The colonial British woman: an alternative account

'The Incumberances' British Women in India 1615 - 1856. Author: Joan Mickelson Gaughan.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

In a welcome departure from the usual male-centric colonial history, the author in this book deals with the challenges faced and overcome by the English women who came to India accompanying their husbands, parents and siblings during the chosen period of two and a half centuries of company rule. In the beginning the accompanying women of the English were thought to be mere encumbrances, though later they were persons of substance. For convenient understanding, the book is divided into three logical sections. Thus the reader gets a glimpse into the development of the British Woman in three distinct levels in Indian context from the time they were considered incumberance to the time when they became instruments of both convenience and utility for the traders in addition to some of them becoming torch-bearers of later feminist movements.

The book starts with the Company’s stout refusal to allow any of its members to be accompanied by the spouse. For almost two generations the directors remained steadfast in their assessment that the wives were mere incumberances. But in 1650 when Aaron Baker refused to accept the posting given to him in Bantam unless he was allowed to take his wife alongand since the company knew he was very valuable, they had to relax the rules. The Company’s willingness to allow Elizabeth Baker to accompany him to Madras became the starting point though Elizabeth never reached the shores of India. Her tombstone, originally from the present high Court complex in the then Madras and now in St. Mary’s Church compound notes her date of death as August 5,1652, at sea.

The author feels that had she reached India she might not have liked to stay as the conditions were not conducive. It was not easy for a factor to maintain a family with the type of remuneration he was getting. In 1678 the company felt the need to ‘prevent liaisons with foul women and to avoid weakening of the Protestant religion and interest’ and increased the wages so that a family could be maintained. In fact, religion played an important role.

For the English woman, India had always represented an opportunity to improve her economic and social level. Quoting three English women who played important roles in their own ways, the author shows that India offered them a kind of lifestyle that they could never have imagined in their own country.

Maria, who came to India as a Mrs. Imhoff and ended up marrying Hastings, finds a place in the book for her love affair in spite of the scandal tag attached to the story in Madras. According to the author, ‘Her wit and vivacity together with Calcutta’s own rather looser morality apparently put the entire affair quite beyond the reach of scandal.’ So are the stories of many an Englishwoman who made a mark in one way or the other, whether it was while negotiating with the king’s men in India or the social order that the woman created. But the chapter that really attracts attention is ‘In search of the picturesque’. Beginning with the publication of Jemima Kindersley’s Letters, which is considered one of the best in the genre, the author says, through their journals, letters, diaries and articles, the Englishwomen could convey a sense of India’s people, geography, cultures and religions that lay outside the realm of officialdom or scholarship. Far from withdrawing from India as their earlier counterparts did these women reached out, with excitement and enthusiasm. These women communicated with the locals by learning the languages and learned to appreciate the life as lived in the interior areas and recorded their findings which became sources for later researchers. Most colourful descriptions of India came from Emma Roberts or Fanny Parkes who moved about freely and recorded whatever they found interesting. Maria Graham is dealt with more elaborately. Maria came to India with her father Dundas as a 23-year-old woman, unmarried.

During the long trip to India she fell in love with a Scot, Thomas Graham and they were married in India in 1809. When the couple returned to England her book Letters on India was published. She learned Persian and made use of the friends in India to study further. Thus she set a pattern of writing a travelogue which became a model for many.

The author cites Fanny Parkes whose Wanderings of a Pilgrim in search of the Pictureseque During four and twenty years in the East with revelations of Life in the Zenana in detail as the book not only shows that Parkes understood India better, but India became personal to her! It was a clear departure from the mid-19 century English arrogance on the colonised people. Of course the English community was critical of the book itself; according to the critics, “her opening invocation to Ganesha, the Hindu patron of literature was in the worst possible taste”.

In the chapter ‘Burdens of empire’ the author builds up the good work put up by the Englishwoman by saying that improvement of the country they came to trade with, in moral values, placed new burdens upon British women.

According to her, “For every Fanny Parkes, who relished India . . . there were other women who scorned India.” Empire presented opportunities, and like many male contemporaries, many spurned the opportunity. Others seized it . . . whatever India’s official relationship to Britain was to be, there were many, many women who were determined to be fully a part of that relationship” Proselytising finds an important place in another chapter and the women’s part in it. Some of these women seem to have understood the religion in India better.

The book offers an insight into the minds of the Englishwomen in India and is fresh in approach and therefore makes good reading.

THE ‘INCUMBERANCES’ BRITISH WOMEN IN INDIA 1615-1856: Joan Mickelson Gaughan; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 895

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 11:36:41 PM |

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