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Saturday, October 25, 2014

John and Abigail Adams: 250 Years Strong

Today marks the "sestercentennial" (250th anniversary) of the marriage of John and Abigail Adams, who were by far the coolest couple of the founding era.  Today, several historical societies, to include the Abigail Adams Historical Society, the Adams National Historical Park, and the First Church in Weymouth will be celebrating this historical event in a variety of ways to include a complete reenactment of the Adams wedding!

For anyone who has studied the American Revolution and the lives of the key founders in particular, you are more than familiar with the relationship between John and Abigail Adams.  Their bond ran much deeper than husband and wife. They were each other's closest confidants. Each relied on the other in a way that no other "founding couple" ever did. Their vast collection of correspondence with one another is a treasure trove for all Americans to enjoy. For historians today, John and Abigail Adams are authentic and "accessible" in a way that other Founding Fathers are not.  And in the fifty four years they had together, John and Abigail Adams forged a bond that would easily rival that of Romeo and Juliet, Mork and Mindy, or Sonny and Cher!

Below are a few small excerpts from some of my favorite letters between John and Abigail Adams during their courtship years. You can access all of their surviving correspondence by clicking here:


Welcome, Welcome thrice welcome is Lysander to Braintree, but ten times more so would he be at Weymouth, whither you are affraid to come. -- Once it was not so. May not I come and see you, at least look thro a window at you? Should you not be glad to see your Diana? I flatter myself you would.
As to a neglect of Singing, that I acknowledg to be a Fault which if posible shall not be complaind of a second time, nor should you have had occasion for it now, if I had not a voice harsh as the screech of a peacock. The Capotal fault shall be rectified, tho not with any hopes of being lookd upon as a Beauty, to appear agreeable in the Eyes of Lysander, has been for Years past, and still is the height of my ambition. The 5th fault, will endeavour to amend of it, but you know I think that a gentleman has no business to concern him self about the Leggs of a Lady, for my part I do not apprehend any bad effects from the practise, yet since you desire it, and that you may not for the future trouble Yourself so much about it, -- will reform. The sixth and last can be cured only by a Dancing School. -- But I must not write more. I borrow a hint from you, therefore will not add to my faults that of a tedious Letter -- a fault I never yet had reason to complain of in you, for however long, they never were otherways than agreeable to your own 

 A. Smith

I have this Evening been to see the Girl. -- What Girl? Pray, what Right have you to go after Girls? -- Why, my Dear, the Girl I mentioned to you, Miss Alice Brackett. But Miss has hitherto acted in the Character of an House-Keeper, and her noble aspiring Spirit had rather rise to be a Wife than descend to be a Maid.
To be serious, however, she says her Uncle, whose House she keeps cannot possibly spare her, these two Months, if then, and she has no Thoughts of leaving him till the Spring, when she intends for Boston to become a Mantua Maker.
Tomorrow Morning I embark for Plymouth -- with a (fowl) disordered stomach, a pale Face, an Aching Head and an Anxious Heart. And What Company shall I find there? Why a Number of bauling Lawyers, drunken Squires, and impertinent and stingy Clients. If you realize this, my Dear, since you have agreed to run fortunes with me, you will submit with less Reluctance to any little Disappointments and Anxieties you may meet in the Conduct of your own Affairs. 

I have a great Mind to keep a Register of all the stories, Squibbs, Gibes, and Compliments, I shall hear thro the whole Week. If I should I could entertain you with as much Wit, Humour, smut, Filth, Delicacy, Modesty and Decency, tho not with so exact Mimickry, as a certain Gentleman did the other Evening. Do you wonder, my Dear, why that Gentleman does not succeed in Business, when his whole study and Attention has so manifestly been engaged in the nobler Arts of smutt, Double Ententre, and Mimickry of Dutchmen and Negroes? I have heard that Imitators, tho they imitate well, Master Pieces in elegant and valuable Arts, are a servile Cattle. And that Mimicks are the lowest Species of Imitators, and I should think that Mimicks of Dutchmen and Negroes were the most sordid of Mimicks. If so, to what a Depth of the Profound have we Page 4 page image View larger image plunged that Gentlemans Character. Pardon me, my dear, you know that Candour is my Characteristick-as it is undoubtedly of all the Ladies who are entertained with that Gents Conversation. 

Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me -- after so long a separation. My soul and Body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month of two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World. I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body, lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my justice, or Discernment.

Fryday Morning April th 20

What does it signify, why may not I visit you a Days as well as Nights? I no sooner close my Eyes than some invisible Being, swift as the Alborack of Mahomet, bears me to you. I see you, but cannot make my self visible to you. That tortures me, but it is still worse when I do not come for I am then haunted by half a dozen ugly Sprights. One will catch me and leep into the Sea, an other will carry me up a precipice (like that which Edgar describes to Lear,) then toss me down, and were I not then light as the [illegible] Gosemore I should shiver into atoms -- an other will be pouring down my throat stuff worse than the witches Broth in Macbeth. -- Where I shall be carried next I know not, but I had rather have the small pox by inoculation half a dozen times, than be sprighted about as I am. What say you can you give me any encouragement to come? By the time you receive this hope from experience you will be able to say that the distemper is but a triffle. Think you I would not endure a trife for the pleasure of seeing Lysander, yes were it ten times that triffle I would. -- But my own inclinations must not be followed -- to Duty I sacrifice them. Yet O my Mamma forgive me if I say, you have forgot, or never knew -- but hush. -- And do you Lysander excuse me that something I promis'd you, since it was a Speach more undutifull than that which I Just now stop'd my self in -- for the present good by. 

Fryday Evening 

 I hope you smoke your Letters well, before you deliver them. Mamma is so fearful least I should catch the distemper, that she hardly ever thinks the Letters are sufficently purified. Did you never rob a Birds nest? Do you remember how the poor Bird would fly round and round, fearful to come nigh, yet not know how to leave the place -- just so they say I hover round Tom whilst he is smokeing my Letters. 

 But heigh day Mr. whats your Name? -- who taught you to threaten so vehemently "a Character besides that of critick, in which if I never did, I always hereafter shall fear you." Thou canst not prove a villan, imposible. I therefore still insist upon it, that I neither do, nor can fear thee. For my part I know not that there is any pleasure in being feard, but if there is, I hope you will be so generous as to fear your Diana that she may at least be made sensible of the pleasure. 

Mr. Ayers will bring you this Letter, and the Bag. Do no [t] repine -- it is fill'd with Balm. Here is Love, respects, regards, good wishes -- a whole waggon load of them sent you from all the good folks in the Neighbourhood. To morrow makes the 14th Day. How many more are to come? I dare not trust my self with the thought. Adieu. Let me hear from you by Mr. Ayers, and excuse this very bad writing, if you had mended my pen it would have been better, once more adieu. Gold and Silver have I none, but such as I have, give I unto thee -- which is the affectionate Regard of Your 

 A. Smith


Miss Adorable
By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O'Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account: This Order, or Requisition call it which you will is in Consideration of a similar order Upon Aurelia for the like favour, and I presume I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours,
John Adams

Friday, October 24, 2014

Who Was Melchizedek?

For anyone who has read the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament), chances are you remember the long lists of names and genealogies that drone on seemingly forever. These are the parts of the Bible that most people skip over because...well...they seem boring, pointless and make us want to throw the Bible at the cat or dog.  And for the most part, you don't need to be a Bible scholar to recognize the fact that most of these names are of individuals who don't matter to the Bible story and have no real importance to Christian or Jewish theology.  I mean, does it really matter that the Sons of Gomer are Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah!?!

But every once in a while the Bible does briefly reference a name of an individual who actually played an extremely significant role in the development of Jewish and Christian theology. Enoch, for example, is only mentioned briefly in the Hebrew Bible (he's mentioned much more in the New Testament actually) as being a man who "walked with God."  Or what about the tale of Ehud, the coolest ninja in the world who single-handedly killed Eglon, the evil, fat-ass Moabite king. And let us not forget about dear ol' Queen Athaliah, whose six-year reign ended with the attempted assassination of all her grandchildren (to destroy the royal blood line of David) and reintroduced the worship of Baal into Jerusalem. Yes, the Bible is indeed full of random and obscure characters, who though not much is said about them, play a critical role in the development of both Judaism and Christianity.

