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Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

Chapter 3

‘White Already to Harvest’

South Australian Women Missionaries in India1

Margaret Allen

In rethinking histories of empire, scholars have turned to explore the interrelationships between the metropole and the colony. Thus Catherine Hall has written of the need to understand the ways in which ‘the histories of Britain and empire have been mutually dependent’. She comments,

It was the colonial encounter that made both colonisers and colonised, all of whom are subjects of the erstwhile British empire, sharing a common history, all post-colonial subjects, made by the relations of empire, with identities constituted through different relations to colonial and imperial hierarchies of power (Hall 1995:49).

While colonisers and colonised might be seen as subjects of the erstwhile British Empire, it is important to note differences among the ranks of the colonised. With regard to the Australian colonies, the settlers cannot be seen as being in the same relation to the metropole as Britain’s colonial subjects in, for example, the Indian subcontinent. The settlers were very aware of their whiteness and of the cultural heritage they shared with the metropole.

Accordingly, Leela Gandhi has criticised the tendency of some postcolonial critics to construct an all-inclusive category of ‘colonialism’ which claims that

settler societies stand in the same relationship to colonialism as those societies which have experienced the full force and violence of colonial domination … Equally, they confer a seamless and undiscriminating postcoloniality on both white settler cultures and on those indigenous peoples displaced through their encounter with these cultures.[D] isparate societies such as Bangladesh and Australia, are unified upon the somewhat dubious premise that ‘their subjectivity has been constituted in part by the subordinating power of European colonialism’ (Gandhi 1998:169).

While allowing for the different positions of the settlers in Australia and of Indians in British India, it is also important to note that the Australian settlers, who in some ways were colonised, must also must be seen as colonisers. As Susan Sheridan (1995:166) proposed, ‘Non-Aboriginal Australia’s role as coloniser as well as colonised outpost of Empire demand[s] recognition’. All these peoples within the Empire, the Indians, the British, the Aboriginal Australians and the Australian settlers can be seen as relating to one another within racialised and gendered hierarchies. While historians have focused upon relationships between some people within these hierarchies, other aspects have been ignored.

The highly privileged relationship between the Australian settlers and Britain has been the subject of innumerable works. The attempt to elaborate a separate Australian identity in relation to Britain during the later 19th century and into the 20th century has attracted the interest of scholars in a wide field of cultural and political studies. Feminist literary scholars, in particular, have explored the writing of ‘the Australian girl’ as she was delineated against the outline of her British cousin (Kingston 1986; Sheridan 1995; Giles 1998).

Recently, a considerable amount of work has re-visioned relationships between Aboriginal and settler women and has recognised the complicity of the latter ‘in an imperialist civilising project that saw the near destruction of Australia’s indigenous peoples and their language and culture’ (Grimshaw et al 1994:1). Increasingly Aboriginal writers and others have researched white settler women’s part in the controlling and disciplining of Aboriginal women (Huggins 1987/88; Goodall 1995). Other recent work has identified some settler women who recognised a responsibility to protect the Aboriginal people (Grimshaw 1998; Paisley 1998). A number of researchers have explored the work of settler women such as Mary Montgomery Bennett, who worked in the 1920s and 1930s to bring the exploitation of Aboriginal women to wider notice through imperial organisations such as the British Commonwealth League and the Association for the Protection of the Coloured Races (Lake 1994; Holland 1995; Paisley 1998).

However, discussions around ‘the Australian girl’ and settler women’s relations with indigenous women have rarely extended to include relationships between the Australian settlers and other British subjects within the wider British Empire. Indeed, the relationships that existed between many in the Australian colonies of the 19th century and other extra-metropolitan parts of the British Empire have attracted little attention from historians. Exceptions to this can be found in work by Angela Woollacott (1997) and Ros Pesman (1998) who, in exploring the experiences of white Australian women travelling to Europe, discuss their encounters with non-white British subjects. As Woollacott (1997:1005) puts it, they ‘participated in the racial structures of colonialism’, generally by way of a fleeting encounter in a port of call, at Colombo or Bombay.

