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The Unknown Women of India

Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India

by Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 334 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire

by Durba Ghosh
Cambridge University Press, 277 pp., $95.00; $32.99 (paper)

The baby arrived early one April morning, guided into the world by a Bengali midwife while the doctor waited in the next room. It was a boy: Sophia Elizabeth and Richard Plowden’s seventh child, born, like the others, in India. The infant drew his first milk from the breast of an Indian nurse, or dai, “mine not being come,” noted Sophia in her diary—though within a few days she “did not let the Dye suckle him…. Determined to do it entirely myself.” Toward the end of June 1787, the boy was baptized William, in the first ceremony ever performed at Calcutta’s newly consecrated St. John’s Church. Friends would compliment Sophia “upon the good looks of my little William and his rosey appearance which they attributed to my Nursing him.”1

Married to a well-connected East India Company civil servant, Sophia Plowden lived in the thick of Anglo-Indian society. Her diary, kept between 1787 and 1789, helps us visualize that early colonial world. But what makes her diary especially valuable is the insight it gives into the intimacies of family life in colonial India. Few if any surviving journals of the period describe wet-nursing and infant care. Nor do contemporary travel accounts describe what it was like to travel with children in India, as the Plowdens did when they went to Lucknow in the fall of 1787.

Leaving two of the children in Calcutta with friends, the Plowdens brought with them their son Chicheley and baby William—and “a Dye in case I should find any difficulty in nursing my little Boy”—who became instant favorites with members of Lucknow’s cosmopolitan high society. The portraitist Johan Zoffany was so smitten with the Plowden boys that he “declared he would like to paint them both without any regard he was so taken with them.” At one dinner, Plowden recorded, the Nawab of Awadh himself “ask’d me a great many questions about my little ones and said William could not be flesh and blood, he was certainly form’d of Wax and Cotton.”

As a mother in India, Sophia Plowden had to confront the constant threats of disease and accident: familiar childhood hazards, such as measles and smallpox (against which the children were inoculated), and more unfamiliar dangers. She narrowly escaped being bitten by a viper coiled in her sewing drawer. There were also perennial anxieties about money, specifically whether the family had saved enough to return to Britain, and if so, in what style. And there was the urgent question of which would be best for the children: “home” in painfully distant Britain, or with her in India, with its perceived risks of contamination by climate, culture, and people—perhaps a factor in Sophia’s determination to breast-feed her child herself. Already by 1787 the Plowdens had sent their three eldest children back to Britain, to be raised by Sophia’s parents. Sophia expressed her worries and priorities when writing to her mother:

Beg’d her to be an Economist [i.e., to be economical]…. Advised her living with friends and at Yarmouth to take what was wanting for the litle ones from my stores…. To buy nothing for House. To send the Children to the best school in England.

Though Plowden’s diary is rare for its time, many of her concerns would be shared by Anglo-Indian women in generations to come—including probably her own descendants. Four of the Plowdens’ five sons, baby William included, would have careers in the East India Company civil service; before 1900 no fewer than forty male members of the Plowden family worked in India, and a third of Plowden women married Anglo-Indian officers or civil servants.2 This made them one of the largest of many imperial clans who made the East a career—and whose experiences in the later Raj have been superbly documented in Elizabeth Buettner’s monograph Empire Families.3

It would not be far wrong to say that women like Sophia Plowden helped establish the British Indian empire every bit as much as the men of sword and pen. Nor, as feminist scholars have rightly emphasized, was women’s influence in empire confined to the family sphere. European women went to India as missionaries and doctors, travelers and writers, and as political activists for and against imperial rule. Yet for all their variety and longevity, the experiences of British women in India have been more often stereotyped than explored.

The India hands said “two monsoons was the life of a man” in India—just a year flanked by two rainy seasons—but they might as well have been talking about a woman’s, as a walk through one of India’s moss-caked colonial cemeteries poignantly reveals. “Long, long before her hour/Death called her tender soul,” reads the Calcutta epitaph of twenty-year-old Rose Aylmer, whose early death inspired a pathetic verse from her lover Walter Savage Landor.4 Another, to a young mother and her baby, rhymes tragically:

Just fifteen years she was a maid
And scarce eleven months a wife
Four days and nights in labour laid
Brought forth and then gave up her life.

Richard Plowden’s own sister Harriet, married to a member of the Bengal Council, died after just seven months in Calcutta.5

Empire is often portrayed as a heartily masculine enterprise—of pith helmets and swagger sticks—but as these tombstones sadly attest, European women were always among its helpmeets and its victims. Often, these women play supporting parts in studies of their better-documented and officially employed menfolk. At worst, they are overtly caricatured, in novels like A Passage to India, as “braying, hardboiled, thick-skinned harridans.” A tired misogynist trope even blames the advent of the memsahibs (a term, referring to foreign white women of high social status, especially officials’ wives, that continues to have pejorative connotations) for the emergence of Anglo-Indian racist intolerance.

One of the first books to challenge such stereotypes has just been reissued. Originally published in 1988, Margaret MacMillan’s Women of the Raj appears again in a transformed scholarly environment. As MacMillan notes in a new preface, when she began her research, women’s history was relatively young, and imperial history relatively unfashionable. Today, an entire subfield has emerged devoted to the study of gender and empire. In its theoretical preoccupations and subjects, this rich, active scholarship ranges well beyond MacMillan’s narrative survey of British women’s lives in India. But Women of the Raj still presents a sympathetic, readable overview of the much-maligned memsahibs and their world.

