Century-old gravestones of Scottish women buried in India tell story of overlooked aspect of colonisation
When I used to be a kid rising up in Kolkata, I’d listen tales in regards to the Ecu colonisation of Bengal ” the precolonial identify of India’s West Bengal. Those had been selective narratives from a in particular male standpoint, and offered colonisers as reworking social benefactors put in to offer a civilising affect. The wealthy histories of Indian philosophy that had been as soon as related to faith, training and well being had been changed via the colonial philosophy of conversion, modernising and development.
Nevertheless it was once now not simply Ecu males; girls too performed a pivotal function in normalising colonisation in Bengal within the 19th century. The other halves and daughters of traders, engineers, ministers, docs and designers got here to India and now not simplest supported their husbands and households, however took on what they noticed as humanitarian roles the place they felt they may well be helpful locally.
However you would not know this from studying any Ecu colonial histories of Bengal, for the reason that tales of those girls have in large part been unnoticed. The vast majority of present narratives in regards to the Scottish affect at the colonisation of Bengal reduces girls to only “companions”, or those that got here to India “as a result of they wanted to find husbands“.
My research rediscovers the tales of such girls interred on the Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata, the West Bengal town that was once as soon as the executive HQ of British India (in the past referred to as Calcutta). I sought after to spotlight and discover those forgotten social histories thru a “hauntological” standpoint. Somewhat like a ghost, those unearthed tales had been a returning of the previous to “hang-out” the existing.
By means of uncovering the complicating histories of colonial girls, I sought after to spotlight the demanding situations of the decolonial gaze, which seeks to counter conventional historic narratives created via colonisers. In different phrases, the untold tales of the Scottish girls in Calcutta printed in my documentary, returned to the current to disrupt the permitted interpretations of Ecu colonial historical past in West Bengal. This now invitations folks to interact with a special and lost sight of standpoint of the length.
Whilst their husbands had been development, purchasing, managing and administrating British India, other halves and daughters had been running in hospitals, instructing in faculties and serving to to offer neighborhood services and products. However their efforts and contributions went unacknowledged within the historic unfolding of empire.
A documentary method
In 2019, I collaborated with lecturers from Bridgewater State College in the United States in making my documentary to unpack those problems. The documentary argues that the bodily dying and rot of the human frame does now not essentially erase the social and historic narratives that experience formed an individual’s life.
Via their discovery and flow, the cemetery tales of the Scottish girls bear past graveyards that decline with time, and now exist within the provide and the longer term. The ladies’s tales make the effort to “honour and resurrect the longer term throughout the previous” as a result of they’ve laid naked some other size to Ecu colonisation that earlier interpretations had lost sight of.
The documentary engages with the narratives of 11 Scottish girls, decided on from the to be had record of names within the cemetery information. To begin with, 24 girls had been recognized for documentation, however not up to part may well be used because the carvings on such a lot of of the gravestones had been too light or degraded to make use of. The movie displays that those tales have now not come from present written or oral accounts. As a substitute, those stories of actual and continuously tough lives were resurrected from the guidelines chiselled onto gravestones.
Right here we discover tales of Scotswomen like Jane Elliott, who labored as a missionary and taken care of homeless youngsters in Calcutta; or Christina Rodger Wighton who labored with folks affected by cholera, malaria and dysentery and died herself of cholera elderly simply 27; or Caroline Leach who arrived in India in 1850 simply as epidemics broke out and labored as an apothecary in a leper colony; or Anne Baynes Evans who labored with the deficient throughout the Baptist Missionary Society and was once dedicated to instructing younger Indian girls. Excluding their gravestones and cemetery information, no account of those girls’s lives and achievements exist.
Many different colonial girls’s lives in India observe the similar trend. Right here had been Scotswomen who noticed their function as benevolent colonisers, contributing against the “enlargement” and “building” of Calcutta via organising faculties for women, well being centres, nature parks and puts of worship. However the final purpose in their high-minded and for sure well-meaning contributions was once to justify why colonisation was once vital.
Voices from stone
However those girls performed crucial function as docs, academics, apothecaries, nurses, missionaries or even piano tuners. The headstone tales expose the more than a few techniques Scottish girls independently performed an lively function against shaping the Ecu colonial management in Bengal, and in particular in Calcutta.
However their tales have remained most commonly undiscussed because of loss of documentation ” their lives now not noticed as even deserving a notice for posterity. The tales that stay on their gravestones serve as as what anthropologist Fiona Murphy calls “unpacified ghosts“. Their tales name out to be heard, and to problem the apply of “conditional inclusion” which preserves historic colonial energy constructions, via unearthing untold tales of ladies’s lives and contributions.
This analysis now not simplest makes an effort to report the historic narratives of those Scottish girls, but additionally illustrates how cemetery gravestones actually remind us of the previous, revealing tales that display as soon as once more how historical past is so continuously written from a novel ” and male ” standpoint. However now the lives of those lady have eventually been illuminated. Even of their silence, the lifeless have a tale to inform.