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E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: Commentary

What Happens in this Passage?

Anglo-Indians (i.e. British people living in colonial India) bathed more frequently than did British people in Britain. However, the technological deficiencies of Indian bathrooms meant that Indian servants had to perform many functions that were carried out mechanically in Britain, so that Indian bathrooms never became private spaces in the way that bathrooms in Britain were and Indian servants could gain detailed and intimate knowledge of their British masters and mistresses.

Commentary

Life in British India produced huge numbers of memoirs and journals which are a mine of information for historians. Collingham has used some of these to glean the details she puts into this passage. There is no denying that some of the details, not least the nickname ‘thunderbox’ for a rudimentary latrine, are likely to amuse but Collingham is pursuing a more serious purpose here. She is investigating not so much the details of how nineteenth-century Anglo-Indians washed and relieved themselves so much as how they defined their own personal space within their houses. The investigation of concepts of space is an important aspect of social history, and has been particularly revealing within a colonial context where racial considerations overlapped with the long-established class and gender criteria for the division of space. Here she takes the bathroom, the place where one might have expected absolute privacy, to show that not only was this not the case but that this had an impact upon the relationship between the colonisers and their subject people. The point of the little reference at the end about the sweeper (a very low, menial position) who might know the memsahib (mistress) was pregnant before she knew it herself is not just to raise a smile (which it no doubt does) but to show that Indian servants could use the knowledge they gained through their access to the inner space of the European home and spread it among the locals. This in turn suggests that the power balance between coloniser and colonised could be tipped, even by the most humbly situated servants, to the advantage of the latter.

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