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Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Forgotten Half: Women of the British Empire

The European continent is home to one of the richest and most diverse cultures in world history.  It has been at the forefront of tremendous change and influence that has both blessed and cursed millions throughout the world.  One of the most influential of all these nations is the little island to the north known as Great Britain. Few would have thought that what started as a relatively small nation would eventually become one of the largest empires in world history yet for all its achievements and conquests, the British Empire is still greatly misunderstood.  Throughout the course of early historiography, the British Empire has been seen and understood through the lenses of male-domination and masculinity.  Rarely if ever is the role of women mentioned within the historiography of the British Empire.  One would think that such an oversight would be foolish, being that half of a given population is essentially discarded.  Yet despite this massive oversight, the role of women in the British Empire is paramount to the understanding of how Britain managed to succeed as an empire.  Though often overlooked, British women played an essential role in the empire by protecting family life, maintaining British culture, and preaching Christian values in the colonies.       

During the early years of colonization, British women played a very small role in the founding of colonies.  In fact, women were rarely seen in many of Britain’s earliest colonies.  In Jamestown for example, the first settlers were exclusively men, being that the most urgent need was for skilled “manly” labor.[1]  Once women began arriving in the various American colonies, most were obligated to suffer under the practice of indentured servitude.  Those who were free, however, married young and began families as soon as possible.[2]  In India, women again were not to be found amongst the earliest colonizers.  In fact, early British colonizers preferred the absence of European women.  They believed that relationships between British men and Indian women actually aided in bridging the gap between the two cultures.[3]  The presence of British women (in their eyes) would only hurt that balance.  The basic rule for women, in terms of British colonization, was that where rule and conquest were the goals, women were a hindrance.  Where settlement and colonization were the aspirations, women were beneficial.[4]

When women finally did make their way to the colonies, their arrival was often met with hesitation and concern.  Though the arrival of women helped to establish and secure British the family culture, it also ushered in an era in which men longed for the “good old days” of concubinage with native women.[5]  No longer were the British men free to mingle with indigenous women, as they had been accustomed.  This change, however, ushered in a new day for British colonizers.  British women brought to the colonies the established customs of European family values.  In turn, women worked to spread such values by networking with one another in their respective colonies.  As one women stated, “An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian empire.”[6]  In short, women strongly embraced the idea that to secure a British-style home within the colonies was the surest way to secure the empire as a hole. 

Life was not easy for the majority of British colonial women.  Leaving one’s home, though exciting, was tremendously stressful as well.  To make matters more difficult, women that entered the colonial world found themselves in more mundane activities than those of men.  As one historian points out, “The colonial world was definitely a man’s world, and women were not allowed to play a meaningful role in it except as petty traders and farmers.”[7]  To help secure the British family structure within the colonies, women worked tirelessly and received little recognition for their efforts.  Within the walls of their homes, women labored as homemakers, wives and mothers.  They were responsible for almost all of the behind the scenes activities that helped to maintain a typical British family.  Whether in the Caribbean, India or Africa, European women faced the every day struggles that were expected on a “proper” British woman. 

As difficult as life may have been as a colonist, it was not without some benefits.  Upon their arrival, many British women were quickly taken as wives.  Since the population of men in a colony was usually twice that of women, many women who came to work in the colonies were quickly married to a willing male.  Their marriage actually proved beneficial, since fewer jobs were available in the colonies than back home.  In fact, fewer women worked outside the home in the colonies than in Britain.[8]  Though not typically working outside the home, colonial women found themselves with more than enough to keep them busy.  The daily tasks of maintaining the home and rearing children were extremely time-consuming.  Fortunately, many colonial women also enjoyed a more luxurious life than their counterparts back home.  A typical middle class family could afford three to six servants in the colonies, whereas back in Britain they could only afford one if they were lucky.[9]

As pleasant as life might have been for some colonial women, it would be a gross overstatement to say that all women shared in the joy.  The reality of colonial life for many women was far from blissful.  For some, the hope for a family of their own was shattered by the horrors of reality.  While trying to escape the struggles of life back home, many women were forced to make their living in the various colonies as prostitutes.  The sex slave trade that grew in the British colonies reached staggering levels.  Some women were even forced to average four customers a night, which provided tremendous revenue for the various brothels.[10]  One can only imagine the struggles of such a life.  The difficulties that accompanied this type of a lifestyle must have been appalling.  In the male-dominated society that was the British Empire, women were often seen (and trafficked) as expendable commodities.  Clearly life as a colonial woman was not as easy as hoped.  Whether working behind the scenes as a housewife or forced to endure the vile conditions as a sex slave, the efforts of colonial women were often forgotten, since women clearly took a back seat in such a society.

