Researching a Rare Family Collection

Research Reflection by an Undergraduate Research Assistant for Summer 2021

My research under the “Unstable Archives” project aims to build a born-digital archive of a rare family collection containing the personal artefacts of Elizabeth Sharaf un-Nisa, a native Indian woman who married a European man and moved with him to Britain. This project considers the question, why is it important to research the lives of native women who cohabited with European men during the colonial period?” Studying these relationships is essential to understand colonialism in India in its fullest context, including the lives and statuses of its most silenced inhabitants — native women. Not only do interracial relationships provide examples of cultural mixing, in which native women engaged in both European practices and Indian traditions, but Western anxieties surrounding racial hybridity and the policies that arose to regulate it greatly influenced the development of colonial India itself.

For the first part of my research, I studied academic literature concerning native women in colonial India. The first book I read was Sex and the Family in Colonial India by Durba Ghosh. Here, Ghosh compiles her archival research about the dynamics of relationships between European men and Indian women. She argues that, despite a different definition of race in the 18th century, European concerns about racial and cultural mixing persisted, later forming the basis for scientific racism and other interracial dynamics (Ghosh 2006, 15). Interracial relationships were common in early colonial India, in part due to the lack of European women (Ghosh 2006, 36). However, even the most cosmopolitan European men expressed insecurities about their relationships with Indian women, including fears for the future of mixed-race children born from such affairs (Ghosh 2006, 11). Adjacently, the East India Company and other colonial officials viewed these relationships as corrosive to the moral and societal order; as such, they suppressed mentions of native women in archival records and public life (Ghosh 2006, 93). The anxieties surrounding interracial relationships with Indian women were thus integral in shaping the administrative policies of the East India Company and, later, British colonial rule in India itself.

The second book I read was Gender, Slavery and Law in Colonial India by Indrani Chatterjee. While Ghosh’s book focuses on the nuances of interracial relationships, Chatterjee explores the definition of slavery in colonial India, particularly for children and female domestic slaves. Chatterjee defines different forms of slave labor, including the labor of sexual reproduction; thus, she argues that slavery in colonial India must be considered with slave-concubines and other women in mind (1999, 239). However, as does Ghosh, Chatterjee acknowledges and investigates colonial officials’ attempts to suppress mentions of domestic slavery or to reframe them in a manner conforming to their ideals of marriage (1999, 226). She examines the laws and legal justifications used by colonial administrators to claim that, through suppression by colonial officials and the biased interpretations of prior historians, the existence of domestic slavery was concealed, though it remained alive in practice (Chatterjee 1999, 232). Like Ghosh, Chatterjee discusses conjugal relationships between native Indian women and their colonizers. However, while Ghosh summarizes multiple different cases of interracial relationships in which women held small but varying amounts of agency, Chatterjee focuses on the interpretations of domestic slavery where the women held very little power at all.

The next part of my research included digitally transcribing artefacts from Sharaf un-Nisa’s collection, including the penmanship notebook she used to practice writing in English. I found this task fascinating, as such a personal item, with its spelling errors and messy handwriting, humanized a historical figure in a way that no amount of reading could. I was also interested in learning the nuances of the transcription process, which we encoded in Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)-compliant XML format. Overall, I enjoyed working on this project so far, as my interest lies in the intersection between computer science and the humanities. With “Unstable Archives,” I can use digitization to preserve the evidence of Sharaf un-Nisa’s life as she lived it — a rarity when records of the native Indian companions to European men are few and far between.

For further reading:

Chatterjee, Indrani. Gender, Slavery and Law in Colonial India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Ghosh, Durba. Sex and the Family in Colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


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