British Imperialism and the Trouble with Native Women’s Histories in Colonial India in the late XVIIIth and early XIXth centuries

This paper explores the incorporation and uses of women within dominant historical accounts of colonial India through an examination of the sexual relationships between British men stationed in the Indian subcontinent and their ‘native’ consorts” – concubines, common law wives, and nautch (dancing) girls – in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Such encounters between the colonizers and a specific subset of the ‘subject peoples’ are both romanticized and at the same time trivialized as frivolous sexual dalliance in much of the extant historiography of that era, when, in fact, as the paper argues, they were a crucial element in the reproduction of the Company’s workforce in the subcontinent. Both the relationships and the women whose sexual and other labor were appropriated through such relationships thus merit more careful attention. The paper also traces some important changes in the terms of interaction between the British and their ‘subject’ populations in the nineteenth century.  It ends with a brief discussion of the ways in which the changing representations of ‘native’ women in colonial discourse in turn influenced subsequent reformist and/or nationalist discourses of the indigenous middle classes on the “woman question” in the nineteenth century.

Mahua Sarkar, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Department of Asian and Asian-American Studies, Program in Women’s Studies, Binghamton University, USA. Author of Visible Histories/Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Re-published in English: New Delhi: Zubaan Books (South Asian edition), 2008.


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