Family life was only one of the many ways in which British colonial women were able to make an impact.  Along with the struggles that attend womanhood, was the pressure to maintain and cultivate British culture.  The idea of what it meant to be British was deeply rooted into the lifestyles of many of its citizens.  Not only did it carry the aura of superiority to others, but it also carried masculine overtones.  As Linda Colley put it, “Quite simply, we usually decide who we are by reference to who and what we are not.”[11]  For British women, this meant protecting the British family system from the “corruption” and influence of native populations.  It also meant that women were taught to comply with the idea that a masculine British Empire was the supreme goal. 

One example of the emphasis placed on spreading British culture was the establishment of Empire Day.  Celebrated on May 24 (the birthday of Queen Victoria), Empire Day was a spectacle that was commemorated in nearly 6,000 schools across the empire.[12]  Children across the empire were taught to glory in being British.  Young girls in particular could often be seen singing patriotic songs that celebrated soldiers, while young boys engaged in athletic and warrior patriotism games.[13]  Such activities molded the minds of young boys and girls to embrace the idea of a masculine/warrior society, where women worshipped their fighting men from the sidelines.

In the colonies, the expansion of British culture often grew into full-blown racism. Again, the concept of “Britishness” created an aura in which British citizens felt superior to indigenous people, based on their religion, customs and beliefs.  The British superiority complex was more than evident in India, where the ruling class was exclusively British.  Zareer Masani points out that during the mid 18th century, the British reserved all high offices of administration while, “The subordinate ranks of administration remained entirely Indian.”[14]   By maintaining exclusive control of high offices, the British Empire created yet another means by which British identity was shaped amongst the masses.  The belief in British superiority began to take a very strong hold in the hearts of its citizens.

For women, this idea of British superiority was defended vigorously.  As the empire continued to branch out, women were quickly integrated into the expansion of British ideology.  As teachers, British women were able to help as educators in India, where they worked hard to help “civilize” the local people.[15]  In Africa, British women were also used to help educate and establish British culture in the area.[16]  For the most part, women took these responsibilities very serious, and were often sympathetic to the needs of the native peoples.  British women proved vital in relocating British culture to the colonies.  As Margaret Strobel states, “in the colonies, as in Britain, women were particularly responsible for carrying out these rituals…women’s work was to maintain the status of the family and preserve social boundaries between Europeans and indigenous people”[17] In essence, women were the gatekeepers of British cultural norms.

For all the good done by women in the colonies, there was still a level of xenophobia that permeated British colonials.  British women were quick to put their guard up in defense of their families.  Women even regularly feared the use of native wet nurses for their children, believing that, “the milk of a native woman should contaminate an English child’s character.”[18]  Women were also quick to point out the “savagery” of indigenous men, who were seen essentially as, “would-be rapists or seducers.”[19]  As one African native put it, “The overall European policy in Africa may be summed up in these two words: white supremacy.”[20]  British men were quick to point out the iniquity that lurked if a “savage” was able to seduce a white woman.  In such cases, British leaders (who were men) failed to recognize any wrongdoing in relationships between European men and native women.  Clearly a double standard had been created. 

Along with the concern for the well being of their women, British men were quick to point out how their culture treated its women with much more respect.  According to the British intellectual James Mill, a society could be judged based on its treatment of women.  As Strobel points out, “In Mill’s view, the status of women progresses from low to high, associated with the evolution of ‘civilization.’”[21]  Based on Mill’s estimation, the British felt vindicated in their assessment that they were more “civilized.”  The novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe provides a perfect example of this belief.  The story’s main character, Okonkwo, regularly beats his wives for mundane issues.  In one particular part, he even beats his wife Ojiugo for failing to have dinner ready.[22]  For the British, this would be ample evidence of their superiority, even though it would be reasonable to assume that even Britons were guilty of committing the same acts on their wives.

