Manifestations of Social Darwinism in Colonial Reflections: A Study of the Writings of Sahibs, Memsahibs and Others

Iti Roychowdhury, Amity University, Madhya Pradesh, India

Amanpreet Randhawa, Amity University, Madhya Pradesh, India


The Orient has always conjured up images of an exotic land, mystic practices, of snake charmers and tight rope walkers. Contemporary fiction reinforced these images. However, the literature of the Raj is not confined to the writers of fiction alone. A vast body of literature which is largely unexplored yet exists. This comprises the writings of the Sahibs, the Memsahibs, the missionaries and other sundry visitors to India. The present paper explores these myriad images to ascertain the designs and patterns of writings on India. The paper also attempts to explore the motives if any behind the emerging frameworks of these diverse writings.

[Key Words: Social Darwinism, Orientalism, Occidental, Imperialism, Indologists, Colonialism]

The European Renaissance ushered in a spirit of enquiry and exploration. Geographical discoveries, scientific inventions, growth and appreciation of the arts were some of its essential features. Kings and nobles vied with each other to patronize the arts and learning for which one of the prerequisites was of course large quantities of money. Colonies represented power and pelf, while the search for and acquisition of colonies also satisfied the spirit of enquiry and exploration. And so Europe went about acquiring colonies across the globe, principally in Africa and Asia. The first dictum of Colonialism of course was that the colonies existed for the good of the mother country and the second, that the natives were an inferior people. However, the European Renaissance also swept in the spirit of humanism, which mandated dignity of man as man. Britain in particular prided itself on its spirit of justice and fair play. The dilemma therefore was how to reconcile the imperialistic motives with humanistic ideas. Kipling makes a sardonic interpretation of the dilemma by calling it ‘ the white man’s burden’.

Of all the colonies of the far flung British Empire, India was deemed the jewel in the crown. England gloried in the material prosperity and strategic advantage that India brought to it. India always had porous borders, and myriad visitors kept pouring into India from times immemorial. Some of them chose to make their home here. Those who went back carried with them tales of splendor and glorious riches, of magical land and exotic peoples. This in turn attracted the traders who came to India with gifts and entreaties, requesting permission to trade. The embassies of Captain William Hawkins and Thomas Roe are significant landmarks .It was the pioneering work of these gentlemen that subsequently led to the colonization of India.

The British arrival in India marked the beginning of a new kind of literature – depicting an exotic land, alien culture and inferior people. Edward Said says that the Orient was an invention of the West, whereby the West judged, studied or disciplined the East, depending upon the perspective of the viewer/ writer. For example, the image of India has been captured by 3 broad categories of writers: the writers of fiction, the reports and observations of the Sahibs (administrators), and finally, the writings of lay visitors such as the Memsahibs (wives of Sahibs), other members of the families of officials serving in India, the missionaries, etc.

The Man – Portrayal of the Indian Character

Some of the most celebrated books on India penned by the British are Foster’s A Passage to India’, Kipling’s Kim, Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown, etc. Foster’s protagonist, Aziz, is meant to represent the typical Indian – emotional, susceptible to kindness, generous, but mean, and having a way with truth. The character of Godbole is even more of an enigma. Foster does not even attempt to decipher him. It is as if Godbole is purposefully created to baffle and defy the Western understanding of Eastern character.

Another defining character in the British fiction on India is that of Kim, the protagonist in the eponymous work of Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s Kim grew up a street urchin, and is familiar with every nook and corner of the city of Lahore. This helps him in carrying out his nefarious tasks – passing on messages, espionage and the like – typically sly, underhand things that an imperialist would expect a native to do. The Tibetan Lama in Kim is akin to Foster’s Godbole – a mystic – unearthly and unrealistic. These images of Indians are recurring- either a morally less evolved, devious, unscrupulous, lying brute, or an inscrutable mystic, communing with his pagan gods and immersed in his Eastern spirituality…Access Full Text of the Article

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