Agents of change, children of empire

At the Heart of the Empire
November 26, 1999

Political events ranging from the breakup of multinational, multi-ethnic units such as the Soviet Union and intellectual currents, especially the prominence of cultural history, have focused considerable attention on how national and individual identities are constructed and experienced. At the Heart of the Empire considers these issues with regard to the British nation, the relationship between British and imperial politics and culture,and the development of Indian nationalism and identity in the decades between 1880 and 1914.

Antoinette Burton examines the experiences of three Indian visitors to southeastern England as evidence for a provocative but carefully developed argument that British domestic and imperial politics and culture were intimately related and that black people were a significant, although unacknowledged, presence within British society long before the more well-publicised large-scale post-1945 emigrations from the West Indies, Asia and Africa.

The trio includes Pandita Ramabai, a Brahmin widow who arrived in 1883 to study medicine but went to Cheltenham to prepare as a teacher, in order to establish a home in western India where Hindu widows could be trained to be self-sufficient.

In 1889 Cornelia Sorabji, a Parsi Christian and thus incorporating an unusual degree of hybridity, also travelled to England for a medical education but studied law at Oxford and became a legal adviser to secluded Indian women in Bengal.

In the summer of 1890 Balramji Malabari, a Parsi social reformer, came to propagandise in support of legislation to raise the age of consent to sexual relations for Indian women from ten to twelve, to reduce child marriages.

Although all three were deeply committed to reform projects related to Indian women, each had distinctive attitudes towards social reform, Indian nationalism and British culture.

In a close analysis of their letters and published writings, Burton delineates how their respective experiences in Cheltenham, Oxford, and London shaped their identities as women and men, as Indians, and as constituent members of the British Empire.

Thus Ramabai converted to Christianity but articulated a powerful critique of institutional Christianity. Although Sorabji was an Anglophile and careful to distance herself from Hinduism, she elaborated a public persona as the authentic Indian woman through dress, public speaking and her uniqueness as the first Indian woman to achieve a law degree.

While he was perceived as a colonial spectacle during his extensive exploration of metropolitan London, Malabari consciously asserted his masculinity when he assumed the roles of social investigator and flâneur through which white, British males were also signifying their masculinity by mastery of the public space of urban streets.

Simultaneously Malabari's masculinity was protective of Indian women and selectively identified with the feminine when he campaigned for legislation to reduce child marriages.

Burton illuminates how personal identities were not fixed and homogeneous,that the national identity of individual Indians evolved both in England and in India, and that British national identity included heterogenous elements long before the late 20th century. This book is both a recovery of lives of Indians in late Victorian England and a probing, feminist challenge to the dominant historio-graphy of the British nation and the British Empire that constructs the British nation for much of the 19th century as homogeneous and fixed and the empire as detached, despite a decade of scholarship that undermines such assumptions.

Barbara Ramusack is professor of history, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, United States.

At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain

Author - Antoinette Burton
ISBN - 0 520 20958 3
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 293

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