Another important aspect of British culture was its religious convictions.  For the British, this was one of the major distinguishing factors that uniquely made them British.  As Linda Colley points out, Britons were able to unite more on the issue of their Protestant faith than on any other issue.[23]  For British women, this belief was passionately embraced, since women were traditionally the religious pulse of the family.  In their quest to follow God’s will, British women became zealous missionaries in the colonies.  Their yearning to convert and aid the various native populations made them powerful tools to the empire.  British women were active in establishing villages for runaway slaves, in protesting the ritual burning of native widows, and in seeking an end to the practice of clitoridectomy.[24]  Female missionaries were also successful in areas like India, where they were able to offer education to indigenous women and were able to effectively establish British customs.[25] 

The efforts made by female missionaries convinced many of them that they were capable of branching out and helping even more people.  Women like Dr. Annie Besant, who led the Madras Theosophical Society, helped to inspire much of the nationalist movement in India.  She was able to inspire her followers to unite and, “seek common ground between Indian and European religious and cultural traditions.”[26]  Other women sought to break the patriarchal chains with which they were restrained.  To expand their ability to help, female missionaries in India banded together to create the Ladies Association for the Promotion of Female Education Among the Heathen.[27]  Their goal was to create an organization that would convince the male colonial leaders that a women’s society could organize, convert, and sustain itself.  The measure met with limited success. 

The desire that European women had to branch out and help indigenous people of the various colonies was often met with ridicule, accusation and scorn.  In Africa for example, female missionaries regularly bumped heads with their male superiors in the church.  The male-dominated British social structure had little time or patience to deal with women’s issues effectively.  In one particular instance, the experience of Mary Pigot is very telling of how conflicting male leaders could be with their female subordinates.  While running an orphanage in Calcutta, Miss Pigot was criticized by her male superior, Rev. William Hastie, for how she chose to run the institution.  When Miss Pigot refused to submit to his authority, Rev. Hastie simply accused her of sexual immorality with an Indian man.  Miss Pigot was dragged through six years of legal proceedings, but finally found not guilty.  Despite making false accusations, Rev. Hastie was never reprimanded in any way.[28]  As difficult as things may have been for female missionaries, there is no doubt that their efforts helped numerous people in the various colonies of the Empire.  Their influence helped further the education of countless people within the Empire. 

The British Empire was a vast and diverse world.  For British women, it was a world that offered little recognition for their efforts, and even less praise for their contributions.  In the male-dominated culture that was Great Britain, women took an unfortunate back seat, and their labors received virtually no praise as a result.  Despite the regrettable lack of appreciation for their efforts, British women have left a long-lasting imprint on the legacy of the British Empire.  Through their efforts, British women were able to successfully protect and nurture their families, maintain and cultivate the British culture, and spread the message of Christianity.  Their assistance to the various indigenous populations within the British colonies deserves as much praise as the male missionaries enjoy.  For British women, it was their ability to overcome the chauvinistic atmosphere of male domination that permeated the British Empire.  In the end, this is their greatest legacy.    



[1] Lawrence James, The Rise And Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 39-40.
[2] Ibid, 38.
[3] Margaret Strobel, European Women and the Second British Empire (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 3.
[4] Ibid, 2.
[5] Ibid, 4.
[6] Ibid, 17.
[7] A. Adu Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), 107.
[8] Margaret Strobel, 19.
[9] Ibid, 19.
[10] Ibid, 28-29.
[11] Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: An Argument,” Journal of British Studies (October, 1992): 309-329.
[12] Lawrence James, 328.
[13] Ibid, 329-330.
[14] Zareer Masani, Indian Tales of the Raj (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 8.
[15] Ibid, 71-72.
[16] A. Adu Boahen, 104-106.
[17] Margaret Strobel, 13.
[18] Ibid, 18.
[19] Zareer Masani, 55.
[20] Ndabanangi Sithole, Imperialism’s Benefits by an Anti-Imperialist African, taken from the online packet. Chapter 9, page 253.
[21] Margaret Strobel, 49.
[22] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Random House Inc., 1959), 29-31.
[23] Linda Colley, 317.
[24] Margaret Strobel, 50-51.
[25] Ibid, 53. 
[26] Zareer Masani, 78.
[27] Margaret Strobel, 53-54.
[28] Ibid, 54.

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