What The Steward Did: an unexpected glimpse of ship board life

by Jane Haggis

By the end of that first day on board the Conte Rosso, squidged into a tiny second class cabin with three previously unknown women, hungry for the lack of vegetarian options at meals, tired and a little dispirited, Mrs Kuttan Nair wrote:

‘As I retired to my cabin, I was too listless to listen to the story of a “fiend” that stalked the corridors in the form of a steward peeping into the cabins making faces at and frightening, the girls. … I went to sleep.’

The next day, she awoke feeling brighter and cheered by the much improved fare for the ‘four grasseaters’ in the group, and the courteousness of the Italian crew which ‘soon made us feel at home on the steamer’. Later in her account of that day however, she notes that ‘the incessant complaints from our neighbours (other women on the tour) about the strange steward who went about frightening them, did disturb us a bit’. Mrs Kuttan Nair, married and around 27 years old at the time, notes most of the group were young women ‘who had not, till then, stirred far beyond their homes and they seemed to be really upset in spite of our assurances that they were as safe as if they were at home’.

I had to read that sentence twice. What? I am a twenty first century feminist reader, immersed in the #MeToo campaign on social media. How is a strange man making frightening faces at young women through the door of their sleeping quarters ‘safe’? especially when the man is an employee of the ship, charged with serving them as guests. Look at the photo below, a second-class cabin was tiny and any face peeping around the door would loom large to the young women inside. Before I could think too much about this, the writer returned to the issue with more detail.

Citation to be updated; Conte Rosso second class four berth cabin

I was in the cabin lying on my berth reading Lalaji’s Unhappy India when something like a scream and the sound of loud voices from the adjacent room, roused me up. I almost threw down my book and jumping down from my bed rushed out. Well, there stood the much-talked-of individual surrounded by my friends, trying to scare him with threats and warnings of a fearful kind. He seemed to have been caught red-handed in his usual game of making grimaces at members of the ‘weaker’ sex on the boat.

Mrs Kuttan Nair thought it best to join the group ‘while the culprit stood listening to us with a calmness that amounted to stoic indifference’. When the girls paused in their remonstrances, the steward, in a form of broken English that stretched their powers of comprehension, ‘delivered a short sermon on the necessity of young women developing the indispensable virtue of courage and a better understanding of human nature. Then without any apology or any expression of injured feelings, he solemnly marched out of the room, leaving us thoroughly baffled.’

The story gets curiouser and curiouser however, at least for this feminist reader. Not long after the earlier incident, the same steward entered the author’s room, uninvited and unannounced, to ask where they were landing in Italy. ‘Then without further invitation from us, he immediately started expiating on the beauties of his motherland, indifferent whether we listened to him or not’. In a segue I find odd, Mrs. Kuttan Nair responds with what she refers to as a ‘sudden idea’ and asks him if he has seen Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy. ‘The effect was magical. The round face with a decided squint in the eye lost its philosophic (sic) calmness. It became all animation.’ Thence followed a brief conversation about the various virtues of Mussolini on his part and their mutual admiration of Gandhi, whose secretary Mahadev Desai, he had met on a previous voyage. Mahadev Desai was Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary and a notable Indian Independence activist in his own right.

By now, the steward has a name, Mario. Mario turns his attention to analysing the problem with India as having too many religions, unlike Italy “all Catholics – no trouble.” Mrs Kuttan Nair makes a tart response, asking him about the Fascist regime’s treatment of Socialists. The conversation ends with a ‘fervent request’ from Mario and another surprising response:

‘“Please tell the girls, miss, not frighten – I no bad. I same, you same – no fear,” and of course we felt rather small in the presence of the chivalrous young Fascist with his exalted notions of the ‘sameness’ of life.’

