This book situates women at the centre of the practices and policies of British imperialism. Rebutting interpretations that have marginalised women in the empire, the book demonstrates that women were crucial to establishing and sustaining the British Raj in India from the 'High Noon' of imperialism in the late nineteenth century through to Indian independence in 1947. Using three separate modes of engagement with imperialism: domesticity, violence and race, it demonstrates the varied ways in which British women, particularly the wives of imperial officials, created a role for themselves. From the late nineteenth century, Anglo-Indians constructed an idea of family and marriage that was, both literally and metaphorically, the foundation for British imperialism in India. Although imperial marriage was very modern in its emphasis on companionship and partnership, it also incorporated more traditional ideas about husbands, wives and families. The politicized imperial home stood in sharp contrast to the ideal of middle-class British domesticity that had developed from the late-eighteenth century onwards in the metropole. Relationships with Indian servants, created and maintained primarily by women, were a complex mixture of intimacy and trust counterbalanced by feelings of fear and suspicion. For Anglo-Indians, the Mutiny served as a constant reminder of the tenuous nature of imperialism in India. The relationship between Anglo-Indian and Indian women was complex coloured by expectations about femininity and women's role in the empire. Indian men may have derided Anglo-Indian women as 'brainless memsahibs', but the British government similarly scorned their contribution to empire.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book examines the three separate modes by which gender and the imperial politics of British India were intertwined during the period of intense scrutiny and debate about the future of the Raj. It also examines the marriage and the home in the political life of the Raj. The book analyses the discourses and practices of violence that came increasingly to the forefront of British imperial politics. It discusses how Anglo-Indian women situated themselves, both practically and ideologically, in relation to the discourses and the actuality of violence in the empire. The book evaluates the 'race' and its interactions with ideas of gender and imperial politics. It also analyses how Anglo-Indian women resisted the devolution of political power to Indian men.
Indians recognized the imperial significance of an official's marriage. In the 1881 Census of India, significant numbers of married Englishwomen reported their occupation as being the same as their husbands' profession. From the late nineteenth century, Anglo-Indians constructed an idea of family and marriage that was, both literally and metaphorically, the foundation for British imperialism in India. Although imperial marriage was very modern in its emphasis on companionship and partnership, it also incorporated more traditional ideas about husbands, wives and families. The Raj acknowledged wifely efforts for the empire and tacitly recognized the joint nature of imperial work by according a spouse the same social status as her husband. The professional partnership between husband and wife often blurred visible distinctions between the imperial official and his spouse, effectively erasing the line between a private femininity and a public masculinity.
The reality of the Anglo-Indian home differed markedly in both its practical and symbolic manifestations from the segregated domestic space. The most private and intimate spaces of the colonizers were themselves colonized by the demands of empire. The Raj drafted home and housewife into the professional service of empire and subordinated the private functions of domesticity to the public demands of imperialism. The reconceptualization of the home placed Anglo-Indian domestic space at the centre of imperial politics. The politicized imperial home stood in sharp contrast to the ideal of middle-class British domesticity that had developed from the late-eighteenth century onwards in the metropole. In India, the home was not primarily an instrument of social evaluation and exclusion but was rather a vehicle for the inclusion and integration of the official Anglo-Indian community.
In India, a modest domestic establishment required the services of at least half-a-dozen servants to achieve a level of comfort approximating that of the middle-class home in Britain. The average wife viewed servants more as loyal retainers than as potential despoilers of British womanhood. Relationships with Indian servants, created and maintained primarily by women, were a complex mixture of intimacy and trust counterbalanced by feelings of fear and suspicion. Anglo-Indian women's occupations in the empire did not fit into any of the existing and acceptable categories of feminine activities. The peculiar construction of Anglo-Indian domesticity facilitated women's engagement with the empire and with imperial politics. Given the supposed peculiarities of imperial domesticity new arrivals to India, whatever their household management experiences in Britain, needed guidance on how to manage their homes in the empire. Indians were both the brains and the brawn of the British Raj and the Anglo-Indian home.