One such character is Melchizedek, the "King of Salem."  From the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), we are told that Melchizedek was, "the priest of the most high God" (Genesis 14:18) to whom Abraham paid his tithes.  The only other reference to Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible is found in Psalms 110:4, which states:
The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
From these verses we can only glean a few tidbits of information on who Melchizedek was and why he was so important. For Abraham to pay tithes to Melchizedek suggests that Abraham considered himself subordinate to this "King of Salem."  And as Psalms states, the "order of Melchizedek" suggests that more than one individual has claimed the priestly rights/titles/status as the figure mentioned in Genesis 14.

Still, none of this tells us much about who Melchizedek ultimately was, or if he was even a singular individual.  After all, many Christian scholars protest that the name Melchizedek is more of a title than it is a person's name, or that it might be the preincarnate Christ.  After all, Melchizedek literally means  "my king (is) righteous(ness)" or "King of Peace."  Wasn't Jesus also referred to as the "Prince of Peace?" And as we learn from Hebrews 5:5-6, Jesus himself is identified as being a "high priest" after this order:
So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee.  As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
Is it possible that the Melchizedek mentioned in the Hebrew Bible could be one in the same person as the Melchizedek spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Hebrews?

While some may argue that this supposed link between Jesus and Melchizedek is proof that they are one in the same being, I believe it can be made quite clear that Jesus and Melchizedek are two very different people but of the same priesthood order (or authority).  In other words, Melchizedek (of the Hebrew Bible) is a foreshadowing (like many other things found in the Hebrew Bible) of the Supreme High Priest, who is Jesus Christ.

A good illustration of how Melchizedek served as a foreshadowing of Christ comes from the Nag Hammadi Papers.  These documents (found in upper Egypt in 1945), which date back to at least the 1st century A.D., contain a number of Gnostic writings that touch on some of the typical Christian debates of that time period.  Included in this treasure trove of writings is the following on Melchizedek:
And immediately, I arose, I, Melchizedek...and I will not cease, from now on, forever, O Father of the All, because you have had pity on men, and you have sent the angel of light...When he came, he caused me to be raised up from ignorance, and (from) the fructification of death to life. For I have a name: I am Melchizedek, the Priest of God Most High; I know that it is I who am truly the image of the true High-Priest of God Most High...I shall pronounce my name as I receive baptism now (and) forever, (as a name) among the living (and) holy names, and (now) in the waters. Amen.
Note how Melchizedek (who refers to himself as "I") references the "angel of light" who caused [him] to be raised up from ignorance [and] death."  We see in this text that Melchizedek sees himself as a foreshadowing of Christ who is the "true High-Priest of God Most High." Melchizedek had only received "the image" of the "true High-Priest."

The Zohar adds a measure of clarity on how Melchizedek conducted himself as High Priest. Like many other prophets, Melchizedek's labors served to divide the righteous from the unrighteous, as any "Priest of the Most High God" would be expected to do:
Hence in the days of Abram MELCHIZEDEK KING OF SALEM (salem = completeness), i.e. God whose throne was then established in its place and whose sovereignty therefore became complete, brought out bread and wine i.e. produced the appropriate food for the whole world, and did not withhold blessing from all the world; from the upper grades he brought forth food and blessings for all the worlds. AND HE WAS A PRIEST TO THE MOST HIGH GOD, the whole thus being in the most perfect order; to show that as the wicked upset the world and cause blessing to be withheld, so the righteous bring blessing to the world and for their sakes all its inhabitants are blessed. And he gave him a tenth of all to wit, of those blessings which issue from “all”, the source of all the blessings which descend upon the world. According to another explanation, God gave Abram a tenth (The Zohar, Yeshivat Kol Yehudah, vol. 1, Pp. 262).
From both the Zohar and Biblical accounts, it is clear that Melchizedek was a divisive character, who rebuked the wicked and praised the righteous.  Add to it the following passage from the world of Mormon theology:
Yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was also a high priest after this same order which I have spoken, who also took upon him the high priesthood forever. And it was this same Melchizedek to whom Abraham paid tithes; yea, even our father Abraham paid tithes of one-tenth par of all he possessed.  Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a TYPE OF HIS ORDER, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord.  Now this Melchizedek was king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did PREACH REPENTANCE UNTO HIS PEOPLE. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the PRINCE OF PEACE, for he was the King of Salem; and he did reign under his father (my emphasis).
Note how Melchizedek is a "type" of the "order" of Christ and that his people called him "the Prince of Peace."  Again, Melchizedek served to foreshadow Christ, they were NOT the same person.