Mario and his antics disappear from the narrative with the observation that he ‘is now quite a popular figure amongst us. He knows we trust him and even the younger girls treat him as a human being. His hands are full, yet … he finds time to assume the role of teacher towards us’, including imparting some Italian to them. She concludes by noting that it is only occasionally they surprise him ‘sipping a rather suspicious-looking liquid, but then, he is too gentlemanly not to turn round and politely add, “Only rum, miss, very good for Malaria”’.

What captures my attention about this shipboard anecdote is the lack of surprise, urgency, dismay or anger conveyed by Mrs Kuttan Nair about the steward’s behaviour. Neither her friends nor her seem to have reported his behaviour to their tour leader, Mrs Datta, or to the shipboard officers. Was this seen as ordinary male behaviour, even by someone equivalent to a servant in terms of his role, and therefore barely worth complaining about? Did the fact that he was a European and they were newcomers to shipboard life, inflect Mrs Kuttan Nair’s account of the women’s responses? On the other hand, these young women were not passive in the face of the steward’s frightening behaviour. As she records, the women encircle the man ‘trying to scare him with threats and warnings of a fearful kind’. So, is Mrs Kuttan Nair’s way of casting the anecdote a reflection of how the women dealt with men behaving badly? The story certainly suggests these women were no pushovers!

So far this is the only account of Mario the steward I have unearthed. I dream of someone emailing me about the stash of letters they have of their great-great aunt or grandmother’s trip to Europe on the Conte Rosso in 1935 ….

Cosmopolitan and International: Interwar Networks in the Australasia-Pacific

by Fiona Paisley

In my chapter in our joint book Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire, I look at some of the ways in which liberal internationalism enabled forms of faith-based cosmopolitanism. With India and Australia as my focus, I consider the role of international conferences as embodied sites that enabled the cosmopolitan aspirations of mobile subjects and encouraged forms of mobility along routes of exchange and affect. At the same time as these routes and pathways were anchored in imperial, colonial and gender relations that ascribed to hierarchical notions of development and progress, by the interwar years they were challenged by new ideas about cultural difference and the problem of industrialization and mechanisation in the west.

One liberal international concern in this era was for the conditions of industrialization in relation to the Indian diaspora in the Australasia-Pacific region. In response to concern within the Indian National Congress about the conditions of Indians in Australia and the Pacific following the official end of indenture to Fiji, or living in White Australia, Kotanda Rao, a leading member of The Servants of India, embarked on a tour that saw him lecturing in Australia in 1936. Rao had recently attended a major conference-seminar on education convened in Honolulu that considered among other topics the legacies of imperial education in India. Rao’s speaking engagements as reported in the Australian press reflected contemporary debate about the proper treatment of Indians as British subjects yet non-white subjects in White Australia. Rao spoke also on the relative advancement of the west and the impacts of industrialization in his own country as elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific.

Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 10 November 1936 p10
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW 1842 – 1954), Tuesday 10 November 1936 p10

Indeed, the urgency of humanising (western) modernity was a common topic of discussion in these circles. Following a brutal world war, in the face of globalisation, along with hopes for new gender relations based on social justice, the reconfiguration of international relations was considered by their participants as an essential element in world peace. The humane management of modernisation rapidly taking place around the world would entail also the rehumanisation of modernity more broadly. To this end, conferences in the Pacific region (like the education conference in Hawai’i in 1936) aimed to bring together internationalists, activists and professionals to discuss some of the most pressing questions of their day. Thus numbers of Australian and South Asian, as well as Pacific Islander, delegates debated the future of world government, the emergence of cosmopolitan race relations; education and employment; and the devolution of empire. Pan-African and Pan-Asian networks have been rightly identified as central in formulating these questions over previous decades, including with European allies in the World Missionary Movement and Young Men’s and Women’s Associations.

