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The Great Sphinx and Other “Thinged” Statues in Colonial Portrayals of Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 March 2022


This article uses thing theory to interrogate literary portrayals of ancient statues in Africa. It argues that Victorian colonists adopted a “rhetoric of thinghood” to portray these statues’ history and purpose as forever lost to time. By treating them as “things”—singular, incomprehensible, sublime—the statues could be decoupled from the indigenous cultures that made them. Victorians could thus avoid acknowledging the evidence that the objects’ appearance and manufacture provided of the existence of Black civilization, which Victorian race theory denied to Black Africans. Starting with an overview of the nineteenth-century European concept of fetishism, this article traces the development of that rhetorical sleight-of-hand through the real-world integration of the bust of Younger Memnon (now Ramses II) and other Egyptian antiquities into Eurocentric notions of world history: an integration that spurred a variety of interpretive methods intended to negate their racialized appearance. Nonetheless, many African artifacts, particularly those with human likenesses, remained sites of hegemonic destabilization, which authors like Haggard and Wells interrogated in their imperial romances. Under the assumed scrutiny of ancient statues—portrayed as pseudo-animate sentinels bearing silent witness to the unfolding of history—the justifications for colonial expansion corrode, triggering a more hostile and xenophobic mind-set in the Victorian protagonist.

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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