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Good Sports and Right Sorts: Guns, Gender, and Imperialism in British India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2014


In the early 1920s, a young British woman visiting India met the man she would subsequently marry. As the woman's daughter later revealed, she and her companions “were just sitting down to dinner when he came in through the door and one of the bearers came forward to take his gun and clean it, but my father would have none of that. He always cleaned his own gun before he did anything else. This impressed my mother.” If the narrative halted here, the contemporary reader might construe the story as yet another example of traditional gender dynamics. The love-struck young woman admiringly observes the male imperialist's competent, professional handling of his firearm, symbol both of his mastery over the colonized Indian landscape and its people and of his masculine sexual prowess. In this instance, however, the young woman was no passively adoring female quivering before this symbolic display of male power and sexuality. She herself, as her daughter revealed, had been “brought up with guns” and was a “crack shot.” Her admiration for the man who would become her husband stemmed not from feelings of awe or feminine inadequacy but rather from her cool assessment that here was someone who was her equal—and could be her partner—in hunting, shooting, and handling of firearms. Indeed as their daughter recalled, the successful marriage between these two gun aficionados was based in part on the wife's participation in her husband's hunting duties as an officer in the Indian Forest Service.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference of British Studies 2001

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18 Discussing the experiences of the Dutch in Indonesia, Frances Gouda posits the existence of “a gendered, if permeable separation” between public and private in both Europe and the colonies; however, she also argues that “housewives in the Netherlands itself possessed more leeway in endowing their ordinary routines with a satisfying content. If they wanted to do so, middle-class wives in Holland could engage in charitable activities or take part in church circles or book clubs. Middle-class women could attend an array of conceits and visit museums and the theater or, if they lived in large cities and were bold enough, might participate in suffragist politics.” Gouda, , Colonial Practice, p. 158Google Scholar.

19 Steel, Flora Annie, The Garden of Fidelity (London, 1929), pp. 160–61Google Scholar. The Islington Commission noted that in 1913–14 there were forty-eight “Women's Appointments” in the Education Department out of a total of 633 positions. Royal Commission on the Public Services, Report of the Commissioners (London, 1917), p. 8Google Scholar.

20 Joan Allen, “Plain Tales from the Raj,” interview, tape recording, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, N.Y.

21 These issues are more fully explored in Procida, Mary A., “Married to the Empire: British Wives and British Imperialism in India, 1883–1947” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1997)Google Scholar.

22 Mary Ann Lind has analyzed a very limited sample of fifteen Anglo-Indian women who “took an active role in social reform and in welfare activities” by, for example, bringing medicine to Indian villagers or interacting with Indian women while on tour with their husbands. While Lind sees these activities as demonstrating Anglo-Indian women's devotion and compassion, they fall far short of the level of commitment demonstrated by many women in Britain at this time who were actively engaged in social welfare, as either professionals or volunteers. Lind, Mary Ann, The Compassionate Memsahibs: Welfare Activities of British Women in India, 1900–1947 (New York, 1988), p. 2Google Scholar. Antoinette Burton's discussion in Burdens of History of feminists' uses of the “civilizing” discourses of imperialism centers on British women, not Anglo-Indians.

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24 See, e.g., Katherine Smith-Pearse, interview, tape recording, British Library, Oriental and India Office Collections, Mss Eur R202.

25 Women's ability successfully to enact this transformation is predicated on the difference between biological notions of sex and mutable social constructions of gender that, according to Joan Scott, lie at the heart of gender history. Scott, Joan Wallach, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), p. 29Google Scholar. In his essay on Lawrence of Arabia, Graham Dawson similarly discusses a converse example of gender transformation, noting that “Lawrence himself is often presented in a distinctly feminine light.” Dawson, , “The Blond Bedouin,” p. 137Google Scholar.

26 British women in West Africa “often became ‘honorary men,’ were treated no differently by the Africans than were British men and were often referred to as ‘Sir.’” McEwan, , “Encounters with West African Women,” p. 88Google Scholar.

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28 Greenberger, Allen, The British Image of India: A Study in the Literature of Imperialism, 1880–1960 (London, 1969), p. 29Google Scholar. Mrinalini Sinha has argued that the construction of the categories of effeminate Bengali and manly Englishman similarly solidified imperial power in the hands of the British. Sinha, Colonial Masculinity.

