Colonisers and Cartographers: The Origins of Queerness in the European Imagination

Colonial Header

The Early-Modern period saw unprecedented contact between Europe and the rest of the world. Europeans sent expeditions to the so-called 'New Worlds' of Africa, South America and the Caribbean to catalogue and chart the land and people they encountered. European colonists and explorers saw themselves as pioneers, believing that they had 'discovered' new peoples and new lands.


The knowledge produced by natives of pre-colonial territories was disregarded, to this day, we still make claims such as that Europeans 'discovered' America in 1492, despite the fact that he encountered Lucayan, Taíno and Arawak people who had been living there for centuries. As Europeans only regarded knowledge from Europeans as valuable accounts from travellers and colonists were moulded by existing prejudices and myths.
Travel writing grew in popularity, providing Europeans with access to parts of the world that seemed alien and fantastical. More concerned with spectacle than reality, writers would emphasize mystical and exotic aspects of accounts, which allowed writers who had never left their country to produce travel writing. Even accounts from genuine travellers would reference other fabricated texts, make claims without citation and report impossible encounters with monsters.


Travel writing also functioned as a means of justifying colonization. Accounts of primitive, even monstrous, people, fabricated from a need to exoticize and appeal to fantasy portrayed Africa as a land in need of domination and control. This ideological purpose shaped accounts by genuine observers, who saw difference in the body and culture as evidence of inhumanity.


This context is inextricably tied up with Early-Modern queerphobia. Throughout the period, travel writers were deeply concerned with the sexual practices and sexual difference of peoples they encountered. As is shown in the accounts in this exhibit, travel writers categorising groups into cultural and racial categories saw sexual difference as an important cultural and racial quality.


Particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, same-sex attraction was attributed to the enlarged genitalia travellers claimed to have observed. Before the popularisation of anatomical science in the 17th and 18th centuries, travel writing provided the only accounts of genital anomaly to the public, with cases that were likely rare or invented being applied across whole sexual categories. Because these anomalies, particularly large or pendulous clitorises, had only been described in subjects outside of Europe, it was assumed that queerness in women was something that derived from the rest of the world, and was not a European problem.


Into the late-17th and early-18th centuries, the greater availability of European subjects for anatomists, and the popularisation of their findings demonstrated that genital anomaly occurred in Europeans too, even those who behaved according to heteronormative codes. Therefore, writers shifted their focus away from anatomy and towards culture and psychology. Queerness was something, once again, from outside Europe, but was able to seep in and corrupt people due to poor adherence to cultural norms. While discourses of anatomy, culture and psychology competed throughout the whole period (as these texts show, there is no straightforward progression), towards the end of the 18th century, as the concept of biological race was solidified, and the cataloguing of racial characteristics popularised, anatomy became less important in defining queerness, and more important in defining race.


This exhibition showcases accounts of European contact in Africa and in Turkey. We hope to show that queerness cannot be addressed in Europe alone, and that both an intersectional history and an intersectional activist movement are required to combat the colonial legacies that impact people of colour and queer people today.

Cover and account of enlarged clitorises from <em>The Midwives Book </em>(1671)

Colonial Geography and Intersexuality in Africa

Anatomy and geography served as expressions of colonial power even before Europeans established colonies in Africa. As cartography enabled European powers to find new lands to be conquered, anatomy mapped bodies to be dominated. These accounts show that this process occurred across the African continent, from 'hermaphrodite' Egyptians to Khoekhoe women with 'pendulous' clitorises leading to homosexual activity, queerness was portrayed as a feature of anatomical anomaly present in inhuman, foreign subjects. 

The Midwives Book (1671) shows how fantastical descriptions of genital anomaly, most of them unprecedented or impossible, in Africa were used to instruct medical practitioners in Europe. Focusing particularly on the presence of phalluses in women, it is likely some of the better-observed descriptions reference intersex people, who would have been encountered by midwives. Basing instruction on intersexuality on accounts of 'monstrous' women in Africa demonstrates an animus for sexual difference and queerness that derives from xenophobic hatred of Africans. As geography and anatomy permitted colonial control in Africa, they also permitted the persecution of intersex people in Europe.

Cover and extract describing "detestable love" in the Ottoman Empire from <em>A New Relation of the Present Grand Seignor's Seraglio </em>(1677) Cover and extract describing lesbians in Turkish baths from <em>The Nauigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie</em> (1585)

Same-Sex Desire in Accounts of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman practice of segregating women from men excited European men, who were intrigued by Muslim attitudes to sex and found women hidden from men desirable objects. Although men had no access to harem (or seraglio) where the wives of the Sultan lived, several visiting Europeans produced accounts of the harem and the erotic activities within. These accounts are almost certainly fabricated, driven by the imagination of men who saw Muslim women as erotic objects to be 'purified' and controlled. These accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries were written during a period when women had a greater degree of political power and prominence than ever before, and reflect the fear that similar women might gain prominence in Europe.

European accounts of same-sex desire in Ottoman men suggest that sodomitical activity is public and common, accounts of this desire in women are rarer, and focus on the all-female spaces of the harem and the baths. As appears in these texts, the use of cucumbers and other vegetables as makeshift dildos was a detail repeated often, and with condemnation. The fascination with queer women in the harem says a lot more about the European observers than the supposedly observed Ottoman women. Spaces not only dominated by but exclusive to, Muslim women were the most direct affront to Christian patriarchy imaginable, travel writing allowed men to exert power of those women, by controlling how they were represented to Europeans. Representing these women as interested almost exclusively in having sex with each other and masturbation demonstrated to Europeans the danger of allowing women out of the immediate control of men, and placed such behaviours found in European women as a product of a foreign culture. Some accounts such as A New Relation of the Present Grand Seignior's Seraglio (1677) attributed same-sex desire in women not to lack control but to the mimicking of equally sodomitical men, creating the idea that a culture could be homosexual in its nature. 

Many non-Muslim men are still fascinated by the sexuality of Muslim women in the present day. Religious clothing such as the hijab and burka present women who are outside of the realms of Christian male control, and are therefore both erotic and dangerous. This is apparent in the view of those who believe it is the responsibility of non-Muslims to 'liberate' women by removing their burkas, often through the force of the law. 

For more on queerness, anatomy and colonialism see:

Albanese, Denise. New Science, New World, Duke UP, 1996.

Jahoda, Gustav. Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture, Routledge, 1999.

Kahf, Mohja. Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagent to Odalisque, U of Texas P, 1999. 

Monstrose, Louis. 'The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery', Representations, 33, 1991, pp. 1-41.

Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early-Modern England, Cambridge UP, 2002.

Colonisers and Cartographers: The Origins of Queerness in the European Imagination