Colonial collection

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

The anthology of writings by colonial women gives an insight into Indian society of that period.

THE book under review is an anthology of writings by women of English, Scottish, Welsh, American and Canadian origins who lived in India during 1820-1920. It was a period when the Indian subcontinent was increasingly being subjugated as a British colo ny. The book is divided into various sections, ranging from nautch girls, ayahs, to health, education, social reform, purdah and other social issues.

The earlier writings excerpted include those of Mary Martha Sherwood, an army wife, Emily Eden, sister of the Governor-General of the time, Anne Katharine Elwood, wife of an army officer, Marianne Postans, wife of an army official of the East India Company, Julia Maitland, wife of a senior merchant with the East India Company, Fanny Parks, wife of a Company official, and Emma Roberts, an intellectual.

Mary Carpenter, social reformer, Saleni Armstrong Hopkins, a medical missionary, Mary Frances Billington, a journalist, Christina Sinclair Bremner, a traveller, and Flora Annie Steel, a novelist, are among some of the women who lived in or visited the subcontinent in the middle and later part of the 19th century. Also included in the anthology are later writers who wrote towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, including Annie Besant, Margaret Noble (better known as Sister Nivedita), Katherine Mayo and Maud Diver.

The writings provide an interesting insight into these womens perception of natives and their social customs. Popularly addressed as memsahibs, they had varied interests and several of them were active in public life. They were part of the civilising process supposedly initiated through the colonial enterprise as the empire took control of the subcontinent. In this process, natives were civilised through intervention in the areas of personal laws, health care, education and, of course, proselytisation.

These women from varied backgrounds were in the colonies as wives, journalists, missionaries, travellers and writers. Their writings are in the form of letters, travelogues, memoirs, diaries and novels. A study of these source materials brings out the manner in which these women writers integrated the issues of gender, race, class and, in the Indian context, caste.

Their narratives make it clear that the civilising mission of the women was rooted very much within the framework of colonialism and patriarchy. White women had to negotiate their inferior status with their male counterparts but were in a position of dominance vis-a-vis the colonised people. In this regard they mostly acted as collaborators in the larger colonial enterprise.

The supercilious attitude of some of them in their understanding of native customs and practices is evident from their writings. Many of them believed in the superiority of the British in terms of both political and economic organisation and religious beliefs. Similarly, there was an unbending faith in the patriarchal framework in which women from the colonised countries had to be moulded.

On the other hand, a pro-nationalist like Annie Besant was closely involved in the Indian nationalist movement but held conservative views on women. She arrived in India in 1893 and was seriously interested in working for the education of girls. She argued: The national movement for girls education must be on national lines; it must accept the general Hindu conceptions of womens place in the national life, not the dwarfed modern view but the ancient ideal. It must see in the woman the mother and the wife, or, as in some cases, the learned and pious ascetic, the Brahmavadini of older days. But the national movement for the education of girls must be one which meets the national needs, and India needs nobly trained wives and mothers, wise and tender rulers of the household, educated teachers of the young, helpful counsellors of their husbands, skilled nurses of the sick, rather than girl graduates, educated for the learned professions.

Annie Besant recommended a list of sacred books and hymns from various religions to be taught to the girls from these religions. She believed that until Indian women were allowed to a larger, a freer and a fuller life, the redemption of Indian society was not possible. However, this ironically was possible only by limiting the scope of womens education.

Annie Besant considered Indian women as the incarnation of spiritual beauty and to retain it, she felt, they should be kept away from Western notions of womanhood. She stated in an article in The New York World in June 1896 that the personality of the Indian woman, delicate, gracious, sweet and tender type, with its gentle courtesy, its serene dignity, could not endure in the rush of Western life and the self-assertiveness of Western civilisation. Annie Besant emphasised that equality, as understood in the West, has no place in India in the family, in society, in the nation.

Equally regressive views on widow remarriage were expressed by Annie Besant in an article in Central Hindu College Magazine in June 1903. She stated that the ideal Hindu wife was so devoted to her husband that she would not ever think of remarrying. Therefore, the problem of young widows could be solved by delaying the marriage of young girls rather than by remarrying widows.

