Bangladesh Research Visit

by Clare Midgley

I’m just back from a fascinating visit to Dhaka, Bangladesh. This visit was an outcome of our ARC project panel at the International Federation for Research in Women’s History (IFRWH) conference in Vancouver last August. On finding out about the Bengali dimensions of my research, Professor Asha Islam Nayeem, General Secretary of the Bangladesh History Association, invited me to deliver a lecture on my research in the Society’s quarterly lecture series.

I seized this opportunity to visit Dhaka for the first time. I wanted to find out more about the history of the Brahmo Samaj, the monotheistic movement for religious and social reform among Hindus whose transnational inter-faith connections and collaboration on the ‘woman question’ I am studying in connection with the Beyond Empire project. Books about the Brahmo Samaj tend to focus on Kolkata, the city where it was founded, but Dhaka was the hub of the organisation in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and I was keen to learn more about its activities in this region.

Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Asha and of Dr Zahida Naznin, the Treasurer of the Bangladesh History Association, I was able to make the most of my short visit to Dhaka. I’m very grateful to them both for taking time out of their busy schedules to make my visit rewarding and fun! Asha, who teaches at Dhaka University, is just completing a book (in English) on the history of women’s education in East Bengal. She is a true cosmopolitan, having lived and studied in Britain, the USA and Japan. Her fluency in Japanese and story about learning over 500 Japanese characters put my own faltering attempts to learn Bangla into perspective! Zahida is a senior civil servant in the Education Directorate who has a PhD on women and development in Bangladesh.

Photograph of Dhaka’s traffic supplied by Clare Midgley

Asha and Zahida were ideal guides to Dhaka, which is a great city, but hard to negotiate as a first-time visitor. Thanks to them I did not spend my time trapped in the confines of my luxurious but ultra-high-security hotel! Even the two-hour car rides stuck in the endless traffic jams  also had an expected benefit of time and space to talk, and I feel very happy to have made two wonderful new friends.

This article continues in full in our Long Reads section.

Circuitous Routes: Journeys from India to Australia by Way of the Sugar Colonies

by Margaret Allen

While the story of Indian indentured labour in the sugar colonies has been seen as irrelevant to Australian history, this chapter draws upon the family histories of people whose ancestors left India to work as indentured labourers in sugar plantations in various British and French colonies. It follows their movements until they settled in Australia late in the nineteenth century, before the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901.

Their stories challenge the assumed whiteness of Australian history and provide a rare and detailed account of the remigration and global mobility of former indentured workers and their families.  In exploring the agency, in particular of two women indentured to the colonies, it sketches the rather permeable and imprecise boundary between agency and coercion.

Available now through Oxford University Press, Indians and the Antipodes includes Margaret Allen’s chapter ‘Circuitous Routes: Journeys from India to Australia by Way of the Sugar Colonies’

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.

CF Andrews and the Future of Indian Indenture in Fiji

by Fiona Paisley

Gandhi (centre) with Charles Andrews (left) and
William W. Pearson (right), 1914
Source: GandhiServe e.K.

Sourcing these photos through GandhiServe e.K.’s brought our team’s attention to the multinational network. GandhiServe India initiated a transdisciplinary project whereby Gandhi scholars, historians, photographic experts and graphic designers collaborated to bring colour to over 4500 black and white images. Further information on this colourisation project may be found here.

See following post below for more on CF Andrews and the Future of Indian Indenture in Fiji.

CF Andrews and the Future of Indian Indenture in Fiji

by Fiona Paisley

In 1916, in order to focus Indian manpower on the imperial war effort, Indian indenture into Fiji was temporarily suspended. But should it resume after the war? A year earlier, two British men with personal and career connections in India, had travelled to the British colony of Fiji with this question in mind. They travelled from India into the Pacific, via Australia and New Zealand, in order to investigate the conditions of indentured Indians on the islands’ sugar plantations. Through their critical report published in 1916, Charles Freer Andrews and William Winstanley Pearson would contribute to the ‘ending’ of indenture after the war, and, they hoped, to the campaign for Indian independence and free Indian migration into the Pacific.

As the historian of Fiji, Brij Lal, has pointed out, the Andrews and Pearson report was only one instance in a much larger story of political agitation by ‘girmitiyas’ (the indentured) themselves. They worked with a range of Indian-Fijians, Indian unionists and others already active in Fiji during this same era. It is also the case that beyond the activism of Indians and Fijians themselves, the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand were invested in the outcomes of the report also, as each had their own ambitions in the Pacific. In the post-war era, these would be advanced through becoming the mandatory powers – administered through the League of Nations’ – in Samoa, New Guinea and Nauru.

That British imperial reputation was at stake in debates about indenture was also important to the White Dominions. By the first decades of the century, the ‘problem’ of indenture within the British empire had been increasingly difficult to ignore. By the interwar years, it would attract renewed significance thanks to the League of Nations’ Slavery Convention and the Forced Labour Convention of the International Labour Organisation that followed. Already in 1910 the Sanderson Commission had been established by the Colonial Office to investigate indenture in the British colonies of Mauritius, Jamaica, Fiji, and Natal (and also in Sri Lanka in relation to traditional forms of unfree labour). The commission found that indenture was a humane form of labour, as long as it was operated efficiently, and properly administered from recruitment through to monitoring conditions at destination. To achieve the required standards, the commission recommended a series of reforms. Andrews and Pearson would show five years later that the system of indenture from India into Fiji had not been improved: it remained far from just or efficient, and, in reality, created untold suffering in the lives of individuals while demeaning the reputation of the Indian people in general. Their findings contributed to the decision by the government of India and by British authorities to end indenture from India to Fiji, already suspended, following the war.

This article continues in our Long Reads section.

Visiting Scholar

by Ella York

Today’s Public Lecture Masculinity, romance and ‘temperate heroism’ given by Dr Alison Twells as part of the Gender Seminar Series was well attended at the Victoria Square campus.

Further information and video will be available online soon under our past events tab.

The Journey Begins …

by Jane Haggis

83 years ago today, at some point before lunch, a group of young Indian women boarded the Italian liner Conte Rosso, docked at Bombay (today’s Mumbai) en route to Venice, Italy.  The  figures in the grainy photograph on our home page and header give us little idea of these women as people or their historical significance.  But fuzzy faces in old photographs arouse my curiosity. I am impatient to get to know what I can of these women and their travels; to bring some clarity to that photograph and pin down what makes the image so evocative to me.

For the next four months this group of women would travel around Europe under the care of the tour leader, Mrs Alexandrena Datta. The tour was part of  a series sponsored by the International Student Service or ISS; a Christian organisation  based in Geneva, with a commitment to interfaith and apolitical cultural co-operation.  The 1935 tour was the second, with two others in 1937 and 1938. So far, we  know most about the 1935 tour thanks to Mrs Kuttan Nair’s journalism and a set of scrapbooks in the British Museum in London. The scrapbooks, kept by Mrs Datta, are preserved amongst her husband’s extensive personal papers, bequeathed to the library by their son (more on the Dattas’ later in our project).  The scrapbooks, large and hard covered, include not only photographs of places visited and people met on each tour, but papers revealing something of how the tours were organised, including the names of the women and their places of origin and even reading lists recommended to the women as homework prior to their departure. Because the scrapbooks cover all four tours, we know that each tour, while varying in places visited and people met, followed a similar format that makes the 1935 tour typical.  However, the scrapbooks are pretty thin on personal details or stories, except for snatches of interviews sometimes found in the press articles carefully glued on to the pages amongst the photographs.

What we know

What these slim resources tell us about the women who went on these tours is that they were diverse – from different parts of India and ethnic groups as well as faiths. They were on the whole either teachers or students, although some appear to have been practising doctors on their way to do further studies in Europe. Some were married, some single. For the most part, they appear to have been youngish women in their twenties and thirties. Even our grainy  photo of the group departing from Bombay in 1935 indicates diversity. Some wore short hair, still relatively unusual among Indian women of that era; most wore saris, variously draped, with at least one in European attire (apart from Mrs Datta in the front centre).  The albums record the meticulous organisation required to mount such tours. The cost of the 1935 trip was 1600 Rupees which Mrs Kuttan Nair described as “a minimum cost”, suggesting the women were not poor, but neither were they from elite or wealthy backgrounds as their occupational status suggests.

It is, however, Mrs Nair’s articles and book that brings the tour alive as a personal and inter-cultural event. I’ll write more about her accounts of the tour and incidents she describes in later posts. On the anniversary of the tour’s departure, however, here’s a taste of the unpromising start to the adventure for Mrs Nair, as I share her focus on food!

Not a Lunch for ‘Grass Eaters’

‘What we had heard of the comforts and conveniences on Italian ships had raised in me great hopes as far as food, the prime necessity of life, was concerned. A splendid array of choices vegetable dishes with the delicious luxury of pickles and the far famed fruits of the sunny South rose up before my mental vision. But alas! dreams seldom come true  … The dishes served were few and the little that was given far from relishable, while the looks of sympathy cast on us by the waiters did little to appease our hunger. The gloomy prospect of being starved on board the ship was by no means welcome and some of us were already beginning to feel depressed and homesick. 

Four of the women, including Mrs Nair, were ‘grass eaters’ or vegetarians. But our hero was saved as she reports the food was much better the next day so starvation was averted and spirits brightened.

Dr Gahlot

by Ella York

“Dr Miss Gahlot of Jodhpur the first Marwari lady to go to England. She means to continue her studies in medicine.” appeared in an April 1935 issue of The Hindustan Times. While Dr Gahlot was not part of one of Mrs Datta’s continental study tours, it is worth noting the manner in which her achievements were acknowledged.

Mrs Kuttan Nair

by Ella York

“Mrs Kuttan Nair, a well-known social reformer of Kerala, one of the members of the party of Indian women teachers and students who are in Europe now.” as published in The Hindustan Times 24 June 1935.

Mrs Kuttan Nair published a series of articles about the Continental Study Tour, of which she was a member, in The Hindustan Times. These articles were drawn from her diary which was later published as A Peep at Europe and is a seminal text of the work being undertaken by Jane Haggis as a part of this ARC grant.

Continental Study Tour

by Ella York

Taken from The Hindustan Times Saturday 25 May 1935; ‘Continental Study Tour: A batch of 20 women and girls from all parts of India sailed from Bombay for a Continental tour May 23. Mrs Datta who will be in charge is third from the right (sitting).’

Finding this on microfilm was truly an exhilarating moment – here was this group of women whom we’d been reading about and discussing over several months.