In fact, a number of Australian men and women had an enduring relationship with the peoples of the subcontinent. A web of kin networks linked officials of the British army and administration in India with many in the Australian colonies. Trade in a diverse range of goods, from tea to horses, linked Australia and the subcontinent (Kingston 1990). One interesting strand of relationships emerges from the growth of Theosophy in Australia, which saw its adherents travelling to India and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) to work and study. Jill Roe (1986:27, 275ff) has commented on how these links fostered an ‘historically rich Indian perspective’ in Australian awareness until the 1960s.

Strong ties were also developed from the work of Australian missionaries across India. These involved not only those who went as missionaries, but also large numbers of Australian Christians who financially supported these missionaries, read of their exploits in church and missionary society publications, heard them speaking when they returned on furlough, and prayed for them and for those they sought to convert. Although it may often be assumed that Australians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had little contact with India, it could be argued that the scores of missionary-supporting associations in Australia’s towns and suburbs attest to a strong and ongoing involvement.

While there has been some research into the women’s organisations that supported the missionaries (Godden 1997), there has been surprisingly little new work on the missionaries themselves (Gooden 1998). This chapter sets out to situate some Australian women missionaries to India of the late 19th and early 20th centuries within gendered and racialised hierarchies of the contemporary imperial setting. It examines some relationships between the Australian women missionaries and Indian women, before turning to an exploration of Australian colonial womanhood, largely it is as constructed in the domestic and religious novels of the South Australian writer, Matilda Evans.

‘We met with real Australian hospitality in this jungly place’

In 1894, Ellen Arnold, a missionary of the South Australian Baptist Missionary Society (SABMS) left the mission station at Pubna in Bengal to go on a missionising trip in the region, accompanied by an Indian Christian woman described only as ‘Nunda Lall’s wife’. Taking the boat down the Itchamuti River they sought to put ‘the Gospel plainly’ before whomever they met. On one of these afternoons, they spent three hours in ‘continual preaching and singing to a houseful of women and a verandahful of men’ This was a co-operative effort: ‘I sat by the door so that all could hear, and Nunda Lall’s wife sat amongst the women, quietly giving explanations, by the way, to those who did not quite understand’ (Arnold 1894:3). At sundown most of the people left. After a meal Ellen Arnold and her companion settled down for the night and she wrote, ‘We met with real Australian hospitality in this jungly place, the people of the house turning out of their own bed to give us a chance of sleeping’ (Arnold 1894:3).

This notion of ‘real Australian hospitality’ is curious. The house at which they were staying and receiving this hospitality was that of an Indian woman, described only as one of the first patients of Dr Laura Hope, the South Australian Baptist medical missionary. The way the hospitality was described can be seen as invoking its opposite—a cold English reserve, lacking in hospitality. This opposition would have been clearly understood by colonial readers.

The phrase occurs in a letter Arnold wrote in Our Bond, a missionary publication for Australian supporters of the mission. While it is necessary to read the women missionaries’ home letters with their intended audience in mind, ‘a consciousness of their audience clearly affected the interpretation and presentation of their work’ (Rowbotham 1998:254), here is the suggestion, nevertheless, that the colonial women, the Indian and the Australian women might have developed links and understandings in opposition to the British imperial power—that they might have a shared colonial understanding of the superiority of warm hospitality.

This raises a number of fascinating questions about Australian identity in relation to the metropole, about relationships between the Indian and Australian women and about the place of Australian women as overseas missionaries. Might the colonials, the Indians and the Australians, have shared views in relation to the metropole? Would racial divisions make impossible the development of such a common identification as colonials? How might the common Christian faith of the Indian converts and the missionaries cut across racial hierarchies and intersect with the metropolitan-colonial axis? While this brief chapter cannot pursue all these issues, it will explore the Australian women’s missionary vocation in the contemporary imperial setting.

