercy, 1869) and the short story “La navidad en las Montanas” (“Christmas in the Mountains,” 1871), Altamirano pictures the turmoil in Guadalajara during the invasion of January 7, 1864, when the French attempt to move inland from the sea. The invaders arrive under the flag of the Hapsburg-Lorraine emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, who died with dignity in 1867 before a Mexican firing squad. The coup illustrates the power of indigenous people to throw off a short-lived foreign dominion.

Altamirano employed native sources of rural banditry and civil abuse to depict lawlessness and the murder of innocents in El Zarco (El Zarco the Blue-Eyed Bandit, 1901). He based the character on Salome Plasencia, an outlaw chief of the Plateados band who turned a kidnapped 16-year- old named Homobona Merelo into a soldadera (woman soldier), an amazon warrior and tender of the wounded. The fictional Zarco, a conceited glory hound known for sullen hostility and crude language, revels in womanizing and horsemanship, which he equates with a caballero's necessary skills. The rivalry of rich males—merchants, ranchers, officials, and gentry—sparks jealousy “complicated by a powerless, abject envy that led to his singular hatred and frenetic longing to snatch all such things at any cost” (Altamirano 2006, 93). For realism, the author spices the love story with troops swearing, tawdry marching and drinking songs, and bar frays arising from drunkenness and tedium. Justification for brigandage arises from widespread persecution of the vulnerable in Yautepec in southern Mexico and the formation of ad hoc police forces and vigilantes, some of them mestizos (of mixed parentage). The outcome is standard CORRIDO melodrama: Zarco's woman swoons and dies at the sight of her champion riddled with bullets and swinging from a tree.

Exposes and Protests

In an attempt to stem world mayhem, many authors produced antityranny works—for example, JOSEPH CONRAD'S Heart of Darkness (1902); Anatoly Kuznetsov's antifascism novel Babi Yar (1967); and The Underdogs (1915), a battlefield threnody written by Mariano Azuela, a Mexican field surgeon under Pancho Villa. During the decline of the Russian Empire, LEO TOLSTOY, an aristocratic novelist turned Christian anarchist, observed the parallelism between empires and wars. In Sevastopol Sketches (1855), he reflects on the inevitable battlefield surgery and hasty amputations with crisp detail: “You see the sharp, curved knife enter the healthy, white body, you see the wounded man suddenly regain consciousness with a piercing cry and curses, you see the army surgeon fling the amputated arm into a corner” (Tolstoy 1888, 17).

Tolstoy advanced from eyewitness vignettes to PROTEST LITERATURE in the treatise The Kingdom of God Is within You (1894). In this work, he observes that “the sense of the uselessness and even injurious effects of state violence is more and more penetrating into men's consciousness” (Tolstoy 1894, 245). He denounces brutal punishments—“prisons, galleys, gibbets, and guillotines” (256)—for failure to civilize Russians and charges that cruelty is more likely “to increase than diminish the number of malefactors” (256), a PROPHECY that violence begets violence. Because of his forthright condemnation of despotism, czarist censors suppressed the treatise for the next 23 years.

Still hammering at Russian imperial expansionism, Tolstoy promoted pacifism with his HERO novel Hadji Murad (1904), an antiwar book dramatizing the incursion of the Cossack troops of Czar Alexander I into Muslim territory between the Black and Caspian seas. Tolstoy's first chapter opens on a self-evident status quo: “Ah, what a destructive creature is man” (Tolstoy 1996, 22). Murad, reflecting on an agrarian culture, regrets the destruction of croplands and forests more than the waste of human life in battle. In a hospital scene, the probing of a stomach wound for a rifle bullet leaves the wounded soldier Peter Avdeev in a moribund state before he succumbs to trauma and hemorrhage. For its revelation of the imperial army's savagery to Chechen villagers and the brutality of Russian troops through the beheading of the Tartar mountaineer Murad, censors under the Romanovs suppressed the novel until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Atomic Age Threats

The presentation of violence in literature changed little after two world wars. In 1956, Anne Bodart (b. 1939), a Brussels-born fabulist, wrote The Blue Dog and Other Fables for the French, an atomic-age reflection on human cruelty and the frailty of hope. Translated by Alice B. Toklas and set during the brutal reign of Leopold II over the Belgian Congo, the collection of 17 moody tales dramatizes existentialism in a milieu occupied by an ant that poisons rats, a poodle in a dinner jacket, feline stalkers, a canine diarist, and a blue dog expiring in snow. The post-World War II apprehensions and secret fears take the symbolic form of a terrified magpie that cannot see its reflection and of Feverish Paw, a dog suffering from anxiety attacks. More historical is a stagy reprise of the assassination of Julius Caesar in “A London Night,” which Bodart sets in a vermin-ridden sewer. Her perusal of the Roman underworld is a place where animals howl with glee at the River Styx sweeping over the corrupt skulls of humankind.

In the postcolonial angst in Palestine, the collapse of empires left unsettled issues that still fester into war and terrorism. The Galilean poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) expressed the ongoing misery of Arab-Israeli tensions and threats of factional reprisal by Fatah and Hamas following the partitioning of the former territory of the British Empire. In his poem “A State of Siege” (2002), he compares himself to a frustrated inmate: “We do what the prisoners do, … we nurture hope” (Darwish 2007, 121). His verse pictures artillery glistening in the night on guard against a sleepless enemy. He depicts the protracted state of siege as a wretchedness devoid of Homeric valor and triumph. He describes each loss as a “first death” (127) and urges Jewish soldiers to recall relatives in Nazi gas chambers and to abandon rifles for peaceful coexistence.


Altamirano, Ignacio Manuel. El Zarco the Blue-eyed Bandit. Translated by Ronald Christ. Santa Fe, N.M.: Lumen, 2006.

Bodart, Anne. The Blue Dog and Other Fables for the

French. Translated by Alice B. Toklas. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.

Buck, Pearl. The Good Earth. New York: Pocket Books, 1931.

Dabove, Juan Pablo. Nightmares of the Lettered City:

Banditry and Literature in Latin America, 1816—1929.

Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.

Darwish, Mahmoud. The Butterfly’s Burden. Translated by Fady Joudah. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon, 2007.

Judges. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986, 381-420.

Las Casas, Bartolome de. History of the Indies. Translated by Andree Collard. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. New York: American- Scandinavian Foundation, 1916.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Translated by W. Y. Evans- Wentz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Tolstoy, Leo. Hadji Murad. Translated by Aylmer Maude. Alexandria, Va.: Orchises Press, 1996.

----- . The Kingdom of God Is within You. Translated by Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1894.

----- . Sevastopol, Isabel Florence Hapgood. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1888.

Yee, Gale A. Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.