Capturing Imperial Women in the Digital Archive

Dorothy de la Hey established one of the first women’s college in India in the early 20th century and left with her family a large correspondence between England and India. In her later letters, Dorothy is in her early 90s. She lives in Cirencester, England, after devoting the majority of her life to directing an all-female college in Madras. In these letters, she advises the treasurer of the Diocese of Madras to pay for the pensions of her two former employees –her motor driver Mayimidoss, and her butler Munuswamy. Dorothy requests that the Diocese continue paying the pension to their wives, Alamelu and Jayamary, if they were to survive their husbands, for their lifetime, even after Dorothy’s death.

While I am reading, transcribing, and creating the metadata for the text of these letters as part of the digitization process in the Unstable Archives project, some questions arise: how can we capture the complexities of imperial women, like Dorothy, in the digital record? how can we avoid building on, and replicating, the tradition of knowledge production in the humanities that is informed by colonialism and imperialism, in the digital record?

Prior to receiving these letters, about the only traces of Dorothy were a short two-page biographical sketch of her life from the book Queen Mary’s College: The First Two Decades, published by the Old Students’ Association. This sketch starts with her studies in Oxford, goes on with her work for Queen Mary’s College in India, and ends with her life back in England.

Women living and working in colonial settings such as de la Hey may be described as either “heroic opponents of imperialism or complicit agents” in historical accounts of Empire. Earlier works on the place of imperial women have treated them as an addition to the historical record, as a way of uncovering lost voices, or as secondary to a more significant set of considerations. These approaches have not only provided one-dimensional depictions of imperial women, disconnecting them from colonialism, but has also obscured the place of subalterns in Empire, like that of Mayimidoss, Munuswamy, Alamelu, and Jayamary.

Postcolonial critique has created new ways of studying imperial actors and their experiences in the colonies, opening diverse avenues to study the interrelations between various forms of oppression, and providing a valuable analytical tool for scholars of gender and Empire. As the archive is a site of knowledge production, not just of knowledge retrieval, a postcolonial intervention in the digital archive can give us the ability to change the existing social formations that traditional archives (national or colonial) promote.

For instance, digitization helps us connect the different actors involved across imperial borders and their actions. Dorothy received an aerogramme by Elumalai, Munuswamy’s son, which informed her about his father falling ill and asked her to authorize his mother, Alamelu, to receive his father’s pension. And when Munuswamy dies, Elumalai asks Dorothy to cover the expenses for his father’s last rites. It was afterwards that Dorothy sent letters to the Diocese of Madras asking for the pensions of Munuswamy and Mayimidoss to continue with their wives, after their death.

Digitization helps us go beyond the textual medium and make these letters hypertextual: they are searchable, transferable, and comparable with other digital text. But in addition to making it accessible in digital form, we are able to retrieve the histories of individuals that are usually undermined or overlooked in the traditional archive. It enables us to place them as participants in the worlds around them and tell other, more complete stories about them.

In the case of Dorothy and her correspondence with the Diocese of Madras, this can mean placing her within the setting of British colonial rule in India and ensuring that the subaltern voices in these letters are brought to the fore. By looking at the relations between individuals and larger structures, we can see them as part of colonialism as a whole, not simply as individual travelers.

If we were to translate this to the digital record, it can mean that the information about these individuals is not only preserved and searchable for researchers internationally through the transcription of letters that we create, but we also have unparalleled access to the engagement and the relationship between imperial and subaltern actors. This access to the interactions among the Diocese, Dorothy, Mayimidoss, Munuswamy, Alamelu, Jayamary, and Elumalai between Madras and England opens up the possibility of conducting diverse analyses of their lives and helps us visualize the world within which they existed. This can not only complicate the lives of imperial women like Dorothy, but also interrogate the influences of Empire.


Camiscioli, Elisa. “Women, Gender, Intimacy, and Empire.” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 25 no. 4, 2013, p. 138-148.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” Archival Science, 2002, p. 87-109.


Studying Gender Beyond the Archive

Dorothy de la Hey travelled from Oxfordshire to Madras to establish Queen Mary’s College in 1914, the first women’s college in Madras. Sharaf-un-Nisa Begum, the wife of a member of the British aristocracy in the early years of East India Company rule, travelled from Kolkata to Devon in the 1770s. If we were to rely on the archives, we would have mere snippets and uncontextualized illustrations of their lives. Official sources would limit our understanding of both women and we will be unable to insert them in larger discourses on gender and Empire.

Dr. Megan Robb looking at textiles at the Palmer family archive in Devonshire

Historians have traditionally relied on the written and documented record, which comes in the form of archives and material artifacts. Pierre Nora understood modern memory to rely “entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image.” Archives and museums were considered privileged sites of the past. They were not simply repositories but, as Foucault indicates, the “law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” demonstrating its connection to power. This record, usually produced by those who were literate and powerful, privilege dominant (male) voices, while marginalizing non-dominant groups such as women.

It leads us to ask, if non-dominant groups become peripheral subjects in the historical record, how are we able to understand their lives today?

Efforts to examine and re-center women in history have led the profession to re-examine its traditional narratives and adopt new approaches relying on ‘non-official’ source materials. Everyday materials such as photographs, family letters, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera provide insight into individual lives that official records do not. Reading official sources ‘against the grain’ is another method that helps to reveal a more complex understanding of non-dominant groups, through contextualization and interweavement of multiple sources.

Other methods, commonly utilized by oral historians and anthropologists, include ethnographic research, oral history methods, and life writing, which allow us to better understand the ways in which subjective experiences of the past can be articulated from the prism of the present.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her essay, ‘Rani of Sirmur’, asks if marginalized and subaltern women specifically can articulate their subjectivity. Rani of Sirmur, the wife of the King of Sirmur, appears in the colonial archives only “when she is needed in the space of imperial production.” These archives themselves were a product of the commercial and territorial interests of the East India Company. Rani herself is not there to tell her own story and cannot be found as there are dominant power configurations that represent her. Spivak further expounds this in her essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ to ask whether there is a possibility of recovering female subaltern subjectivities. This helps us to reflect on the complexities of the conflicts and contradictions of historical subjects such as Dorothy de la Hey and Sharaf-un-Nisa Begum.

A women-centered approach in research methods can give women space to speak on their own terms, which can give equal weight to women’s experiences and women’s interpretation of those experiences. Adopting diverse methods in historical research to examine the lives of women can assist in better understanding their lives in broader terms, as they become participants and agents of historical processes. This showcases the transnational characteristics of women’s mobility in imperial networks. Foregrounding mobility is at odds with traditional historiography supported by archives grounded in a rigid and bounded space.

Diverse and ‘non-traditional’ methods are especially useful in both the construction of a postcolonial archive and when examining marginalized groups who do not have access to traditional forms of power. This makes ‘non-official’ source material ever more important.


de Certeau, Michel. The Writing of History. Columbia University Press, New York, 1988.

Foucault, Michel, Alan Sheridan, and Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire”. Representations. University of California Press, 1989, pp. 7–25.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak?. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives”. History and Theory. Wesleyan University, 1985, pp. 247-272.