While white women's experience of colonial
India has been receiving a great deal of attention in cultural studies for a
number of years now, their interactions with Indian women-which must
undoubtedly have been interesting, complex, riddled with contradictions-have,
surprisingly enough, not been looked at closely. This anthology of European
women's writings has been compiled with this very purpose of trying to look at
white women's perceptions of colonised women and to capture some of their
The journey that this collection makes through
white women's writings is a fascinating one. Drawing from a rich and varied
range of first-person accounts, journals, diaries, letters, memoirs, travel
narratives, missionary tracts, sociological studies, as well as a sprinkling of
novels and short stories, it offers us glimpses into white women's perceptions
of colonised women. The idea behind juxtaposing such diverse materials is, in
fact, to capture the range of these writings and to throw into sharp relief
their different facets, nuances, tensions and contradictions.
This anthology spans a fairly long period,
stretching from around the 1820s to the 1920s. And as these writings are mapped
along the historical shifts and changes that took place in course of this
period, they also help to throw light on the shifts as well as continuities in
the nature of these colonial encounters.
Gendered Colonial Interactions: The Role of Memsahibs
For a long time the memsahib was demonised as
the villain of Empire and blamed
for "many of its evils, especially for racism. The last two decades,
however, have seen much re-thinking about her role, resulting in shifts and
changes in attitudes to the memsahib. During this process of
re-thinking, there was an initial phase when she was projected as the victim of a male-centric colonial enterprise.?
Today, however, she is perceived in a far more nuanced manner as both a victim
as well as a beneficiary of colonialism." It is now recognised that while
she undoubtedly suffered marginalisation and gender disadvantages with regard
to the men of her own community, she was also a beneficiary of imperialism and
enjoyed the race and class privileges of belonging to the ruling elite group.
This collection seeks to correct a widely held
impression that white women's writings were silent on "encounters with
Indians - other than their servants.?" It is
indeed true that the vast majority of these women were deeply self-absorbed and
dwelt exclusively on white life in the Angle- Indian stations in their writings
an attitude perhaps best summed up in a remark made by an un-named-memsahib to
Julia Maitland in the 1830s: "Thank goodness, I know nothing at all about
them, nor I don't wish to: really I think the less one sees and knows of them
the better!"? However, while the vast majority of women did maintain a
self-absorbed silence on 'native' India, there were, at the same time, several
others who did write copiously on the subject, as this anthology seeks to show.
Interactions with Indian Women
Englishwomen's colonial interactions with local
women were made through the prism of race, class, caste, religion and region.
Generally speaking, for much of the period under scrutiny, memsahibs
interacted mostly with women who belonged to the lower classes and castes, such
as dhobins (washerwomen), hill-women, wives of malis (gardeners) and grass-cutters. Of course, the closest encounters on a
day-to-day basis were with the wet-nurse and,
especially, the ayah.
Occasionally, white women met 'native' women
belonging to upper- caste/class households, who observed purdah. Women missionaries especially, visited such secluded women and wrote
copious and detailed accounts about these encounters. In addition, memsahibs (administrators' wives) sometimes called on elite
women from aristocratic and princely families, such as the wives of 'native'
chiefs with whom their husbands who were East India
Company servants, would be carrying out official negotiations. From around the
late nineteenth century onwards, they also met at 'purdah
parties'' at these gatherings organised by white women for Indian female
guests, upper- class women from both races would meet on a footing of some
amount of equality. Moreover, roughly around the same time, white women also
started interacting with emancipated, western-educated Indian women, some of
whom were associated with the nationalist movement. Thus, in all these varied
encounters with colonised women, European women were positioned diversely-as
evangelical proselytisers, sexual competitors, imperialists, maternalist reformers, secular missionaries, domestic
employers and educationists.
Historical Shifts and Changes: White Women in
the Early Years This anthology traces writings from the 1820s or so when
relatively more European women were writing about their Indian experience
(barring the inclusion of Mary Martha Sherwood who wrote in the early 1800s).
Prior to this, in the initial years of trading by the East India Company in the
seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, very few English women came out to
India due to the rigours and hardships of the seven-month long sea voyage
around the Cape of Good Hope, In the eighteenth century the European female
population was concentrated primarily in the presidency towns, notably
Calcutta." British society in Calcutta was wild, boisterous and consisted
of making and spending money. Both men and women participated in the noisy
socialising, consumed rich meats and bottles of claret as well as smoked
hookahs tended by personal 'hookabadars.'
With few Englishwomen around, the general trend
was to take Indian mistresses." William Hickey, attorney in Calcutta in
the late eighteenth century, described his mistress Jemdanee
who later died in giving birth to his son as "gentle and affectionately
attached a girl as ever man was blessed with." In addition, there were a
few instances of East India Company officials marrying women from aristocratic
Muslim families. While this practice of forming 'native connections' helped to
familiarise white men with local customs and languages, it also resulted in a
host of half-caste children who were despised by both races.
British outlook on India in the late eighteenth
century was coloured by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the conscious adoption
of a policy of non-interference by the East India Company. The group known as
the British 'Orientalists' contributed to the
rediscovery of a glorious ancient past which had been
forgotten." However, notwithstanding all the invaluable
contributions that the Orientalists made to Indology, one needs to remember that eventually they too
'Saving the Heathen': Utilitarianism and
By the first few decades of the nineteenth
century British attitudes were changing and had come to be far removed from the
relatively tolerant early years of colonial interaction. The period between the
1830s and the 1850s came to be
dominated by Utilitarianism and Evangelicalism. Both Evangelicals and Utilitarians saw India as a decadent society in urgent need
of reform. The abolition of social evils as well as the introduction of English
education were their main objectives. In his History of British India (1817) James Mill, the Utilitarian historian,
harshly condemned Indian culture as inferior to that of the European Middle
Ages and later Macaulay's 'Minute on Education' (1835) dismissed all Oriental
literature as intrinsically inferior to Western literature.
Religions, Regions, Class and Caste
Wet-nurses and Ayahs
Social Evils and Social Reform
Health in the Zenana
Faithful Indian Wife
Indian Woman-White Man
The New Indian Woman
The Indian 'Gaze'
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