The 'Incumberances' British Women in India 1615-1856
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The 'Incumberances' British Women in India 1615-1856

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Item Code: NAL446
Author: Joan Mickelson Gaughan
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9780198092148
Pages: 295
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 470 gm
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About the Book

The British ‘memsahib’ has been stereotyped as a single, colourless group-bored, gossipy, and whiny, plagued with, prickly heat, and sweating about in clothes completely incongruous with India’s climate-blamed by some to be responsible for half the bitter feelings between races. This perception is as old as the East India Company, whose Court of Directors saw only two roles that British women might play in India-either they would be ‘incumberances’, getting in the way of the men engaged in generating profits for the Company, or they could be spiritual and emotional supports for their men.

Contrary to this description, we realize that the expressions of these women as they encountered India were immensely varied, highly individual, and unique, coloured by personal, social, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Some women were religious, others a bit amoral. Some explored as much of India as they possibly could, others hated everything about her and withered. For some, India was a home, for others, it was an exile. Few changed India very much but very few left unchanged by her

This volume is a fascinating study in social history based on records, journals, and diaries of the women themselves and their contemporaries in early British settlements in India.

About the Author

Joan Mickelson Gaughan is an indendent scholar based in Manchester, Michigan, USA. She was professor of history at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Preface

It Once Was Customary To Think of the British women who ever went out to India as ‘memsahibs’-a single, colourless group, pitiful and self-pitying, bored and boring, decorative, redundant, plagued with prickly heat, gossipy, whiny, scrambling for ‘place’ in a social order that became increasingly rigid especially after the 1857 Mutiny, sweating about in clothes completely incongruous with India’s climate, fitfully trying to create little Englands in their pathetic bungalows, flitting through the ‘hot weather’ at a hill station and then mouldering on the plains through the monsoons. In the late 1880s, Wilfrid Scaven Blunt thought the memsahibs were responsible for half the bitter feelings between the races. Richard Burton thought they were contemptible, and Rudyard kipling’s vicious Mrs Hauksbee became the prototype for the entire group.

A major justification for empire was the chance to redeem fallen ‘natives’, to pick up the ‘white man’s burden’ and to seize the chance to ‘do good’. Thus, another ‘type’ that has survived is the woman who embraced the imperial burden and went to India to teach, nurse, or to operate orphanages. Such women were often dismissed as tedious and boring, ridiculed for having ‘gone native’ and not quite fitting into the social patterns of Anglo-India Often, they were missionaries themselves or came out to India as wives of missionaries. Many others, however, came out singly to educate and to heal Indians, particularly Indian women. Indeed, the history of the British presence in India is not complete without mention of the work of women such as Annette Akroyd Beveridge and Mary Carpenter on behalf of female education in India, or the remarkable Margaret Noble who not only opened schools for Hindu girls but converted to Hinduism herself and became known as Sister Nivedita.

That bifurcated perception of the place of British women in India is nearly as old as the East India Company’s presence there. In 1615, the Court of Directors also saw only two roles that women might play-either they would get in the way or they could be spiritual or emotional supports for the men to whom they were attached. It might be argued (albeit with perhaps more than one caveat) that both the nineteenth-century memsahib and the bearer of burden stereotypes derived from that dichotomous view. Recently there has been a trend, particularly among feminist historians, to do what the Directors did in 1615, that is, to overlook the complexity of the experience British women had in India and to ‘type’ them, to view their presence as symbolically representing something, or to give them a role, or roles, of which the women themselves seem not to have been aware. Thus, another type that emerged is the model of British women not only as embodiments of the domestic values-industriousness, moral purity, devotion to duty, and so on-that justified  or underlay the Raj, but also as full partners in embodying the masculinity by which the British ruled the ‘effeminate’ races of India.

The British were in India for almost two centuries before there was any empire for or about which to bear a burden, or in which to be a memsahib, a doer of good, or a symbolic representation of a racial or imperial set of values. Like their male counterparts, the roles of the English women who came to India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were defined largely by the policies and purposes of the East India Company, or, in the early nineteenth, by the government. And, like their male counterparts, many of these women played out those roles-and just as many ignored them and created new and unique roles for themselves.

Contents

Preface

Ix

I

The factory, 1615-1757

1

1

an ‘extreamlie unkind’ decision

3

2

the ‘incumberances

13

3

‘a college, monasterie...a house under religious order’

25

4

a saint and a ‘mistris’ at madras

40

5

The ‘debauched’ ladies of Bombay

56

6

Feathering their nests

70

7

When east meets west

84

II

The age of the nabobs, 1757-1805

99

8

Fishing fleets

103

9

a city of palaces

116

10

Passages to india

130

11

the merchant princes in retreat

144

III

The age of improvement, 1805-1856

157

12

‘in search of the picturesque’

161

13

Burdens of empire

175

14

Pilgrims in petticoats: the evangelicals

189

15

of clay and porcelain

211

16

‘for the quiet of his mind and the good of his soul’

230

afterword

253

bibliography

257

index

271

About the author

279

 

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