Much of the recent rethinking of imperial history has focused upon relationships between the metropole and the colony and, apart from Catherine Hall’s work tracing ‘imperial identities’ (Hall 1996a:72; 1996b) in the imperial careers of individuals like Edward John Eyre, as they moved across different imperial sites, there has been relatively little work on relations between different parts of the periphery. While missionary activity is often thought of as being carried out by missionaries from the metropole, working within its own colony, here the missionaries came from South Australia, a small colony on the edge of Empire, to intervene within another different colonial site. The South Australian colony was begun in 1836 when British settlers invaded the lands of the Kaurna people and the adjacent lands of other indigenous peoples. In the colony, often described as a ‘Paradise of Dissent’ because there was no established church, the Baptists were a small denomination amounting to 2.9% of the white population in 1860 and 6% in 1901 (Hilliard & Hunt 1986:145). Their smallness did not deter them from branching out into foreign missionary work.

In 1864 the South Australian Baptist Missionary Society was formed at a meeting held at the Flinders Street Baptist Church in the colony’s capital city, Adelaide. Initially these supporters of missionaries confined themselves to providing financial support to ‘native’ preachers in Bengal, but in 1882 it was decided to send out two young women as the Society’s first missionaries to East Bengal. They were to be neither connected nor auxiliary to the London-based Baptist Missionary Society (BMS); rather they were to be independent and responsible to the SABMS. Ellen Arnold and Marie Gilbert were the first two missionaries and were to undertake zenana work. They would seek access to the women’s quarters (zenana) in order to convert the women secluded there.

The two young women spent their first year learning Bengali, while living in the house of George Kerry, agent for the SABMS who supervised the building of a residence for them. Once the South Australian mission house was completed at Faridpur in East Bengal, the two women moved into their missionary district. Here they worked with Indian bible-women and with the ‘native’ preachers, the most prominent of whom was Punchanon Biswas whose visit to South Australia in 1881 had been instrumental in Ellen Arnold’s discovery of her vocation as a missionary (Arnold 1882:145).

Shortly after they were settled in their new home, Ellen Arnold had to go home for health reasons. As she recuperated, she went on a speaking tour thoughout South Australia and neighbouring colonies, recruiting more women missionaries. When she returned to Bengal in 1885, she brought four more women with her. One, Alice Pappin, was to work with the SABMS, while the other three were to establish missions in other regions of East Bengal on behalf of Baptists in other Australian colonies, (Gooden 1998:132–133). In the lore of Australian Baptist Missionary history these five women are known as the ‘five barley loaves’ (Redman 1982:14; Gooden 1998:134), which is a reference to Christ’s miracle of feeding a multitude of people with only two fishes and five barley loaves (John 6 v9–14). The five young Christian women were seen as going forth to provide spiritual food to the multitudes in India.

The South Australian Baptist mission at Faridpur was staffed only by women missionaries until 1887, establishing a pattern of dominance by women which was repeated in the early years of the Baptist missions of other Australian colonies. Rosalind Gooden notes that, at their first missionary convention in 1888 there were 11 women and one man (Gooden, 1998:133). Between 1882 and 1913, Australian Baptist mission societies sent 54 women and only 16 men to the field. A number of Baptist women also joined faith missions, inspired by the model of the China Inland Mission. Thus Amy Parsons from Nairne in the Adelaide Hills, who spent one six-year term with the SABMS at Faridpur from 1888, later joined the Poona and Indian Village Mission (Dover 1964). Ethel Ambrose, an early medical graduate from the University of Adelaide, with her sister Lily, a nurse, joined the Poona mission in the first decade of the 20th century (Hinton 1936).

Hall’s contention that ‘cultural identities are always a construction, are never fixed and essential’ seems particularly apt for these women who might identify themselves variously as British, English, South Australian, colonial, Australian, white, Christian and Baptist (Hall 1996a:70). A number of these Baptist women missionaries were recent immigrants to Australia from Britain. Ellen Arnold was born in Warwickshire, emigrating to South Australia only three years before she went to Bengal (Ball 1994:13). Less is known of Marie Gilbert, but she had also immigrated to Australia some years before Arnold (Gooden 1997; Redman 1982). A number of others were born in the Australian colonies; Alice Pappin, Amy Parsons and Bertha Tuck were all South Australian born (Dover 1964; Collins 1953).