29 Plumwood, Val, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London and New York, 1993), p. 5Google Scholar.

30 In 1881, when the British undertook the first all-India census, the British-born population consisted of 77,178 men and 12,610 women. Census of India, 1881, vol. 4, Statistics of British-born Subjects (Calcutta, 18811884)Google Scholar, Form I. In 1931, the year of the last complete census under British auspices, there were 110,137 male British citizens and 45,418 females. Census of India, 1931 (Delhi, 1932)Google Scholar, Table 19. The representation of men in the resident Anglo-Indian community is overstated in these figures, since the British army maintained a large, if transient, presence in India. In some areas of the Indian empire such as the hill stations, the numbers of British women equaled or exceeded the number of British men. Kennedy, , Magic Mountains, p. 7Google Scholar.

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32 SirJeffries, Charles, Partners in Progress (London, 1949), p. 156Google Scholar. See also Conklin, , “Redefining ‘Frenchness,’” p. 80Google Scholar.

33 Hervey, H. J. A., The European in India (London, 1913), p. 201Google Scholar (emphasis added).

34 On women's incorporation into husbands' work, see Callan, Hillary, “The Premiss of Dedication: Notes Towards an Ethnography of Diplomats' Wives,” in Perceiving Women, ed. Ardener, S. (London, 1975)Google Scholar; Callan, Hillary and Ardener, Shirley, eds., The Incorporated Wife (London, 1984)Google Scholar; Finch, Janet, Married to the Job (London, 1983)Google Scholar.

35 “There was never any question of a married Memsahib doing a job.” Mrs. K. Mullan, interview, transcript, University of Cambridge, Centre of South Asian Studies, MT8, MT9.

36 Ibid.

37 Chitty's husband instructed her in riding and also taught her to school horses for polo. Chitty, Anna, Musings of a Memsahib (Lymington, 1988), p. 3Google Scholar.

38 Quoted in Ledzion, , Forest Families, p. 111Google Scholar.

39 Birdwood, Lady Vere, “Plain Tales from the Raj,” interview, tape recording, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, N.Y.Google Scholar

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46 Although Eden did not herself shoot a tiger she was well aware of her extraordinary status as a woman on a big-game hunting trip. She wrote, “Certainly this expedition has quite answered to me in point of pleasure. Then I am rather proud of having seen a tiger killed, because, except for Mrs. Cockerelly, there is not another woman in India who has, I believe.” Quoted in Dunbar, Janet, Golden Interlude: The Edens in India, 1836–1842 (Boston, 1956), p. 81Google Scholar. Savory, Isabel, A Sportswoman in India: Personal Adventures and Experiences of Travel in Known and Unknown India (London, 1900)Google Scholar; Mrs.Tyacke, Richard, How I Shot My Bears, or Two Years' Tent Life in Kalluf Lahoul (London, 1893)Google Scholar.

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56 Mrs.Mills, J. P., “Memoir,” p. 10Google Scholar, Mills Papers, University of Cambridge, Centre of South Asian Studies. Grace Seton similarly wore “Jodpur [sic] breeches, heavy boots, a Viyella shirt, a double terai (felt hat) a spine pad” as her normal hunting attire. Seton, Grace Thompson, “Yes, Lady Saheb” (New York and London, 1925), p. 132Google Scholar.

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58 Chitty, , Musings, pp. 2627Google Scholar.

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63 The one exception was in the North-West Frontier Province where the British were continuously embroiled in conflict with tribes along the borders of the empire. The British believed it imperative to keep guns out of enemy hands; weapons and ammunition were carefully accounted for and soldiers placed under strict orders to retrieve all lost weapons from the battlefield.

64 Other types of hunting that did not require the use of guns were also popular. Emulating the British squirearchy, Anglo-Indians rode to the hounds, although their quarry was the indigenous jackal rather than the fox. Pig-sticking, a dangerous sport involving the spearing of a wild boar with a seven- to nine-foot long weapon (shooting the “pig” was considered unsporting) was also popular, particularly among army officers. Anglo-Indian women participated in both sports.

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68 See Pandian, “Gender Negotiations” for a detailed analysis of this method of hunting.

69 See Thompson, E. P., Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (New York, 1975)Google Scholar, for a discussion of the social and cultural dynamics of eighteenth-century legislation against poaching in Britain. For a summary of the various laws regulating hunting in England, see Whitehead, Kenneth G., Hunting and Stalking Deer in Britain through the Ages (Pomfret, Vt., 1980), pp. 161–85Google Scholar.

70 MacKenzie, , Empire of Nature, p. 283Google Scholar.

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74 Mrs. M. Ravenscroft, interview, transcript, University of Cambridge, Centre of South Asian Studies, MT34. She also recalled that her father was “so ashamed” when she and her mother “constantly won all the prizes.”

