My Passage to India

by Margaret Allen

My first foray into writing about India-Australia relationships was the article ‘”White Already to Harvest” South Australian Women Missionaries in India’, Feminist Review (UK) no. 65 June 2000 pp. 92-107.[1]

I had been drawn into an interest in this relationship by an Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) scheme, drawing Women’s Studies departments and centres in India, Australia and the West Indies together.  This saw me, rather nervously, making my first trip to India in January 1996. Sitting in the office of Professor Meera Kosambi, the then Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies at the SNDT Women’s University ( ), we discussed possible research areas. Meera was at that time embarking on her great study of Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), the Indian feminist Christian.[2]

Meera asked ‘What possibly could Indian and Australian researchers share?’ Having spent the previous year reading works about Western women and imperialism and transnational histories by Antoinette Burton, Vron Ware, Kumari Jayawardena and Catherine Hall,[3] I ventured that I thought that perhaps Australian women had been missionaries in India.

Coming back to Australia, I discovered a wealth of materials. I began looking at the archives of the Australian Baptist missionary movement in Melbourne. Later Meera and I re-discovered the deep relationship between Ramabai’s Mukti mission and an army of Australian supporters. Ramabai’s daughter, Manoramabai had visited Australia on a speaking tour in 1902-3. See here for example.

Reading Our Bond a newsletter of Australian women Baptist missionaries in East Bengal in the 1890s, I was struck by the phrase in an account of itinerant evangelizing among Indian women, ‘We met with some real Australian hospitality in this jungly place’. Indeed an Indian family had turned over their beds to the Australian missionary women. Fresh from a study of discourses in colonial Australian novels, it seemed to me that the phrase ‘real Australian hospitality’ invoked its opposite, namely cold English reserve. Perhaps here was the suggestion that Australian and Indian women, both colonials, although in different relationships to the metropole, might bond in some opposition to the British colonialists. However this impression was ephemeral for, as I argued, in going to India as missionaries, the Australian women were seeking to make themselves part of a British Baptist tradition and to participate in the larger British colonial project in India.

Pondering their attraction to India, I asked why they had not worked in the Australian field, seeking to bring Australian Aboriginal people to Christ ? I noted here John Harris’ assertion that in the mid nineteenth century Australia was seen to be ‘the most difficult mission field on earth, perhaps even an impossible mission field.’ Such views sprang in part from Social Darwinist beliefs ‘which were highly apposite for those taking Aboriginal land.’

Notions of the alleged inferiority and irrelevance of Indigenous peoples among colonial setters was pervasive, being circulated among other sources, by the popular colonial novels of Matilda Jane Evans (1829-1896), a South Australian Baptist writer.

Indeed she only wrote about Aboriginal people once in her fourteen colonial novels. This was in the novel Golden Gifts: An Australian Tale (1867-8) a novel which celebrated the divine gift of land which the colonials had possessed in the South Australian colony. In an encounter with a settler family, a group of Aboriginal people are represented as ‘alien curiosities beggars and thieves’ whose humanity is questioned. It seems that Evans only drew this sketch in response to a reviewer who had urged her to ‘put a blacky (sic) or two in her next work and show them as they really are.’ Generally her novels ignored Aboriginal people and rather represented South Australia as a smiling ordered landscape, belonging rightfully to the settlers. These novels were doing ‘the ideological work of Terra Nullius’.[4]

Ignoring the dispossession of Indigenous people, these novels explored whether it was possible to be moral, worthy and colonial. In particular the colonial girl was a figure of anxiety. Was she fast and inclined to early sexual maturity?  The cultural anxiety about colonial girls, perhaps ‘wild colonial girls’, had currency more broadly within British imperial settings. Indeed I finished the article by suggesting that ‘their missionary activity was related to the desire of these missionary women to show themselves as worthy in the larger imperial framework.’

Playing with the notion of ‘whiteness’ I titled it, ‘White Already to Harvest’, a biblical quotation and the title of a contemporary missionary publication from the Poona and Indian Village Mission, with which a number of Australian women and men were associated.


[1] Margaret Allen, ‘”White Already to Harvest” South Australian Women Missionaries in India’, Feminist Review (UK) no. 65 June 2000 pp. 92-107, in Special Issue (eds) Meera Kosambi and Jane Haggis, ‘Reconstructing Femininities: Colonial Intersections of Gender, Race, Religion and Class’. Also at:

[2] Meera Kosambi, Pandita Ramabai through her own words: selected works / compiled and edited, with translations.  (New Delhi and Oxford, Oxford University Press 2000) and Pandita Ramabai: Life and landmark writings, (London, Routledge India, 2016).

[3] Antoinette Burton,  (1994) The Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865–1915, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Catherine Hall, (1995) ‘Gender politics and imperial politics: rethinking the histories of empire’ in Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton and Barbara Bailey (1995) editors, Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective, London & Kingston: James Currey Publishers/Ian Randle Publishers.

Kumari Jayawardena, (1995) The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia during British Rule, New York, London: Routledge.

Vron Ware, Beyond the pale: white women, racism, and history, London, Verso, 1992.

[4] See Margaret Allen, ‘Homely stories and the ideological work of “Terra Nullius”‘, Journal of Australian Studies no 79 2003, pp. 104-115 and 234-236.

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