Wild colonial girls?

The category of colonial or Australian woman was contested in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through much Australian literature written of the period, we can read a concern about the colonial girl and woman. In comparison with her English and at times British sisters, the question was asked whether she was too forward, too precocious and too well-developed. There were anxieties, to which some writers responded that in the warmer climes young girls matured sexually too early.

The South Australian Baptist writer, Matilda Jane Evans, writing under the pseudonym Maud Jeanne Franc, published 14 novels between 1859 and 1885 set in South Australia. These domestic, religious and temperance novels, the first substantial body of fiction written in the young colony, promoted the view that it was possible to live a worthy and religious life in the colony and contested the notion that colonials were necessarily rough and degenerate. Women were represented as being particularly influential in relation to raising the religious life and morals of the community. The Baptist women missionaries would have known Evans’ works, which were often given as Sunday School prizes. Evans had strong associations with the Baptist tradition. Her parents had both been members of the Rye Lane Baptist Chapel in Peckham, Surrey, where her father had been a deacon. In South Australia, she had married a Baptist minister and was later a deaconess in the North Adelaide Baptist Church.

In Evans’ first and best-known novel, Marian; Or The Light of Someone’s Home (1859), we meet the young, wild colonial girl, Bessie Burton ‘flying through the room with a garland of scarlet pea-flowers wreathed around her slender little figure’ (Evans ca 1925:3). It is the task of her new immigrant governess, Marian Herbert, to tame her and to mould her into a respectable young woman. But this colonial girl cannot easily be drawn to gentle pursuits. When her governess goes away, Bessie reverts to her wild life:

Bessie was too much the romp, too wild to have the least sympathy for quiet pursuits. In her own little heart she had the greatest contempt for both work and books. It grieved her not at all to throw these on one side; she could now race Rover and Hector at her own sweet will … Or she could go and dabble barefooted in the creek for hours together, fishing for crawfish, with morsels of meat tied to a string, and feel certain of but little rebuke (Evans ca 1925:200–201)

Here a little girl could become what is now known as a tomboy and, if unchecked, could grow up wild and unwomanly. The image of Bessie wreathed in the bright red flowers of a native plant suggests the dangers of early sexual maturity and of a lack of proper modesty.

In Evans’ novels there is a fear that proper social standards will be abandoned in the colonial setting. The proper gender training of colonial girlhood is crucial. Young colonial women had to be demure and feminine and not too competent at vigorous, ‘masculine’ activities. In this first novel, Marian, it is the young governess from England, Marian Herbert, who brings respectable domesticity and Christianity to Bessie Burton and her family. But in the process, she herself becomes colonial, by her commitment to the settler colony, by her ability to do practical work and by her willingness to adapt to her circumstances. But in Evans’ later novels, the peerless Christian heroines are generally colonial-born.2 It is curious to note, however, that, while the colonial girl is represented as having a responsibility for the moral and religious tone of the young community, it is not suggested that her responsibility extend to the moral, religious and physical wellbeing of the indigenous inhabitants.

Matilda Evans’ novels were deeply implicated in the colonial environment. They cannot be understood as mere colonial exotica written for the British market. Evans’ works can be seen as part of a struggle to define the meaning of ‘colonial’ and to develop a commitment to the colony among her readers. Her loyalties were with the young colony, with the settlers and their descendants (Allen 1984).

In the picture Evans draws of colonial society, the Aboriginal people of Australia are firmly excluded. While her novels survey many aspects of pioneering life in the colony, including the establishment of farms and the building of houses and chapels, the Aboriginal people are almost never mentioned. These texts do not address the destruction of the Aboriginal people and their dispossession of the land that settlers were putting under the plough. In her representation of colonial life, discussion of the idea of prior Aboriginal ownership of the land, their cruel fate and the harsh relationships between black and white in South Australia is absent. She wrote at a time when the occupation of the land by white settlers was contested by the Aboriginal people, so the avoidance of any discussion of it must be seen as strategic (Allen 1995).