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78 R. Pearson speculates that the East India Company, which governed India until 1858, preferred middle-class men because they would accept the self-discipline necessary to imperial service. Pearson, R., Eastern Interlude: A Social History of the European Community in Calcutta (Calcutta, 1954), p. 9Google Scholar.

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84 Inderpal Grewal discusses how Indian nationalists stood this symbolism on its head by associating the zenana and its female inhabitants with the Victorian virtues of home and hearth. Grewal, , Home and the Harem, p. 25Google Scholar.

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86 In the second half of the nineteenth century, for example, tigers killed 1,600 people per year. A single tiger was capable of destroying cattle worth £600–£700. The British government in India offered rewards for killing tigers of fifty to 200 rupees per animal, as well as lesser amounts for the killing of panthers and leopards. MacKenzie, , Empire of Nature, pp. 180, 182Google Scholar.

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90 Ibid., 115. Women were apparently often called upon to shoot dangerous animals that wandered into the compound, particularly mad dogs. See, e.g., Smith-Pearse, interview; Queenie Mansfield, letter of 1 July 1923, Mansfield Papers, University of Cambridge, Centre of South Asian Studies. One woman even had to shoot her own dog after it had been bitten by a rabid animal and her husband proved too squeamish to undertake the task. Martin, , Out in the Mid-day Sun, p. 172Google Scholar.

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94 John MacKenzie similarly points out the connection made by Baden-Powell and the Boy Scout movement between training hunters and creating soldiers. MacKenzie, , “The Imperial Pioneer and Hunter,” pp. 176–98Google Scholar.

95 The most significant instance of this increasingly violent imperialism was the Amritsar massacre of 1919, in which British-led Indian troops opened fire on unarmed Indian civilians. For an assessment of Anglo-Indian support of General Dyer, commander of the troops at Amritsar, see Sayer, Derek, “British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre, 1919–1920,” Past and Present, no. 131 (May 1991): 159Google Scholar. Mildred and William Archer, Socialists who supported Indian nationalist aspirations, described their alienation from the rest of the Anglo-Indian community in Mildred Archer, “Memories of the British in India,” interview, tape recording, British Library, Oriental and India Office Collections, and in William, and Archer, Mildred, India Served and Observed (London, 1994), p. 6Google Scholar.

96 See, e.g., the recollections of Nancy Archer-Shee, “Memsahibs' Questionnaire,” University of Cambridge, Centre of South Asian Studies. Although at least one Anglo-Indian woman, Mildred Archer, asserted that few Europeans carried guns (neither she nor her husband was ever armed, although her husband, a civil service officer, did have a police bodyguard during the Quit India disturbances of 1942), my research reveals numerous instances of gun-toting wives during the interwar period. Mildred Archer, “Memories of the British in India.”

97 While particular districts such as Midnapore, where three I.C.S. officers were assassinated by terrorists (one in the midst of a football match) or Calcutta, where terrorists successfully raided a government office building killing several officials, might have been particularly dangerous, it appears that nationalist violence was more apparent than real in most regions of India. The British version of nationalist terrorist activities is presented in Hale, Political Trouble in India; the Indian perspective is set forth in Ghosh, The Roll of Honour. See also Sarkar, Tanika, Bengal, 1928–1934: The Politics of Protest (Delhi, 1987)Google Scholar.

98 Hale, , Political Trouble in India, p. 30Google Scholar.

99 “Had we been in France or Italy I think I should have feared to trust myself alone on a strange country road towards sundown with a crowd of unknown men, for none of my servants were with me; but in Kashmir one so quickly realises what an arrant coward the Kashmiri is at heart, in spite of his physique, that I never once during my stay felt any of that bodily fear which a woman alone is apt to feel in most so-called civilised countries.” Morison, Margaret Cotter, A Lonely Summer in Kashmir (London, 1904), pp. 7071Google Scholar.

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107 Ibid., pp. 33, 35. The extent of women's involvement in violent nationalist activities, however, is tiny compared with the massive female participation in Gandhi's campaign of nonviolence.

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125 Ibid., p. 78.

126 Ibid.

127 Anne McClintock points out the inherent hazards for postcolonial feminisms in misconstruing the lives of Anglo-Indian and other imperial women as feminist: “Films like Out of Africa, clothing chains like Banana Republic and perfumes like ‘safari’ all peddle neo-colonial nostalgia for an era when European women in brisk white shirts and safari green supposedly found freedom in empire: running coffee plantations, killing lions and zipping about the colonial skies in airplanes—an entirely misbegotten commercialization of white women's ‘liberation.’” McClintock, Anne, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism,’” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Williams, Patrick and Chrisman, Laura (New York, 1994), p. 299Google Scholar.