By the interwar decades, the Institute of Pacific Relations and the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association emerged as two key venues originating in Y and Christian missionary networks into Asia and South Asia. Here women and men performed ‘interracial cooperation’: they engaged in the exchange of information, the sharing of reform agendas, and the formations of ‘friendship’.[ India and Indians featured in both, as South Asia was considered a pressing example of how British rule (or more broadly colonial relations) should be urgently reformed in cooperation with local leadership. More specifically, India’s Dominion status within the British Commonwealth should be managed peacefully. At both the local and global level, a faith-based ethics (Christian and ecumenical) along with the social sciences was to enable new respect for difference while ensuring the (supposedly) positive impacts of development along culturally-appropriate lines. Settler colonialism would not end, nor would colonial authority where it was deemed necessary (for now): such was the racializing perspective of the white liberal internationalist informed by the latest in the social science of race relations.

White Australian women in these cross-cultural networks were supporters of Indian Dominion status within the British Commonwealth. Some were inspired also by the non-violence espoused by Mohandras Gandhi, the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, and the theosophical movement of Annie Besant. Bessie Rischbieth provides a case in point. As the president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, she embraced the idea of Eastern influence in world civilization as a humanizing force in an increasingly mechanistic age. Reforming race relations – with other civilisations in Asia but also with the ‘lesser’ races in the settler colonies – were central to her Christian social science worldview. Rischbieth was international and national critic of the status and conditions of Aboriginal people in interwar Australia, advocating an end of white violence and abuse, and Commonwealth oversight over Aboriginal lives.

Active in the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association, Rischbieth attended a conference of the All-India Women’s Association held in Madras in 1930. The association was led by the British theosophist Margaret Cousins and conferences were attended by leading women from around the world. Important among them were Indian women. For example, at the conference that year was Sarojini Naidu, the Civil Disobedience activist involved in forming the Women’s Indian Association. Naidu, who had been the first Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress and president of the East Africa Indian Congress of 1929, gave a keynote at the India Women’s Conference in London in 1930 and Rischbieth was in the audience. She later described her speech as ‘revolutionary’ in its resolute assertion of Indian independence. While in India, Rischbieth visited also the Sabarmati Ashram, established by Gandhi in 1915. On her return to Australia, Rischbieth presented a lecture in which she reminded her audience that ‘the British Empire is not the White Empire’ and expressed her hope that in future, India within the British Commonwealth would offer ‘the greatest link’ between East and West.


See Paisley, ‘Cosmopolitan Modernity and Post-Imperial Relations’ in Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire.

For more on the international education conference held in Honolulu in 1936 see Julie McLeod and Fiona Paisley, ‘The Modernization of Colonialism and the Educability of the “Native”: Transpacific Knowledge Networks and Education in the Interwar Years’, History of Education Quarterly, 56:3 (2016): 473-502.

And for more on the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association see Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific: Cultural Internationalism and Race Politics in the Women’s Pan-Pacific ,(University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).

Henry Polak and his sources

by Margaret Allen

In Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950, (with Jane Haggis, Clare Midgely and Fiona Paisley) I wrote about Henry Polak (1882-1959) ‘a British-born lawyer, journalist and activist who campaigned on behalf of Indians across the British Empire against racism and discriminations, in the first half of the twentieth century.’ He worked closely with Gandhi in South Africa, edited Gandhi’s newspaper, Indian Opinion from 1905-16, took part in the campaign to end Indian indentured labour around the British Empire and then both as a lawyer to the Privy Council and through the Indian Overseas Association, which he helped found, campaigned for Indians around the empire to enjoy their rights as British subjects.

Source: Golden Number of Indian Opinion 1914: Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa, 1906-1914, Courtesy Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie
H.S.L.Polak; Source: Golden Number of Indian Opinion 1914: Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa, 1906-1914, Courtesy Professor Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie

I first came across Polak of the Indian Overseas Association writing to the Colonial Office on behalf the Queensland cane cutter Addar Khan, who was appealing his conviction under the discriminatory Queensland Sugar Cultivation Act (1913). My curiosity was sparked, who was this Polak and how was he involved on behalf of Indians in Australia? I soon found that he communicated with a bewildering number of people and organisations in Britain, India and around the Empire. I was able to research papers on Polak at both the British and Bodleian Libraries. I found that his letters could be traced through a number of collections, including the Sapru Papers, Gokhale’s papers, Gandhi’s correspondence, and India Office, Foreign and Colonial Office Files. Unable to spend the time to trace Polak through these files, I longed to locate the records of the Indian Overseas Association. Here I expected to read the letters from Indian activists around the Empire, in the United States and across the diaspora. However I was to be disappointed, for Gregory notes that these ‘voluminous files’ were destroyed in World War Two.[1]

But then with all the happenstance of research, I investigated Australian library holdings relating to Polak through the data base, Trove.

