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Serpents of Empire: Moral Encounters in Natural History c.1780-1870

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This dissertation examines encounters between humans and snakes from the 1780s to the 1860s, principally focusing upon Britain and British India, to reassess the production and circulation of natural historical knowledge. Serpents were at once familiar and ambiguous in nineteenth-century Britain and its empire, present at every level of society through Scripture, works of natural history, and imperial print culture. They appeared across literary genres – in works of art, as dead specimens in museums, and living attractions in shows and menageries – and their material and figurative presence in London was dependent upon British imperial networks. Snakes loomed disproportionately large in the imperial imaginary, where they were entangled in a discourse of difference.

The practices of the natural history of snakes were harnessed to personal ambition and colonial exigencies. By analyzing scientific books and papers, newspapers and periodicals, taxidermy and cartoons, travel accounts, and government archives from Britain and India, this study provides a connected account of how snakes were collected, transported, described, experimented with, and used for a variety of ends. Following an animal around, whether as material, textual, or visual representation, reveals a more comprehensive picture of how people engaged with animals in the nineteenth century, not confined by disciplinary or institutional boundaries at a time when these were being constructed. The cultural and emotive power of snakes makes visible the heterogeneous nature of those contributing to the production of natural historical knowledge. This thesis shows how the moral character of snakes was implicated in how they were encountered and understood by a range of actors, from museum naturalists to imperial agents, and Indian snake-charmers to working-class visitors to the zoo.

The chapters examine different but overlapping modes of encounter with snakes: collecting, preserving, and presenting them in museum settings; the imbrication of anthropocentric concerns in attempts to classify and anatomize them; the mechanisms and motivations behind attempts to produce authoritative ‘useful knowledge’ incorporating vivisectional experiments in the Madras Presidency in the late eighteenth century; Orientalist representations of non-European interactions with snakes in nascent print culture; and the emotional economy of educational displays of living snakes in metropolitan Britain, especially with the emergence of new spaces for natural history, notably the first reptile house at the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park. The approach brings together insights from from history of science, animal history, and new imperial histories to recover an affective dimension of natural history in imperial encounters.





Secord, James


snakes, natural history, empire, knowledge, Britain, India, animals, print culture, history of science, collecting, serpent, museums


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Arts and Humanities Research Council doctoral studentship 2011-14. Max Planck Institute for the History of Science predoctoral fellowship 2017.