When a wife made a refreshing change from a shotgun

Gender and Empire
April 1, 2005

The natives say that another caste of Englishman has come out."

Thus Indians contrasted the imperial official who felt "secure with a favourite hogspear in his hand, and a double-barrelled Purdy slung across his shoulders" with the new type who could be "seen walking with his arm around his wife's waist in the bazaar". Assumptions about relations between sexes, races, metropole and periphery, such as the above comment by G.O.

Trevelyan in 1864, have long lurked in writing about empire. But in the past generation, a burst of feminist scholarship, represented here by 12 contributors, has brought gender to the heart of the matter. Clarity of expression and historical specificity are keynotes of this volume in the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion series, edited by Philippa Levine and elegantly concluded by Antoinette Burton's essay on the archive and its future.

The book opens with surveys of the past three centuries.

Kathleen Wilson brings out the fluidity of gender in arresting paradoxes: the closing, not opening, of opportunities for emigrant women in the US; or the maternalist policies introduced by slave-owners two centuries before European schemes. The poignancy of historical change is not lost in the formidable range of Catherine Hall's chapter. In 1815 a clerk to Canada's Northwest Company was happy to marry the daughter of an Okanagan chief.

Thirty years later, her dark skin made her a social embarrassment. Barbara Bush has fascinating material on the "feminising" of the African empire in the 20th century. But though African manpower was not exploited in the First World War, the assertion that Africans and Caribbeans were banned from bearing arms would have surprised the Sierra Leone regiment in Cameroon or the West Indian units in Egypt and France.

Among the topical essays that follow, Alison Bashford brings out the protean role, at home and in the colonies, of medicine of control and of protection. Levine, writing on sexuality, subtly dissolves conventional boundaries. When she writes of Kenyan leaders and white district officials in the interwar years having reasons to encourage female circumcision, we are reminded of its continuing practice in the US. Violence is a theme and a chapter. Jock McCulloch takes us beyond the statist tradition of Weber and Elias. Urvashi Butalia examines the human, legal and constitutional claims of the 100,000 women raped and displaced in the Indian Partition.

Fiona Paisley's work on Aboriginal families sadly links Western Australia with the most sinister regions of the 20th century.

Overall, Australia is well represented, the Islamic world hardly at all.

There is little space for comparison with other empires. In the treatment of missions, for example in Patricia Grimshaw's chapter, there is a lack of class analysis. Middle-level argument is strong; James Hammerton condenses an entire book into a chapter on migration. But the developing field of gender studies may inhibit big hypotheses such as that of Kenneth Ballhatchet (1980); or the question of what we are to make of the fertility declines spreading from western Europe after 1870.

The accessibility, the surveys of recent research and the provocative juxtapositions of much of the writing should guarantee a wide readership among teachers and students of British and imperial history. And what student of politics could be content with a gender-neutral analysis of nationalism after reading Mrinalini Sinha's chapter? The book's strength is that, while the multifarious centrality of gender is shown beyond contention, there are few pages that do not provoke debate. There is no sign of the celebratory finality that some found in the Oxford History of the British Empire .

Lionel Knight is head of history, City of London School.

Gender and Empire

Editor - Philippa Levine
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 306
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 19 924951 2

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