Indeed, there is only one discussion of the Aboriginal people in her writing. This appears in the novel Golden Gifts, an Australian Tale (1867/68). It appears that this discussion was included at the prompting of a local reviewer of an earlier work Vermont Vale (1863/64).3 Golden Gifts is, in part, a celebration of what God has given the white settlers–their talents and the rich earth—and an entreaty for them to make the most of these gifts. Settlers are shown busily establishing farms and gardens, tilling the earth. The narrative is framed as an account of the settlers being unjustly thrust out of the Old World, but gaining their rewards in the new land. Nowhere is there any discussion of the rightfulness of their taking the land of the Aboriginal people.

In the novel there is an encounter between a settler family, the Wallaces, and a group of Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal people are represented as alien curiosities, beggars and thieves. Their humanity is questioned when the young heroine, Edith Wallace says, ‘And then to think that these beings are really of one blood with us! … Does it not seem strange? They have souls; and yet how near they seem to approach the lowest order of animals’ (Evans ca 1912:61). The possibility of working with the Aboriginal people is raised by Edith (‘I wonder whether there is really any effort made to do them good?’), but it is quickly dismissed by her brother Harry (‘I should think by their appearance that it would not be easy to make an impression on them’) (Evans ca 1912:61).

There is little sense of a shared humanity with the Aboriginal people. There is no suggestion that efforts should be made to bring them to Christianity. The Aboriginal people are represented as strange creatures who wore dirty ill-kempt clothes and blankets and lived in the open, sleeping under rough bough shelters known as ‘wurlies’. They stood across a great gulf from Evans’ other characters, who were devoted to making warm, secure and pleasant homes, secure from the elements. The glimpse of Aboriginal life in Golden Gifts is revealing. It uncovers a disorder very much in contrast to the order of Evans’ novels. The destitution of the Aboriginal people stands against the modest security of virtually all of her white characters. The domestic arrangements of the Aboriginal people she describes amount to an offence against the domesticity nourished in the novels as a symbol of personal and social worth.

The Aboriginal woman in the group is represented as being inappropriately gendered and, therefore, particularly repulsive. Edith reacts with a mixture of disgust and pity. She is visibly shocked when the woman approaches her: ‘“A woman! can it really be?” she exclaimed, in a low tone of disgust. It was a woman, wrapped in the customary blanket’ (Evans ca 1912:61). Neither Edith nor any of the other female characters in these novels think of dedicating themselves to helping the Aboriginal people or bringing them to Christianity.

This representation of Aboriginal people draws upon powerful contemporary discursive construction of Aboriginal people as an inferior race doomed to destruction (McGregor 1993). It also shows them as irrelevant to the developing settler society. However, the reasons for the South Australian Baptists turning their gaze to India rather than to mission fields closer to home also need to be understood in the context of the traditions of the BMS.

South Australian Baptist missionaries

Some accounts of the South Australian Baptist mission have emphasised how separate and independent its activities were from the BMS. Nevertheless, its conception and, indeed, its location owed much to the traditions of British Baptists’ work in India. Manley (1993:17) notes, ‘Australian Baptists revealed their essential “Britishness” in following Carey to India’. The Reverend Silas Mead, minister of Flinders Street Baptist Church in Adelaide can be seen as particularly central in the transmission of the Baptist missionary traditions. Called the ‘father of Australian Baptist missions’, he studied at the Baptist training institution, Stepney College in London, under Dr Joseph Angus, secretary of the BMS (Gooden 1994:69–70). Here he learned to revere the work of William Carey and his colleagues, who had begun the work of the BMS in Bengal in 1792. As well as beginning ‘a heroic tradition’ of missionary work in Bengal, Carey, who never saw any Australian Aboriginal people, denounced them as the epitome of ignorance and savagery. He wrote that they were ‘poor barbarous, naked pagans as destitute of civilisation as they are of true religion’ (quoted in Harris 1998:180).