Any further doubt that Jesus and Melchizedek are the same person is smashed to pieces by Paul, who clearly speaks of how Melchizedek is a foreshadowing of Christ in Hebrews, Chapter 7:
For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him;
To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;
Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.
Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils.
And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham:
But he whose descent is not counted from them received tithes of Abraham, and blessed him that had the promises.
And without all contradiction the less is blessed of the better.
And here men that die receive tithes; but there he receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth.
And as I may so say, Levi also, who receiveth tithes, payed tithes in Abraham.
10 For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him.
11 If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?
12 For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.
13 For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar.
14 For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood.
15 And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest,
16 Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.
17 For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
Verse 3 is of particular note, since it employs the phrase "made like unto." In the Greek Septuagint, the verb "aphomioo" is used in this context.  And as Professor D.W. Burdick points out:
The verb "aphomoioo" always assumes two distinct and separate identities, one of which is a copy of the other.  Thus, Melchizedek and the Son of God are represented as two separate persons, the first of which resembles the second" ("Melchizedek," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - Revised, G.W. Bromiley, vol. 3, Pp. 313).
From these verses (and the other sources mentioned above) the haze over Melchizedek begins to clear.  Melchizedek is not Jesus, nor is he a messianic figure.  He is a foreshadowing of Christ who is to come.  The "Order of Melchizedek," which has been mentioned several times in several of the aforementioned references, is therefore a holy calling given through priesthood (see what Paul said on the matter in the scripture reference above).  Interestingly enough, the world of Mormon theology has this to say on the matter:
There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood. Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood. All other authorities or offices in the church are appendages to this priesthood.
This sort of explanation fits with what we know about Melchizedek from the sources available to us. Melchizedek was the best of men. He was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, who was to come. Melchizedek was a champion of peace and a king over a holy land (some scholars believe his Kingdom of Salem was the precursor to JeruSALEM). Though very little can be found in the Bible on his life, other sources help to augment the story and fill in the missing pieces.  And what we are left with is a picture of a man who was indeed a foreshadowing of Christ...a Prince of Peace.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Birth of the Monroe Doctrine

On this day in 1823, President James Monroe outlined his famous doctrine (which eventually became known as the Monroe Doctrine) opposing European expansion into the western part of North America. Before Congress, Monroe gave a passionate speech condemning any and all European exploration of western lands and called for a renewed commitment to American settlement into the west:
In the discussions to which this interest has given rise, and in the arrangements by which they may terminate, the occasion has been deemed proper for asserting as a principle in which rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power. . . . We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them or controlling in any other manner their destiny by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
As we all know, western expansion became a pillar of American strength throughout the 19th century. To "Go West" was as American a concept as apple pie. With that said, we would do well to remember that President James Monroe's passionate determination to safeguard western expansion from the clutches of European "invasion" was a bold pronouncement for that time. It may seem commonplace for us today, but it wasn't for the people of his day.

And as wonderful as Western expansion may have been for early Americans, it was a complete disaster for other groups, Native Americans in particular.  What became known as "Manifest Destiny" in the eyes of Americans was nothing more than a fancy way of saying "conquest" for Native American tribes, who found themselves being continuously pushed further west.  "Manifest Destiny" would eventually be used to justify war with Mexico (which, in reality, was one of the most unjustifiable wars in American history), along with other atrocities like the "Trail of Tears."

Of course, not all of the blame can or should be placed at the feet of James Monroe, who in my opinion is one of our most underrated presidents ever. Many other leaders (and lay folk) carry much of the responsibility for causing so much pain to Native Americans that, in some respects, remains to this day (President Andrew Jackson certainly comes to mind).

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.