A Comparison between the experience of European men and women in the colonial periphery, by Mohammed Farhan

Mohammed Farhan
Mohammed Farhan


A Comparison between the experience of European men and women in the colonial periphery.

By Mohammed Farhan


When looking at the experiences of European men and women in the colonial periphery, it would be expected that these experiences would be informed by the notions of the roles attributed to men and women in European culture at the time. This essay will be focusing on roles assigned to men and women in the process of empire building by looking at various sources written by both European men and women engaged in the periphery of empire, and at the same time it will attempt to explore any attitudes towards these roles as the Empire developed and try to establish any connections that may be relevant.

Starting with the experiences of men in the colonies this essay will look at an example of life in the colonies written by of E. Jerningham Wakefield who had travelled to New Zealand in 1839, upon his return to England in 1844 he published his accounts of his adventures in New Zealand based on his own diaries. The first impression Wakefield gives is of a male dominated society; there is hardly any mention of any women apart from a couple of times were women are mentioned in passing mainly signifying that they were present, however none of their actions appear to warrant any mention, at least not in Wakefield’s opinion.

In this extract Wakefield describes two incidents of note, the first a visit to a farmstead belonging to a Mr. Bell, the second is his recollection of the Wairau Massacre. Beginning with his visit to Mr. Bell’s farm, there is mention of this Mr. Bell having a wife and some children, however it is very apparent from Wakefield’s wording that the farm belongs to the patriarch of the family. Wakefield describes Mr. Bell’s struggle to “tame” the land, detailing both his struggle with nature and against the indigenous population. Wakefield states that Mr. Bell was in the process of cultivating the land but that ‘he had not succeeded in eradicating the fern this first year, and a good deal of it was up among the corn’ (Wakefield, 1955, p.1) This gives a clear description of the hard work involved in being a male settler in one of the colonies.

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Wakefield then caries on to describe Mr. Bell’s struggles with the native population, particularly with regards land claims. One of the main problems Mr. Bell faced with regards the natives was that whilst he was ‘fair, kind and good tempered’ the native inhabitants were ‘conniving’ (Wakefield, 1955, p.2). Regardless of the racial implications in this extract it is very clear that one of the main difficulties and challenges facing the male settlers in New Zealand was the issue of communicating with and understanding the native people from a different culture. However, according to Wakefield Mr. Bell was able to overcome these issues and by the end his native adversaries ‘honoured him as much for his knowledge as they had learned to stand in awe of his courage and resolution’ (Wakefield, 1955, p.3). This gives a very interesting insight in to what sort of behaviour was expected of a man in the colonies.

The second part of the extract from Wakefield; the Wairau Massacre had its routes in a land dispute between the British settlers, and the native New Zealand Tribes. According to Wakefield to tribal chiefs, Rauparaha and Rangihaeata, felt that the British, represented by Captain Arthur Wakefield, had no right to the Wairau plain. However, Captain Wakefield disagreed with them saying ‘Rangihaeata was a mere bully and that his threats were only noisy vapouring’ (Wakefield, 1955, p.3). It was agreed that this land dispute would be settled by the British Land Claims Commissioner. However in the meantime Captain Wakefield decided to go ahead with the survey of the land in anticipation of the ruling. Rauparaha and Rangihaeata’s response to this was to forcibly expel the surveyors and burn the huts that they had built on the Wairau plain to house them as they conducted the survey. This resulted in a warrant being issued against Rauparaha and Rangihaeata for the destruction of property. This incident offers another example of some of the difficulties faced by the settlers in New Zealand when dealing with the native inhabitants, and stresses the friction that sometimes arose due to the differing cultural practices. In this particular case the main friction comes from the attempt by the settler community to force the native population to conform to the laws and customs of the settler community, particularly involving land ownership, which itself is imported from the core.

This difficulty is further illustrated when later on when the magistrates confronted Rauparaha with regards the warrant against him and Rangihaeata for the destruction of property, even though it appears from Wakefield’s description of the situation that both sides wanted to avoid any violence, the brake down in communication and the fact that each party was following a separate set of customs and traditions when dealing with conflict resolution resulted in the Wairau Massacre.

Even though both the examples that Wakefield has given us in this extract have been edited with publication in mind, and therefore have been presented in a way as to reflect Wakefield and his interests in a positive manner, and furthermore are from a highly partisan point of view; they do give use a valuable insight in to how life in the colonies, and particularly in New Zealand in the mid eighteenth century, was experienced by Wakefield and give us the opportunity to view events from his perspective. It is very plain to see that from Wakefield’s view point the main role of an English man in the colonial periphery was to push forward the boundaries of the empire, with force if necessary as the example of the Wairau Massacre shows. And once settled in the newly acquired land a man’s role is to then defend it from and native incursions and to turn it in to a European style farm through hard work and superior European know how, as illustrated by the account of Mr. Bell and his farm.

Now moving on to an example of a woman’s life in the colonial periphery this essay will now focus on The Complete Indian Housekeeper written in 1890 by Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner. In the late nineteenth century there was a stereo type for the middle-class white woman, particularly in India of a lazy, indolent master’s wife (Loftus, 2009, p.248). An excellent depiction of this stereo type can be found in the image of the magistrate’s wife being attended by her servants published in Captain George Atkinson’s account of life in the hill stations of India (Loftus, 2009, p.248). The image shows a middle-class white British woman being pampered by her Indian servants, one of whom appears to be massaging her feet and legs as the other brushes her hair, as she lays reclined on a wicker chair. As a counter to this stereo type there were several house hold guides written and published especially for British women in empire (Loftus, 2009, p.249).4

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Steel and Gardiner felt that they had the authority to give advice as they had both lived in India. It is evident from their advice they believed that the colonial wife must take an active role in the management of the house hold, ‘Steel and Gardiner argue that housekeeping in India requires the ‘arduous work’ of household management and a degree of professionalism’ (Loftus, 2009, p.249). However, Steel and Gardiner do concede that not all mistresses in India hade the same standard when managing the household, they state that ‘while one mistress enforces cleanliness… the next may belong to the opposite faction, who, so long as the dinner is nicely served, thinks nothing of it being cooked in a kitchen which is also used as a latrine’ (Steel and Gardiner, 1890, p.1). This statement not only indicates their opinion regards the ‘lazy mistress’ and the possible health risks that might arise from such laziness, but it also points to a relatively racist view of the local Indians; regarding them as being dirty and unsanitary if left to their own devices.

Steel and Gardiner, after discussing the draw backs to being a lazy mistress, then move on to discussing the actual work involved in being a success at managing the household. They claim that as ‘Easy… as the actual housekeeping is in India, the personal attention of the mistress is infinitely more needed here [in India] than at home’ (Steel and Gardiner, 1890, p.1). Steel and Gardiner qualify this statement by explaining that as soon as the mistress were to be absent or neglect her duties, then the Indian servants would quickly fall back in to their old unsanitary habits, as according to them they believed that those habits were inherent to the Indian servants. This they claimed was necessary at least for ‘a few generations of training’ until the Indian servant was started ‘on a new inheritance of habit’ (Steel and Gardiner, 1890, p.2).

Throughout the extract from Steel and Gardiner the Indian servants are referred to as if they were children in need of education and discipline. The best example of this attitude toward the Indian servants can be seen in the last paragraph of the second page, ‘To show what absolute children Indian servants are, the same author has for years adopted castor oil as an ultimatum in all obstinate cases, on the ground that there must be some physical cause for inability to learn or to remember’ (Steel and Gardiner, 1890, p.2).

Moving on to the actual responsibilities that Steel and Gardiner believe the mistress of the household should perform, they range from the management and discipline of the servants to the keeping of accurate financial records of the household expenditure. Steel and Gardiner express their dismay at how many women are lacking in the ability to keep accounts, they believe it is essential that ‘in keeping accounts, a mistress must take the lead, and knowing the proper prices of different articles, and the amount which ought to be consumed, set aside all objections with a high hand’ (Steel and Gardiner, 1890, p.6).

It is clear that from the point of view of Steel and Gardiner that it is of the upmost importance that in the running of the household an ordinary European routine should be maintained, and that it is to the benefit of the of everyone that the English way should be assimilated. However they do acknowledge that there are certain limitations to the ability to maintain an ordinary European routine, but that any changes must be kept to a minimum (Steel and Gardiner, 1890, pp.3-4).

Throughout this extract Steel and Gardiner maintain the importance of the role of the mistress, however towards the end they do set a limitation on this by acknowledging that a ‘good mistress will remember the breadwinner who requires blood-forming nourishment, and the children whose constitutions are being built up day by day’ (Steel and Gardiner, 1890, p.6). This statement firmly places the position of the mistress of the household as subservient to the master of the household and responsible for the upbringing and health of the children.

Steel and Gardiner place the role of the woman firmly within the context of the running and maintenance of the empire, the ‘household was imagined as a microsite of government’ (Loftus, 2009, p.250).

In conclusion, both the sources this essay has focused on have provided an insight in to the roles that at least some people felt were important for both men and women in the colonial periphery. When examining Wakefield’s description of life in New Zealand, it is evident that he felt the role for European men in the colonial periphery was first the expanding of the reach and influence of the Empire, and then once this had been achieved the next role of the European man is to make the land productive in a European fashion and protect it from any rival claims from the indigenous populations.

As for when examining the extract from The Complete Indian Housekeeper, Steel and Gardiner made the argument that it is the responsibility of women to not only maintain the household for the master of the house, but to also export the ideals and beliefs from the centre of the Empire to the periphery. ‘The process of establishing claims to land is seen as masculine, a result of exploration, conquest and the art of politics, but the process of embedding imperialism is seen as requiring feminine attributes, a process of reproductive and ideological change’ (Loftus, 2009, p.244).





  • Donna Loftus (2009). Men, Women and Empire. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

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