Men may have conquered an Empire, but it was women who set its tone and style. Driven by economic necessity, by family ties by a sense of duty or even sheer adventurousness, women did more than stamp settler colonies with hallmarks of Victorian respectability: they found unprecedented opportunities to heal, convert, explore - and even to indulge in the occasional eccentric impulse.
Empire building has been traditionally regarded as a male enterprise. Kipling in his poem “The Feet of Young Men,” wrote:
He must go - go - away from here!
On the other side of the World he is overdue.
The same sentiments were expressed more robustly, in the Victorian music-hall at the time of the Boer War when audiences sang:
Have you heard how centuries ago, boys
Young John Bull all at once began to grow, boys
Learnt to walk and packing up his things
Broke away from Mammy's apron strings
Joined in the scramble, sailing far and wide
Building an Empire way beyond the tide.
John Bull stood for more than just Britain: he represented those sturdy British males - privateers, trader, explorers, administrators and soldiers - who for three centuries had built and extended the Empire and whose names filled the pages of history books. But this idea of a male monopoly was an illusion. The British Empire was fashioned by women as well as men; their contribution to its character was both significant and enduring.
British colonisation overseas began when the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth to New England in 1620. From the earliest days of the American frontier, women were found working alongside the male colonist, sharing the struggles, the disappointments and the triumphs of the Pilgrim Fathers. Their steady faith and courage played no small part in the evolution of the North American colonies from a harsh wilderness into a peaceful society.
However relatively few women were to be found in the other parts of the British Empire in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In India, where East India Company officials were laying the foundations of the British Raj, there was little place for wives either. Life was dangerous and it was thought impossible to expose Englishwomen to the horrors of the Indian hot season.
In the 19th Century the picture changed. Most important, there was a new wave of family emigration to Canada, to Australia and New Zealand, and to South Africa. Men were looking outwards to the tempting empty lands across the sea where hopes for the future seemed so much brighter than they did in Britain, then troubled by serious unemployment. Once the decision to emigrate had been made, their womenfolk went with them into a dauntingly unknown future.
At the same time, women began to accompany, or join, their men folk in the tropical Empire, where Britain was still an occupying rather than a colonising power. The largest number went to India. By the early 19th Century, the pioneering days were over and peace was being established under white rule. With the opening of hill stations, women could escape from the worst of the climate. Later in the 19th Century, an increasing number of white women found their way to West Africa, to Middle East Asia and to South-East Asia also. But in comparison with India, they were few and the notorious unhealthiness of West Africa was sufficient to deter all but the most dedicated.
In the tropics women made their mark chiefly in a traditional subordinate role - as the wives, daughters and sisters of the company officials, military men and civil servants, who had previously been living a bachelors existence in India and elsewhere. The changes they wrought were on the lives of their menfolk; putting them under pressure to drink less, to give up native concubines and generally remember they were respectable Victorian husbands and fathers. British women had less effect on Indian society at large for, in contrast with the women who went out to the settler colonies, they did not see themselves as a permanent part of this strange country. Indeed, they went to considerable lengths to isolate themselves socially, and so far as possible, physically, from the unfamiliar and often hostile world in which they were obliged to live.
Quite separate from the wives and daughters and sisters of the male Empire-builders, however, there was another smaller group of women who went out to the tropical Empire where they played a very different role. They went as individuals in their own right, the majority of them as missionaries and as nurses. Most of the women who went out to these jobs left no record, but their contribution to the history of the Empire was also a vital one. And finally, there was the handful of women who emerged as the embodiment of Bernard Shaw’s “new women”. Some were exotic and perhaps a little eccentric, but they proved that a determined, well-educated woman, who had contact with the governing elite, could, by what she wrote and said, influence imperial attitudes and even alter the course of imperial history.
As immigrant settlers in Canada the first thing a family had to do was build the cabin, and the woman had to transform it from a crude functional shelter into a home. Furniture was needed and 12 painted Canadian chairs could be purchased for 50 shillings. Where money was really short, however, she improvised. A bedstead of coarse cedar poles and a linen bag filled with hay or dried moss may not have been too comfortable, but it was better than sleeping on the floor.
The life of settlers in Canada was harder than anything they had experienced in Britain and, even with a good iron stove, a log cabin was little protection against the bitter February cold. Poverty remained an ever present threat. A single fire or flood could wipe-out years of effort in a matter of hours. It was then that disease was most likely to strike the undernourished and ill-clad family.
For the middle-class ladies the social life was meagre in comparison with home. In the towns. There were parties, balls and sleigh-rides in the winter season.
But at least, by dint of hard work it was possible for a lady to maintain standards, which made Canada a very much more attractive place in the yes of respectable ladies than outlandish places like Australia, for over Australia there hung the heavy cloud of its convict origins.
