Edges of Empire

KNW 2399: Edges of Empire

European Perspective of Indian Women


This photograph was taken by Johnson Williams sometime between 1855-1862 in Western India. There are three Indian women probably between the ages 18-25 standing outside in front of a large bush. One seems to be leaning on a chair and the other two are leaning against some kind of wooden frame. They are all wearing ornate, patterned clothing and are decorated with large gold bracelets, earrings, and necklaces. Their attire, and the fact that they are not working outside implies that they are upper class. It seems as if these women are posing and that Williams staged this picture to convey European perspectives about India and its native women. The area behind the women is vast and open and may suggest to Europeans that India has a lot of unused land to be explored and settled. The facial expressions of the women look very serious and they are portrayed as exotic and mysterious; this may have been to entice more British European men to settle in India. It’s important to recognize that by 1855 the British had very much established themselves in India and were increasingly intervening in the lifestyles, culture, and religion of natives. For example, Europeans had the motto of saving Indian women from Indian men and they began this mission by abolishing Sati in 1829. Sati was a practice mostly in Calcutta among the upper class women where a woman would be burned alive with her dead husband’s corpse; however, only about 2 percent of the population practiced Sati. Whether Williams meant to or not, he depicted the type of women who generally participated in Sati and his photo may have been used to advertise the good the British were doing by “saving” these exotic women. It is also important to remember that The Battle of Plassey occurred in 1857 and it was a series of revolts and riots against British rule in India. Although the British attributed the revolts to the abolition of Sati, it was really provoked by the incessant taxing of the British and the insensitive use of cow and pig fat on army guns.


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