As had already been the case in Sophia Plowden’s time, most nineteenth-century women traveled to India either with a man or to find one, as part of the “fishing fleet” hoping to hook a husband in Anglo-India’s disproportionately male society. The long voyage out provided a memorable introduction to memsahibdom, with its shipboard protocols, its hierarchies (the term “posh” derives from the old India hand’s wisdom to journey “port out, starboard home,” in order to avoid a hot southern exposure), and, above all, its claustrophobically self-contained community. As MacMillan points out, no more than 165,000 Europeans actually lived among India’s 300 million natives, even at the empire’s height. This meant that even in urban centers, the British community remained small and close-knit; while outside those centers, British women frequently experienced awful isolation. MacMillan’s attention to the tedium and pressures of imperial service makes this book an excellent counterpart to David Gilmour’s recent study of the male members of the Indian Civil Service, The Ruling Caste.6

For many, a memsahib’s life could be lonely, exasperating, and dull, with few peers for company and complex cultural codes to negotiate. MacMillan describes the peculiar challenges of Anglo-Indian housekeeping—down to gruesome details of “socks used for straining soup and fish patties shaped in the cook’s armpits.” She also captures the gloomy predicament of Victorian mothers who—like Sophia Plowden before them—had to choose between sending their small children away to school in Britain or exposing them to India’s hazardous illnesses. It was perhaps no wonder that, in an age of contraceptive ignorance, Anglo-Indian women often attempted rudimentary abortions, whether with home remedies such as doses of “hot gin and quinine” or through discreet visits to Indian practitioners in the bazaars.

There were healthier diversions. India seems to have confronted most British women with just as much sensory overload as many tourists experience there today. Judging by the diaries and letters of sharp-eyed women travelers like Fanny Parkes and Emily Eden, they could love it, hate it, or more often both. Some took up hunting, like “the Jungli Memsahib” Monica Campbell-Martin, who shot bears, crocodiles, leopards, king cobras, and the obligatory tiger. Women played cricket against male teams, who substituted brooms for bats. And then there were the hill stations, where women went to escape the summer heat, trailed by columns of coolies and camels bearing everything from ice buckets to pianos. With lending libraries, cafés, musical performances, and amateur theatrics, the stations offered an illusion of home—as well as a real social life and, for some, a whiff or more of romance. One hill-station hotel manager was said to ring a bell early each morning as a signal for people to return to their own bedrooms.

MacMillan’s chronicle of a memsahib’s career loosely parallels the rise and fall of British India itself. Plenty of British women, like men, bitterly opposed liberalization and Indian nationalism. But MacMillan wisely ends, too, by describing some of the “unconventional women” who were drawn to India for a combination of religious and political reasons. These included Madeleine Slade, who adopted a sari and the name Mirabehn, and became a passionate acolyte of Gandhi; and Margaret Noble, aka Sister Nivedita, who found a calling in the faith of Swami Vivekananda, and went on to champion Hinduism and anti-imperial resistance. The memsahibs’ world would vanish after India’s independence in 1947, but these women were perhaps unwitting forebears of a Western spiritual engagement with India that continues still.

The republication of Women of the Raj testifies in part to the increased prominence of its author, best known for her prize-winning Paris 1919.7 But it also attests to a greatly increased American interest in its subject matter. Even ten years ago it was common to find otherwise cosmopolitan Americans who chiefly associated India with poverty and dauntingly hot food. Now India has the bomb, embraces foreign investment, and has a place in American consciousness. Most of us have spoken to call-center staffers in some subcontinental outsourcing boomtown. Attraction to Indian spiritualism, hippie-style, has given way to the spectacle of women walking American city streets with furled yoga mats under their arms. Much has changed, in scholarship and in the world. For an audience newly interested in India and its imperial past, MacMillan’s incisive, engaging volume presents an excellent point of entry.

And yet, what about the tens of millions of Indian women among whom the British lived?

The same year that Women of the Raj first appeared, Gayatri Spivak published her influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” which has become a standard text in studies of gender and empire, the term “subaltern” used to refer to the subordinate position in which practically all Indians found themselves. Spivak suggested that British justification for empire in India could be summed up in the phrase “white men are saving brown women from brown men”—a principle made manifest by the abolition of sati, the live cremation of widows, in 1829.

  1. 1

    Diary of Sophia Elizabeth Plowden, British Library: Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, Mss Eur F127/94.

  2. 2

    Bernard S. Cohn, “The British in Benares: A Nineteenth-Century Colonial Society,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (January 1962), p. 180.

  3. 3

    Empire Families: Britons and Late Imperial India (Oxford University Press, 2004).

  4. 4

    H.E. Busteed, Echoes of Old Calcutta (Thacker, Spink, and Co., 1888), p. 335.

  5. 5

    Edward Wheler,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H.C.G. Matthews and Brian Harrison (Oxford University Press, 2004).

  6. 6

    The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006); reviewed in these pages by William Dalrymple, April 26, 2007.

  7. 7

    Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (Random House, 2002); reviewed in these pages by Ronald Steel, November 20, 2003.

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