Inspired by his studies to offer himself for missionary service, Silas Mead was instead appointed to the Flinders Street church in 1861, but, as he recalled later, ‘really in those days it seemed very much like foreign mission work, to settle in a place so distant and unknown. It took me three months to get there’. From his first days in South Australia, Mead held prayer meetings ‘seeking God’s blessing on missionary efforts’ (Gooden 1994:72–73). When the SABMS began its work in India, it operated in a part of Bengal adjacent to the region in which the BMS operated.

The young women missionaries were well-versed in the BMS tradition. In one of their first letters back to the South Australian Baptist Sunday Schools, Ellen Arnold and Marie Gilbert wrote:

On Saturday last we went to Serampore, where those devoted missionaries, Cary [sic], Marshman, and Ward, lived and laboured. Perhaps you may remember that they were the first Baptist missionaries who came to India, and were amongst the very first to bring the glorious Gospel to these poor people. Although the last of them has been dead more than 45 years, their memories and work still live, and everywhere one finds traces of them (Arnold & Gilbert 1883:30).

Here it is instructive to note that Mead did not work with Aboriginal people in Australia; nor did he inspire others to work with the Aboriginal people, but rather facilitated the development of new mission fields in India and the translation there of women such as Ellen Arnold and Marie Gilbert. While the congregation at Flinders Street church gave money each year to Aboriginal missions at Point McLeay and Point Pearce, both within 90 miles of Adelaide, it appears to have has no closer involvement (Gooden 1994:729). Missions to Aboriginal people were set up throughout Australia, but it seems that Baptists did not attempt much Aboriginal work. John Harris, who has written extensively on Christian missions to Aboriginal people in Australia, has noted: ‘By the middle of the nineteenth century, Australia was generally believed to be the most difficult mission field on earth, perhaps even an impossible mission field’(Harris 1998:180). He attributes this in part, to the notion of the hopelessness and inferiority of the Australian Aboriginal people. He also quotes contemporary observers who concluded that ‘the gospel message was drastically counteracted by the awful example of a corrupt and brutal white society’ (Harris 1998:186). These discourses of Aboriginal inferiority, which were highly apposite for those taking Aboriginal land, were pervasive and, as has been shown, were circulated by writers who were accessible to the women missionaries.

Like Edith Wallace in Golden Gifts, the young Baptist women missionaries appear not to have concerned themselves with the Aboriginal people, who were so close at hand. Rather they were much more able to perceive Indian women as women with souls that needed to be saved and as oppressed women who needed uplifting. In this venture they joined a great movement of British and American women, feminists and other reformers to save the women of India (Burton 1994; Jayawardena 1995). The missionary women wrote back to the South Australian Baptist community regularly about their Indian mission. Although their letters were often addressed to the Sunday School children of South Australia, they appeared in the South Australian Baptist publication Truth and Progress, where they could also be read by adult members of the Baptist congregations. In some of their first letters, Marie Gilbert and Ellen Arnold sought to entertain their readers with descriptions of the exotic others they encountered in Bengal. Marie Gilbert wrote of visiting a girls’ school:

I think you would be greatly amused to see the quantity of gold and silver jewelry these little girls wear, most of it being very heavy. Some had their ears pierced in five or six places round the ear, and a large gold ring in each, many had nose rings, which looked very awkward, falling down over the mouth … I must tell you how the Bengali women and girls dress. They have a long strip of white muslin, about 1 1/4 yards wide, and edged with a coloured border. This garment, called, a sarree, they wrap gracefully around themselves, so as to form a skirt. One end is brought across the chest and over the head, forming a substitute for a hood and shawl (Gilbert 1883:56).