There, in the University of Sydney Library, I came across: S. Durai Raja Singam, H.S.L. Polak – Friend of Gandhiji, (Singapore: self-published, 1957). This was a roneoed compilation of a number of Polak’s writings and a short biography by the author.[2] It also comprised obscure publications, such as the first Gokhale Society Publication namely lectures on ‘India and the Dominions’ by Mr. Polak and Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, first published by the Allahabad Leader (1917). This slim work, of course, did not compensate for the loss of the records of the Indian Overseas Association, but Singam wrote of the regard with which Polak was held: ‘His name is a household word among Indians in India, Ceylon and South Africa.’

This ephemeral work threw up other questions. Who was S. Durai Raja Singam and how did this self-published work get into the Sydney collection? It was written at the time of the White Australian Policy when Australians apparently had little interest in their Asian neighbours. However the author’s inscription to Marie Byles, provided the probable answer. Marie Byles (1900-1979), an Australia solicitor and conservationist, travelled widely in Asia and became a Buddhist. She visited Gandhi’s ashram and in ‘The Lotus and the Spinning Wheel (1963) … she set the teachings of Gandhi alongside Buddha’s and saw both as necessary in the modern world.’[3] Like Polak, she was rather cosmopolitan in her outlook.

As I compiled this blog, my questions about S. Durai Raja Singam (1904-1995) were begun to be answered. Thanks to Google, I found information about an exhibition by Dr. Niranjan Rajah at the University of Malaya on Singam’s work on Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Sri Lankan philosopher and art historian. Here Singam was described as ‘a Malaysian scholar, historian, biographer and bibliographer of high international regard who collated, wrote, designed and published books on various topics.’[4] It seems that S. Durai Raja Singam, a secondary school teacher, was yet another cosmopolitan.

[1] Robert G. Gregory, ‘H.S.L.Polak and the Indian Overseas Association’, Vivekananda Kendra Patrika (Madras) February 1973, note 10, p. 38.

[2] The frontispiece records that ‘Hundred copies were duplicated for the Author by Kwok Yoke Weng & Co, 22 The Arcade, Singapore, 1).

[3] See Heather Radi on Marie Byles at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byles-marie-beuzeville-9652

See also http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0298b.htm

[4] See Koboi project, https://koboiproject.com/2017/11/16/the-gift-of-knowledge/

P&O Massilia

by Ella York

P&O Massilia was launched in 1884, although other sources cite 1891, weighing in at 2,9695 tons. In this instance I have preferenced information obtained from P&O heritage. Although their archives hold sparse information on the ship, included is a photograph dated April 1884 on the occasion of her maiden voyage, ‘MASSILIA (1884) leaving the Thames on her maiden voyage’ and a charming crew photo from 21st October 1889 There was an earlier vessel, also the Massilia built in 1860 for P&O’s Southampton/Alexandria service.

P&O Massilia courtesy of P&O Heritage
P&O Massilia courtesy of P&O Heritage

SK Datta first travelled to Europe aboard the Massilia to attend both the 5th Meeting of the World’s Student Christian Federation and the 15th World’s Conference of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Norway. Both his mother and his aunt approved as it was during the vacation period from his studies and would not interfere with their plan for him to complete. This required Datta to travel from Lahore to Bombay (Mumbai) for departure to Europe. Once he arrived in Bombay (Mumbai), his was disappointed with having to wait for 10 days for departure. The Massilia sailed from Bombay (Mumbai) 1 July 1902, stopping in Aden and then through to Marseilles where Datta disembarked. 1902 passenger lists are elusive at this time, especially when it comes to passengers embarking or departing outside of the UK!