The widows could be helped by being trained as teachers or nurses or for other caring professions. Society cannot exist without the service of self-abnegating women, who are free from immediate personal ties. Widowhood is a call to such service, and lives thus passed have the sweetest consolations for the loss of husbands and of childrens love.

Another prominent person who worked for social reforms was Margaret Noble, who came to India in 1898. She was influenced by Swami Vivekananda. She joined the Ramakrishna Mission monastic order in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and changed her name to Sister Nivedita. Both Annie Besant and Margaret Noble wrote in defence of the purdah.

Womens health is another area on which a lot of writings appear. The medical professionals, particularly the missionary medical professionals, addressed a number of issues afflicting women in the colony. Along with proselytisation, these missionaries set up zenana mission hospitals.

In 1885, the Dufferin Fund (named after the wife of Lord Dufferin, the Governor-General) under the direct patronage of the Queen-Empress, was set up. The objective of the Fund was to supply trained medical professionals and set up hospitals for women. The Dufferin scheme was considered a way for the women in purdah to be treated for all kinds of ailments and diseases, ranging from tuberculosis to osteomalacia to anaemia.

The National Association was started to form a larger network to train doctors, nurses and hospital assistants, to set up female wards in general hospitals or hospitals for women, and to supply women doctors and nurses to make house visits. Accordingly, Maud Diver commented in 1909 that the Female Medical Aid movement started by Lady Dufferin led to wondrous changes in dim Zenanas where Indias women lie in their pain and anguish, nursed by superstition, and doctored by incantations and charms.

Since this medical care was offered with the caste and gender divide intact, it affected services efficiency. Mary Frances Billington, a journalist who travelled in India in 1893, wrote on various subjects and brought out a book titled Women in India in 1895. She commented on the problems created by caste distinctions in providing health care in hospitals.

Similarly, Elizabeth Cooper, a traveller, spoke about the problems of caste purity and the fear of caste pollution in upper-caste women in public hospitals. The womens wards in Calcuttas Victoria Hospital had to be provided with kitchens for individual patients.

It was, however, regional and class distinctions which drew immediate response from the British writers. Their writings bring out clearly the differential norms of behaviour for women from different castes and classes. Mary Martha Sherwood found older women from poor households shrivelled and leading a miserable life younger women, though, would dress neatly and look admirable.

Mary Carpenter, activist and social reformer, who visited several Indian cities between 1860 and 1877, concluded: In India the voices and manners of the lower classes of women appeared to me more harsh and coarse than those of men. I felt assured, however, that this did not arise from their nature being inferior, but from the condition in which they are placed.

These women however, found it hard to accept the contradictory attitude towards women in Indian society. Anna Harriette Leonowens, born in India to a British father and an East Indian mother in 1877, noted the contrary status of women subjugated and revered at the same time.

She gave the example of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi who held the entire British army in check for the space of twenty-four hours by her wonderful generalship, and she would probably have come off victorious if she had not been shot down by the enemy.

There were at times discerning women writers who did take a different view on the colonial policy of social reform. Such critics questioned the policy of providing separate health care services for women.

Flora Annie Steel, the wife of an Indian Civil Service officer, who lived in India for 22 years did not agree with encouraging purdah by setting up zenana hospitals. She argued that the Dufferin nurses and women doctors perpetuated the vicious circle of purdah and seclusion, which led to several diseases because of unhealthy living spaces occupied by women in the household.

This could be considered an important observation in the context of the nationalist movement. Women were increasingly participating in various struggles. As modern educated women started emerging on the scene by the late 19th century, the colonial women commentators started writing about Pandita Ramabai, Toru Dutt, Anandibai Joshi, Cornelia Sorabji and the Maharani of Kuch Behar. While admiring the new Indian woman, these commentators feared that too much of Western values would take away from these women oriental serenity and loyalty.

The historical narratives written by colonial women on their perceptions of the women of the colonies were strictly within the framework of colonial discourse and had no allusions to cross-cultural sisterhood. This book will be of immense interest and use to scholars interested in gender studies, literary and cultural studies, colonial history and the writings of the British Raj.

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