×

How a Scottish graveyard in Kolkata revealed the untold stories of colonial women in India

A group of Scottish nurses who worked in a local government hospital in Calcutta in the mid-19th century. Author provided

How a Scottish graveyard in Kolkata revealed the untold stories of colonial women in India

A group of Scottish nurses who worked in a local government hospital in Calcutta in the mid-19th century. Author provided

How a Scottish graveyard in Kolkata revealed the untold stories of colonial women in India

A group of Scottish nurses who worked in a local government hospital in Calcutta in the mid-19th century. Author provided

How a Scottish graveyard in Kolkata revealed the untold stories of colonial women in India

A group of Scottish nurses who worked in a local government hospital in Calcutta in the mid-19th century. Author provided

These were selective narratives from a particularly male perspective and presented colonisers as transforming social benefactors installed to provide a civilising influence.

Sayan Dey, University of the Witwatersrand

When I was a child growing up in Kolkata, I would hear stories about the European colonisation of Bengal – the precolonial name of India’s West Bengal. These were selective narratives from a particularly male perspective, and presented colonisers as transforming social benefactors installed to provide a civilising influence. The rich histories of Indian philosophy that were once associated with religion, education and health were replaced by the colonial philosophy of conversion, modernising and improvement.

But it was not just European men; women too played a pivotal role in normalising colonisation in Bengal in the 19th century. The wives and daughters of merchants, engineers, ministers, doctors and architects came to India and not only supported their husbands and families, but took on what they saw as humanitarian roles where they felt they could be useful in the community.

But you wouldn’t know this from reading any European colonial histories of Bengal, because the stories of these women have largely been ignored. The majority of existing narratives about the Scottish influence on the colonisation of Bengal reduces women to just “partners”, or those who came to India “because they wanted to find husbands”.

My research rediscovers the stories of such women interred at the Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata, the West Bengal city that was once the administrative HQ of British India (previously called Calcutta). I wanted to highlight and explore these forgotten social histories through a “hauntological” perspective. Rather like a ghost, these unearthed stories were a returning of the past to “haunt” the present.

By uncovering the complicating histories of colonial women, I wanted to highlight the challenges of the decolonial gaze, which seeks to counter traditional historical narratives created by colonisers. In other words, the untold stories of the Scottish women in Calcutta revealed in my documentary (below), returned to the present to disrupt the accepted interpretations of European colonial history in West Bengal. This now invites people to engage with a different and overlooked perspective of the period.

While their husbands were building, buying, managing and administrating British India, wives and daughters were working in hospitals, teaching in schools and helping to provide community services. But their efforts and contributions went unacknowledged in the historical unfolding of empire.

Disagree with this article?
Create an Opposing View
Add Related Article