The subject matter of Joseph Noel Paton's painting was the Indian 'Mutiny' of 1857. For Anglo-Indians, the Mutiny served as a constant reminder of the tenuous nature of imperialism in India. The Mutiny shocked and appalled the Victorian public, and resulted in far-reaching administrative and military changes in India. The Mutiny and its aftermath also uncovered the interconnections of gender, violence and imperial political power in India. In rethinking their own position in relation to Indian insurgency, Anglo-Indian wives of the interwar period had to grapple with two hallowed conceptions of appropriate feminine responses to violence. Mainstream British narratives of the Mutiny deprived the Anglo-Indian woman of personal and historical agency. Rewriting the Mutiny and imperial violence to provide an active, empowered role for women was a necessary component of the image of the politically active and engaged 'imperial wife'.
Anglo-Indian women's involvement in sports in the Indian empire, their aptitude for hunting and shooting reveals the interdependence and interaction of the social construction of gender and the dictates of British imperialism. 'Sport was an obsession in British India', replete with practical and symbolic import for Anglo-Indians and colonized peoples. Sports enabled the British to 'keep the flag flying', for the edification and intimidation of the colonized peoples, providing a demonstration of the courage, vitality, and physical prowess of the imperial race. Women's involvement in a sport normally associated with men had important symbolic implications for British imperialism in India. British rule in India was, according to the official imperial line, subject to few challenges from the colonized peoples, who supposedly recognized and accepted the civilizing benefits of the Raj and its Pax Britannica.
The relationship between Anglo-Indian and Indian women was complex coloured by expectations about femininity and women's role in the empire. British women's role in the empire played a crucial discursive function in the domestic and imperial political debates of metropolitan Britain, as Antoinette Burton has compellingly demonstrated. The 'uplift' of Indian womanhood was an important component of Britain's civilizing mission in India. Many of the activities that passed as charitable work for the 'uplift' of Indian womanhood were merely fundraising for various causes, involving no opportunity for the interaction of Anglo-Indian wives with their Indian 'sisters'. Rather than conceding their own apparent lack of femininity, Anglo-Indian women presented Indian women as unnatural and their 'feminine' characteristics as perverse and degraded. The story of one wartime endeavor, a magazine entitled Women in India, aptly illustrates the individualistic nature of much of Anglo-Indian women's wartime activities.
Anglo-Indian women and Indian men encountered each other not in sexual terms, but rather as political competitors vying for power in the combative environment of imperial politics. Observing changes that granted political power primarily to Indian men, Anglo-Indian wives were concerned that the unofficial roles they had carved out for themselves in the politics of imperial India also would be foreclosed. In the British Raj, Anglo-Indian women's political power stemmed not from their citizenship in a democratic polity, but from their status as imperial rulers. Political reforms instituted by British imperial rulers, beginning in the late nineteenth century and escalating rapidly by the interwar years, dramatically reformulated Indian politics and political institutions, reluctantly ceding greater authority to Indian men. Ideas about race and gender further complicated the political transformations, as well as the relationship between Anglo-Indian women and Indian men.
Anglo-Indian women had constructed an identity centred on the Raj. Anglo-Indian wives were tacitly allowed to participate in the politics of empire, carrying out the quotidian tasks of governance and shaping the policies of British imperialism in India. As Anglo-Indian wives had feared, Indian men inherited the mantle of political power from the British in 1947. In 1947, the British government unilaterally terminated Anglo-Indian women's integral involvement with British imperialism in India and acceded to the long-standing demands of Indians for political autonomy. Indian men may have derided Anglo-Indian women as 'brainless memsahibs', but the British government similarly scorned their contribution to empire. After decades of being married to the empire, the Anglo-Indian wife suddenly found herself divorced. Most Anglo-Indian officials still in India at independence departed shortly after 1947, acknowledging that they were generally neither wanted nor needed in the newly independent nation.