However it was the immigration of free men and women that made the largest contribution to the colonies development. Free immigrants were able to obtain subsidised passages to some colonies from 1830, and they started to land in their thousands from 1850 when gold was discovered. Despite the toughness of the frontier life, early Australian society tended to be very class-conscious - largely thanks to the efforts of the wives and daughters of the officers and officials who also made the colony their home. Often from very ordinary beginnings themselves, they set themselves apart from the women transportees, determined to establish an “Antipodean society” of families unblemished by the convict taint.
As free immigration developed, as the children of convicts and gold-diggers grew up, as the new colonies - South Australia, Victoria and Queensland - were established with little or no convict element, so the pattern changed. By the mid-nineteenth century, women were carrying out their normal role as the champions of family life and public morality. Guided by the Churches, reacting against the brutality of early Australian society, they adopted the conventional standards of suburban mid-England. In the end they achieved as decisive a victory over drink and bawdiness as the Canadian women had won over the wilderness.
In New Zealand there were no convicts, and most settlement from 1840 on was organised by colonising companies. Having seen propaganda pictures circulated by the companies, the settlers arrived believing their land was already surveyed and allotted and expecting a minimum of hardship. If they were too poor to buy land, they thought there would be ample paid work.
But in the North Island things were not at all like this. It was soon discovered that most of the land the New Zealand Company claimed to have ‘bought’ from The Maoris had not been bought at all, and if it had, the Maoris did not understand that they had sold it and refused to accept white occupation. Settlers and their wives had a difficult 30 years
In the South Island however, there were few Maoris and, in place of inhospitable forest there were the grasslands of Canterbury - an endless expanse of tussock and bush. Here, if anywhere, a woman of character and modest means could hope to enjoy the positive advantages of settler life
19th Century emigration poster
Though most women who left England to travel out to the corners of the Empire went to join their husbands, they were, nevertheless, accompanied on their liners and steam trains by other groups of women who were driven by a sense of personal mission.Some, like the missionaries to the East went because they were sure God was calling them; some, more interested in the bodies than the souls of the Queen-Empress’s subjects, went as nurses; some were simply looking for the sheer excitement of discovering new people and places.
Some lady explorers were once greeted at a party with the patronising words, “Three Globe Trotteresses at once!” The remark was typical of the jocular attitude most men - and women, took to the strange breed of lady travellers. Nevertheless, from the 1870’s , more and more women were escaping from their restrictive Victorian upbringing into the freedom of the Empire. Some, like Lady Stone, insisted on accompanying their husbands to the remote corners of the Empire; others took off on their own. May French Sheldon travelled East Africa on foot at the head of 150 porters. Mary Kingsley paddled a canoe among the cannibal tribes of Nigeria and Fanny Bullock Workman rode a bicycle through the Himalayas.
Many of the lady travellers were feminists, anxious to prove they were as good as men. They were furious to find that the ultimate accolade for explorers, a Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society, was denied to them until 1933. Nevertheless, even without recognition, these women, mostly middle-aged and often ill, travelled all over the world to reach places where no European male had set foot.
Florence Nightingale did more than just revolutionise the practice of nursing by her work in the Crimean War and after: she also made it possible for a gentle-woman to follow a paid profession, and women of all classes eagerly took up their opportunity to minister to the sick and dying of the world.
Until Miss Nightingale’s reforms, most women working as nurses in the Empire were first and foremost missionaries. Even if the mission did not have a hospital attached to it, the missionaries were never without their box of medicine brought from home. The intrepid West African explorer and trader, Mary Kingsley extricated herself from a tense situation with a threatening chief by successfully lancing an abscess on his mother’s arm.
From the 1870’s however, non-religious hospitals began to be established, staffed largely by British nurses. After a long struggle for recognition lady doctors became accepted and, by 1896, there were 50 qualified women doctors in India alone, one of whom was the Chief Physician of a hospital in Bombay.
Life was hard on the frontiers of Empire, especially in the gold-fields and diamond-mines of Canada, Australia and South Africa. No “Lady” in her right mind was going to make her life out there - but the men needed women. And women they got - tough girls flocking out in their thousands in search of wealth, fame and excitement, to work as dancers, barmaids, actresses and prostitutes. They had to work hard for their money, starting with the journey to the diggings. The women who went to the Klondike had to climb mountains and cross frozen passes; before the coming of the railway in 1894, the Kimberley girls had to trek to Johannesburg in ox-wagons. But once they arrived at their destinations, the pickings were good. Men who had been poor all their lives were digging fortunes out of the ground and, dizzy with wealth, were paying in nuggets and diamonds for everything from girls to groceries. The whores may not have had hearts of gold, but they certainly had pockets full of it.
There was a world of difference between the settlers colonies and the Tropical Empire. In New Zealand’s South Island, for example, young British families found many compensations for the hardship of winter. There were long rides in clean air and open country, ample sport and sailing on Lake Coleridge , skating and camping..
Occasionally they would taste civilisation in Christchuch. Although this was a dull little provincial town by British standards, there were shops, dances, amateur theatricals and plenty of private entertainments. For all of the very hard work and occasional tragedy, it must have been a tremendous experience to be a young and vigorous woman, with the security of some money behind you, in the first years of the Canterbury settlement, when everything was still new.
In the tropics things were very different, and during the pioneering years, women played no part. The British were there to fight, to rule, but not to settle, and since they believed all this was best done without the help of women, many left their wives and family behind. This was the world of Kipling’s strong men. In those days the men lived as bachelors. Although they tried to maintain what they regarded as British standards, they tended to adapt themselves to the alien society in which they lived: many found native concubines; others became interested in native language and customs; in the East, some adopted native dress off duty. These contacts were closest in places such as the Middle East and southern Asia where Europeans often found much in common with those they were sent to rule - with Indian rajahs and fighting men from the North-West Frontier, for example.
As life in a tropical colony became safer and a small community of administrators soldiers and traders, grew up in the main ports and towns, a trickle of wives came out to accompany their husbands. Later still, especially n India, single unattached women - know as the “fishing fleet” went out to find husbands where women were in short supply and marital competition less intense than at home.
India was the first tropical country to which British women went to live, and wives, daughters and sisters of East India Company officials, military men and civil servants had been going out there since the 1760’s. Gamely they packed the sofa and the washstand, the looking-glass and the chest of drawers for the voyage. During the voyage, the women could also reflect on what would have to be done for their children. By the time the children were seven (sooner if possible), they would have to go back to Britain since a British education was considered essential. Their mothers would have to reconcile themselves to a painful separation unless, of course, they returned home themselves with the children - which meant leaving a husband who might seek consolation from an Indian mistress. Some had to leave the children at home from the outset. Middle course was recommended by some old Indian hands. Three years with the children and three years with the husband, never leaving either for any longer. Even in an age accustomed to long separations from those they loved, the prospect must have been a disheartening one.
In Africa, as well as in India, British women lived out their lives against a “dusky background,” in the words of a 19th century euphemism. But in Africa - particularly in West Africa - there were too few of them to have any appreciable effect upon the quality of colonial society Their reluctance to go to West Africa is not surprising: known as the “White Man’s Grave,” it offered little in the way of blandishments, at least until the 1860s the appalling voyage out could take as long as three months.
It was not until the 1890s that wives of Europeans took advantage of the new steamer service and began to arrive n West Africa in any numbers - only to discover, in many cases, that their menfolk had grown weary of waiting and enlivened the passing years by taking a black mistress. The existence of a concubine and worse, a black one, must have been a shocking blow to the sensibilities of a wife fresh from Britain.
Nor were black concubines the only shock in store at the conclusion of the journey to West Africa. Dysentery, jaundice, Asiatic Cholera, Typhoid, Malaria, Blackwater fever and Yellow fever made survival a chancy affair. The humid heat, too, was terrible.
As in India the British helped keep homesickness at bay by dressing for dinner and celebrating Christmas with plum pudding. Circumstances were against them, though. The introduction of bottled perishables in 1840, tinned meat in the 1860s and frozen meat in the 1880s might have made life easier for the ambitious hostess, but successful dinner parties were nonetheless rare, for it was hard to ignore the insects and the determination of the gentlemen to become as drunk as possible.
For the woman whose eventual destination was not West Africa but the Cape, life was considerable less difficult. There were more Europeans, the climate was better, there was a lower incidence of diseases and plenty of servants. Admittedly the ‘indolence stupidity and wont of tidiness’ one newly arrived wife accused them of, threw many proper Victorian women into despair. What the servants lacked in quality they made up for in quantity which left the ladies free to pursue genteelly robust activities like gardening and tending the more docile of the livestock.
Not that all the women who went to South Africa had time for exotic pastimes. From 1820 a new. Tough breed of settlers started arriving at the Cape and for them life was the familiar, grinding round of hard work and child-bearing. These strong resourceful farm women were surprising adept at coping with childbirth without doctors, whether it occurred in a crowded immigrant ship or an upcountry station.
With the expansion of frontiers, a gradual change took place in the role that women played in South African society. Towns that had been little more than frontier posts became centres of inland settlement life, with coffee- houses and assembly-rooms to demonstrate there newfound respectability. As in Australia, however, there were still too few women to go round, and in 1862 the Female Middle Class Emigrations Society was set up to speed the flow of unmarried governesses to South Africa who could eventually be expected to marry and settle there.
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