These accounts were shaped liked a travel commentary, implicit in which was the notion of normality at home and the difference of India. The homes and domestic arrangements, such as those in the zenana, were represented as strange and amounting to incarceration (Grewal 1996:5).

Each lady has her own little cell, where she and her children live, never going outside of the court, except under close cover, and only then to visit a relation, which is very seldom. They do not know what a street in Calcutta is like. Their only occupations are to prepare their husbands’ food and mind the children; still, they seem very contented (Gilbert 1883:56).

Despite the strangeness, the women were usually represented in a relatively positive, albeit patronising manner: ‘After a few minutes a young interesting lady about fifteen came in. She looked very contented and cheerful. She had been married five years’ (Gilbert 1883:56).

It is interesting to note the lack of condemnation of child marriage here. This may have been because the letters were addressed to Sunday School children and it may have been thought improper to raise the evils of child marriage with that audience. In any case, the avoidance of the subject was in marked contrast to the strong denunciations of the practice by British feminists and other reformers (Burton 1992: 145–148).

Marie Gilbert expressed a loving concern for ‘our dear Bengali sisters’. In one of her early letters, Ellen Arnold writes similarly of an ‘affectionate girl’, ‘a lively, active individual’, and of one of the native zenana teachers as ‘a pleasant little body’ (Arnold 1883:67). The Indian women were not necessarily seen as equal to white women, but were represented in a more positive manner than indigenous women of Australia were.


These missionaries’ greater interest in the souls of Indian women, rather than those of indigenous Australian women can be understood in the light of contemporary Darwinian discourses and racist hierarchies, which placed Australian Aboriginal people in a position infinitely inferior to that occupied by the Indians, who were recognised as being in possession of a civilisation. In engaging in the missionary field in India, however, the missionary women may also be seen as negotiating their own positioning within imperial hierarchies. Angela Woollacott has commented on the position of Australian settler women in the imperial hierarchy of the later 19th and early 20th centuries: ‘Occupying an in-between ranking in imperial hierarchy, Australian women sought to elide the inferiority inherent in their colonialness by emphasizing their whiteness and their economic and cultural privileging’ (Woollacott 1997:1006).

The woman missionaries were particularly influenced by the broader Baptist tradition, which defined missionary activity as activity carried on in places like India. It might be asked how much their missionary activity was related to the desire to show themselves worthy in the larger imperial framework? While Evans sought to write of the colonial settler woman as a worthy Christian woman, the women missionaries were enacting that on a larger stage, that of the British Empire. There is no evidence that the Australian and Indian women drew together as colonials; rather the Australian women missionaries’ desire to bring India’s women to Christ may be implicated in a wish to constitute Australian women as ‘big sisters’ and ‘mothers’, in much the same way as Indian women were ‘little sisters’ or young children for the English missionaries (Tinkler 1998:221). Through their missionary work the Australian women were affirming the gender and race hierarchies of the British Empire.

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1   Previously published in 2000 in Reconstructing Femininities: Colonial Intersections of Gender, Race, Religion and Class, a special issue of Feminist Review 65. ‘White Already to Harvest’ was the name of a missionary publication associated with the Poona and India Village Mission, where some of the South Australian women missionaries were located. The title is derived from the New Testament: ‘They are white ready to harvest’, (John 4, v35). I play with its meaning to allow an allusion to ‘whiteness’. I would like to thank Rosalind Gooden for discussing her work with me and Deane Fergie, Jane Haggis, Glenda Mather and Robin Secomb who read and commented upon an earlier version of this chapter and the anonymous reviewers for Feminist Review for their comments.

2   In another of Evans’ novels, Golden Gifts (1867/68), Winnie Aland is also a tomboy. Raised by her father after her mother’s early death, she can ride and run like a boy and lacks any feminine skills and graces. In the course of the novel, Winnie becomes a feminine young lady.

3   The anonymous reviewer wrote that ‘She should put a blacky [sic] or two in her next work, and describe them as they really are’ (The South Australian Register 17 September 1866:2). I thank Barbara Wall for sharing this reference with me.

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

   by Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal