Transforming Men: The Anglicisation of Bengali Masculinity in the Colonial Era

Saswata Kusari, Sarada Ma Girls’ College, West Bengal


During the colonial era, when the British were in control of the administration of Bengal, they launched discourses meant to convince one and all about the drawbacks of Bengali men. In such discourses, the body of Bengali men became a countertype to the emerging ideals of masculinity prevailing in Europe in the nineteenth century. With ardent belief in the narratives popularised by the Colonisers, many Bengalis sought to reconstruct their manliness in order to fit into the normative model of masculinity. The paper, therefore, is an exploration of the ways in which Bengali masculinity went through processes of radical masculinisation during the 19th century till the independence; and how proximity to English language and culture shaped up the imagination of Bengali men.

Key-Words: Masculinity, Orient, Sexuality, hyper-masculinity, heteronormativity

Jobe Charnock and the Rise of Calcutta

It was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I —also known as the age of discovery—that the British started to vie for more prudent economic circumstances concomitantly tinkering with the idea of broadening their dominion all around the world. The British started their sojourn in India, especially in Bengal, with the hope of substantial economic proliferation. The obsession with the ‘exotic’ native lands of Asia and Africa is very much prevalent in British culture if we carefully read literary texts and other historical documents of the period. For instance, Andrew Marvell (1681) wrote in ‘To His Coy Mistress’:

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain

The reference to the rubies found on the banks of the Ganges clearly reveals that the West was unambiguously aware of the healthy economy that prevailed in the east; and the seed of the desire to usurp these lands was probably planted during the late 16th and the early 17th century. The dream was starting to take shape as a realistic scenario after Jobe Charnock came to the village of Sutanuti on 24th August, 1690 (p.23). Calcutta, back then, was a ‘barbaric’ village, and Charnock, against all odds, dreamt of setting up his business there. Perhaps, deep in his mind, he also envisioned making Calcutta a city of note. Though Charnock did not live long (in fact, he died in 1692) to realize his dream, the British had found a strong footing, fromwhich they would rule this country for more than two centuries.

Educating the ‘Brutes’

For a century or so the British were happy doing business in this country. However, the victory at the battle of Plassey gave them an immense boost as they started fostering the dream of ruling India unanimously. In the year 1813, the East India Company was dissolved andthe British Empire started a large-scale expansion of their territory. The Christian missionaries were already coming in, as the British were looking for a cultural overhaul of the native land which they considered primitive and unsophisticated. The intention was undoubtedly to reduce the ‘uncouthness’ of the natives by proselytising them. For the purpose of this paper, I would be focusing on some of the projects taken up by the British (along with Christian missionaries), especially by T.B Macaulay, that played a major role in transforming Indian cultural spectrum. In 1835, Macaulay published his notorious Minute on Indian Education where he proposed to refurbish the education system by introducing advanced and more scientific studies through the English language. However, Macaulay’s project was never as benevolent as he tried to make it look. It was laced with colonial prejudice; an attitude which, in Edward Said’s words, can be called ‘Orientalism’. Macaulay was so prejudiced against the Indian/Oriental culture that he literally ignored the presence of the treasures that Indian literature contained back then. He [Macaulay (1835)] famously quipped in his Minute:

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education. (para 10)

With his belief in the superiority of the Western literature and culture, Macaulay planned to circulate their cultural values amongst Bengalis. His main purpose, however, was to create a class of Bengali men who would perpetuate the ideology of the Colonisers amongst the native folks by rendering themselves as weak and ineffable. These men were later known as the babu class who, Macaulay imagined, would be brown in colour but white in taste. In short, he wanted to create slaves out of those Bengali men by training them in Eurocentric knowledge.

Macaulay was not content merely by advocating such an overtly prejudiced and arbitrary academic system; he went on to define Bengali men in his own inimitable style. Sudipta Sen (2004), in his essay “Colonial Aversions and Domestic Desire”, quotes Macaulay:

“…the physical organisation of the Bengali is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour- bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid. During many ages he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breeds. Courage, independence, veracity, are qualities to which his constitution and his situation are equally unfavourable. His mind bears a singular analogy to his body. It is weak even to helplessness for purposes of manly resistance.” (Sen: 49).

If we fuse these two prejudices of Macaulay—regarding education and Bengali men— his intentions become obvious. He wanted to project Bengali men as weak and effeminate; a bunch of brutes who would never be able to become their own masters and who are in need of divine benevolence to take them out of their misery. In order to perpetuate his belief, he had a system in place— a system of education— that methodically convinced Bengali men of their alleged inferiority. The Anglicisation of the Educational spectrum was indeed a garb of benevolence underneath which the British were planning to fulfil their political imperative. Therefore, it is obvious that Macaulay’s projects were Orientalist in assumptions, as they posited the natives as uncivilised creatures and promised to bring them out of their slumber through an arbitrarily imposed education system…Access Full Text of the Article

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