From Marseilles, Datta travelled to Sorø, Denmark. He was invited there as a delegate to 5th World’s Student Christian Federation conference commencing 1 August 1902. Datta then travelled to Norway for the 15th World’s Conference of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Norway, held 20 Aug 1902 – 24 Aug 1902. Other WAYMCA delegates included Annie M Reynolds, Morse, Karl Fries, John Raleigh Mott, von Moltke, WC Chen, Uichiro Sasamori, Fred B Shipp, James Stokes, Oscar Carl August Bernadotte (President), Munck af Fulkila Ebba Henrietta.

Datta returned to India 1 October 1902 and the Massilia was later scrapped in 1911.

Writing this post has drawn from the Heurist database we are creating. This database is a significant project outcome, with the references used from Barns’ biography SK Datta and His People held at the British Library. Future posts will cover our work with Heurist, I’m especially looking forward to sharing geographic and network maps.

Adventures of SS Conte Rosso

Ella York

I was fortunate enough to exchange a handful of pleasant and informative emails with David Asprey of the Caledonian Maritime Research Trust early in February as a result of looking for images of the SS Conte Rosso. At the time we began communicating, my interest in the Conte Rosso was tethered to its role in transporting the women of the Continental Study Tour which left Bombay(Mumbai) for Europe 23 May 1935. However, since that time, the Conte Rosso has appeared again in our research as the ship SK Datta had previously travelled the same route.

W.Breadmore & Co, Ltd advertisement early 1920s

Conte Rosso was built in 1921 in Glasgow by W.Beardmore & Co, Ltd for Lloyd Sabaudo of Italy. Named in honour of Amadeus VII, Count of Savoy, the ‘Red Count’, Conte Rosso was noted for extravagant Italian interior decoration. The designers included an al fresco dining area, unusual for the era due to much of its sailing being in warmer climates. There’s some discrepancy as to the exact size although conservative reports have Conte Rosso at 18,017 gross tons, overall length of 588.2ft x beam 74.2ft, two funnels, two masts, twin screw and a speed of 18 knots the Conte Rosso was an impressive ship indeed. There was accommodation for a total of 2,356 passengers on board, split across 342 first, 214 second and 1,800 third class and an unknown number of crew. Launched on 10 February 1921, this image is a touched-up version of a photo (only seen in a poor newspaper version), taken for the shipbuilder during the ship’s speed trials in the Firth of Clyde on 13 – 14 February 1922.

SS Conte Rosso speed trials, Firth on Clyde 13 – 14 February 1922

Conte Rosso would have then sailed to Genoa to embark on her maiden voyage to Naples and South America on 29 March 1922. After this voyage, she commenced sailings from Genoa to Naples and New York on 15 May 1922. In 1925 accommodation for 188-economic second class passengers was added and on 27 February 1928 she commenced her last Genoa – New York crossing.

One of the photos particularly caught David’s eye as he knew immediately where it was taken – the port of Rio de Janeiro with the liner moored by the entrance to the Passenger Terminal. David shared his recollections of cooling off quite a few times with a cold beer there in the 1980s and 90s.

SS Conte Rosso moored at the Passenger Terminal, Rio de Janerio 1928-1932

It was from David that I learned the building was completed in 1926 by French architect Joseph Gire in art-deco style; the liner is in Lloyd Sabaudo colours but, apart from one voyage in 1922, she did not serve the South America route until 1928. This detail narrows down the photo to 1928-1932.

In 1932 Conte Rosso was taken over by Lloyd Triestino of the Italian Line. That year, due to the depression and widespread unemployment, the major Italian shipping companies were combined into one state controlled syndicate under the name name Società Italia Flotte Reuniti. Lloyd Triestino was a part of this syndicate.

