Sophia Dobson Collet, a cosmopolitan at home

Clare Midgley

My contributions to the Beyond Empire project centre on my research into links between members of the Brahmo Samaj and British and American Unitarians.  The Brahmo Samaj was an influential but controversial movement for religious and social reform among Hindus; Unitarians, who rejected the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity and were thus considered heretics by many mainstream Christians, were also in the forefront of social reform movements.  A pivotal figure in cementing transnational exchanges among this interfaith group of activists was Sophia Dobson Collet, the subject of my chapter in our co-authored book Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire.

 Portrait of the feminist author Sophia Dobson Collet (1822-1894) taken from The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy, edited by Hem Chandra Sarkar (1914)

Sophia Dobson Collet (1822-94) is little known today. Thanks to the efforts of feminist historians over the past 30 years we now know quite a lot about the women who gained public recognition or notoriety as activists during the nineteenth century, at a time when women’s ‘proper’ place was meant to be in the home. However, we still know much less about other fascinating individuals like Collet who worked mainly ‘behind the scenes’.

Collet lived close to where I now live in the multicultural area of Finsbury Park in north-east London, but as yet no blue plaque marks out her residence as the hub of a transnational inter-faith network, or records her role as official record-keeper for the Brahmo Samaj and author of the standard biography of its famous founder, Rammohun Roy. In contrast, Roy himself, widely celebrated as ‘Father of Modern India’, is commemorated in Bristol (where he died while on an extended visit to Britain) by an impressive funerary monument and by a statue positioned facing that of Queen Victoria outside city hall. It seems particularly important with the global rise of populist forms of nationalism which are zenophobic, Islamophobic, antisemitic and racist that we draw more public attention to people like Collet, a feminist who devoted her life to cultivating and sustaining transnational and inter-faith connections.

Collet is a fascinating example of the sedentary cosmopolitan. She was a single woman whose physical disabilities, health problems and limited financial resources prevented her from ever making the long journey from Britain to India. Yet she came to identify so closely with the lives of her Indian friends that, in letters to them written from her house in London, she described India, not England, as her ‘home’. How different this is from the self-positioning of most ‘ex-pat’ Anglo-Indians, who, no matter how long they had spent living in the sub-continent, continued to see England as home. Distinctive, too, from the way in which people living in Britain felt ‘at home’ with the Empire in the sense discussed in Catherine Hall and Sony O. Rose, eds,  At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Collet’s positioning is, in contrast, a cosmopolitan one: it involved feeling ‘at home’ in the world on the basis of fostering respectful cross-cultural connections which, though they did not directly challenge British imperialism, undermined the racist hierarchies through which it was maintained and the civilizational hierarchies through which it was justified.

Read my chapter in Cosmopolitan Lives to find out more!

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