That same year Conte Rosso commenced the Trieste – Bombay – Shanghai route. As it were, this was a major escape route for the Jewish population of Germany and Austria as Shanghai was one of the few places that did not require paid emigration visas. Quite unexpectedly, on her recent research trip to the India Office archives at The British Library, Jane Haggis came across a familiar name showing that within the first few months following the transfer SK Datta was a passenger on Conte Rosso. I’m looking forward to finding out more from her about this journey! UPDATE: SK Datta took 8 pages of notes on Lloyd Triestino Conte Rosso blue notepaper and wrote in blue ink en route to Shanghai. These are dated 22 February 1932 and are pinned together.

SS Conte Rosso early 1930s following transfer to Lloyd Triestino, location unknown

Around the same time as I began talking with David, I also started another series of conversations with Mary Filsell at Flinders University Library about the Conte Rosso. I was wanting some assistance in gaining access to passenger lists. That search continues, however, now have located some shipping schedules. Although the brochures are missing for May-June 1935 for Conte Rosso, they’re still lovely aesthetically!

Access to May – June 1935 brochures would provide a useful chronological supplement to what we have already learned about the 1935 Continental study Tour lead by Mrs Rena Datta and their time on board.

October 1935 Conte Rosso became a troopship during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Conte Rosso returned to service into the Second World War. On 24 May 1941 she was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine HMS Upholder while 16 kilometres from Sicily with the loss of 1,212 lives.

The Europe They Visited

Jane Haggis

The 1935 tour’s itinerary was extensive, cutting a swathe through a Europe that was about to tip over into war. One of the recommended readings for the tour was a book titled Will War Come in Europe? The Japanese had already invaded Manchuria in 1931; Hitler was re-militarising Germany and Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in October 1935. Indeed, the build up to the invasion of Ethiopia looms large in Mrs Nair’s accounts, as they do in the issues of the Hindustan Times her accounts appear in. Indians such as the women on this tour and the readers of such newspapers were clearly interested in, concerned and up-to-date about international affairs even as 1935 was an important year in India’s struggle for independence and freedom from its colonial overlords.

Mrs Kuttan Nair

While Mrs Nair and her colleagues were touring Europe, the British Parliament was debating a revised Government of India Act, passed in August of that year, just as our travellers returned to India. This Bill was hugely important to the Independence Movement in India, although its results, while delivering a degree of constitutional autonomy, fell far short of Indians’ hopes. The tour group was fortunate enough to visit Westminster to hear parts of the debate. Mrs Nair also records that the women attended an informal discussion on the Bill in the evening, with special reference to the “opportunities for Indian women to serve their country under the new Constitution”’. The audience was a mixed English and Indian group and Mrs Nair asserts that the tour participants ‘made it clear that we were by no means satisfied with the franchise extended to us’, especially the limitations which prevented suffrage to the wives of ‘educated men’ while ‘those with military and property qualifications – conservative elements – have been granted the right to vote’.

Continental Study Tour group when they left for Europe 23 May 1935

Already some of the fuzziness of our photograph is receding. These women were a reasonable cross-section of educated middle-class women in 1930s India. They were metropolitan and provincial in background and adventurous enough to apply for the tour and consider a lengthy period away from home, family and country. None of the women on the 1935 tour knew each other before they met in Bombay. They were also, as Mrs Nair’s report of their public participation in London suggests, supporters of Indian independence and female suffrage and not averse to voicing their opinions to strangers in a strange land.

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!

United Theological College Bangalore Research Visit

by Margaret Allen

When in India in February/March 2019 I was able to do some research in the library of the United Theological College in Bangalore. This college is said to be the first ecumenical theological college in the world, being founded in 1910, in the spirit of the World Missionary conference held in Edinburgh in the same year.

Margaret Allen outside the library of the United Theological College in Bangalore.

The conference took stock of Protestant missionary activity and recommended co-operation between and even joint ventures to be supported by the various Protestant churches and missions. The conference was supportive of the growth of indigenous churches in the place of western directed missions, which had developed in Asia, Africa and the Pacific and encouraged the development of indigenous leadership. The foundation stone of the central administration building was laid by the American, John Mott, who had ‘initiated and chaired the [Edinburgh] conference.’[i]

Photograph of Foundation stone by John Mott, taken and supplied by Margaret Allen

The gracious buildings in a lovely garden setting are reminiscent of an American liberal arts college, perhaps a sign of the source of its finance in those days. One building is named the Azariah wing, for V.S. Azariah (1874-1945) the first Indian Anglican Bishop and an important figure in the development of the Indigenous Indian National Missionary Society. In his speech at the Edinburgh Conference he confronted the racism and paternalism of much of the missionary movement famously pointing out that :

‘The problem of race relationships is one of the most serious problems confronting the Church today’.  He asked the missionaries to change their attitudes towards Indians, to be ‘not a lord and master but a brother and a friend…..We ask for love. Give us friends.’

Azariah wing United Theological College Bangalore

The naming of another building after the Nobel Prize winning Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, echoes the post-1910 approach of more progressive Christians to build communication with Hinduism and other Indian faiths.

In our project Beyond Empire: Transnational Religious Networks and Liberal Cosmopolitanisms we are exploring the affective relationships, which developed in particularly between Indian Christians and non-Christians and Western Christians and missionaries in the period c 1890-1940s, as they worked together to advance common projects.

Around 11am each morning the arrival of the chai man on his motor-bike, draws readers and researchers to gather on the library steps to talk over chai or coffee. Along with degrees in Theology and Divinity and college offers a diploma in Women’s Studies and a Diploma in Young Men’s Christian Association Professional Secretaryship. Students come from across India with a significant proportion drawn from the North East, including from Nagaland. It seemed to me that these friendly and collegial discussions on the library steps echoed the directions, which saw the establishment of this college.

United Theological College Administration Building, Bangalore

[i] Renate HOWE, A Century of Influence: The Australasian Student Christian Movement,1896-1996,  p. 98.(UNSW Press, Sydney, 2009)

S. K. Datta on ‘India and Racial Relationships’

by Margaret Allen

Race was very much on the agenda during the 1920s.

White settlers societies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States had set up ‘The Great White Walls’, which prohibited in varying degrees movement of people of colour across their borders.  During World War One, colonized peoples could hope that Woodrow Wilson’s notion of national self-determination would bring them freedom. However their hopes were dashed with the rejection of the race clause at Versailles. In East Africa, Indians and Africans were campaigning against white privilege.

Scientific Racism ‘was resurgent’ and the importance of white dominance was strongly proclaimed in two widely read works, Lothrop Stoddard The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy (1920) and Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, (1918).[i]

In India, any goodwill from the British government’s moves towards some limited provincial self-government, was dispelled by the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, where troops fired on unarmed civilians, killing up to a thousand and injuring many more. Hostility to British rule increased and Gandhi’s non co-operation movement gathered strength. Indeed around the world colonised peoples were beginning to understand their strength.

Progressives within the Christian missionary movement increasingly saw the need for Indigenous leadership and friendship between Indians and western Christians. Racism needed to be critiqued and rejected. Indeed Joseph Oldham, a key figure in these tendencies within international Christianity explored racial prejudice in his work. Christianity and the Race Problem published in 1924. Oldham had become a ‘close and intimate’ friend of S.K.Datta from their first meeting in Lahore in 1897.[ii]

SK Datta courtesy of Records of YMCA International Work in India. Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota. Biographical files, Box 43

This article continues in the Long Reads section.

[i] M. Lake and H. Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008), pp. 312-5.

[ii] Keith Clements, Faith On The Frontier, A Life Of J.H. Oldham, Edinburgh : T &​ T Clark ; Geneva : WCC Publications, 1999. 44

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.