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Writings During Colonial IndiaTerm Paper

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Women Writing in Colonial India

Mary Graham wrote the Journal of Residence in India. The author was an English woman from Cockersmouth near Cumberland. In the year 1808, she was on a journey of discovery to India what was then a British occupied Indian subcontinent. She met a British Lieutenant Mr. Thomas Graham on the ship and by the time the ship arrived on the Indian shores, they were already engaged (GRAHAM 1813).

They married in December 1809. During her stay in India, Maria travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent, taking interest in what she saw and absorbing the new cultures she witnessed. Upon her return to her home country of England, she published a journal in which she had captured her experiences in the subcontinent. The journal was titled A Residence in India and it was released in 1812, she later published another book titled Letters from India in 1814. Graham's open mindedness is easily discernible in both titles, though she criticized some of the Indian customs (GRAHAM 1813).

She described various practices such as sati or suttee with a lack of objectivity grouping them as factual, thus attracting opposition from people who felt that women ought not to even mention such things let alone write about them. Having established herself as a member of the elite English Whig society, she opted to leave England for India in her attempts to settle debts she had accumulated and to make a fortune for her and her father. Mary narrated her family's view of the city of Bombay in India as a land of exile while also describing the construction of their new house there in her letters to family and friends (GRAHAM 1813).

Her journal commences with her description of the way she portrayed her British identity during her stay in subcontinent. She writes about her arrival and the strategies she wished to use to reform the Indian society both of which reflect the continuing changes that were implemented in conquered British territories' societies so that they could fit into the larger empire. This essay looks into the manner and implications of transition in India and her efforts to transform and promote knowledge by starting a literary society among the aristocratic white women of Bombay. Graham's hopes about the society she wanted to create, her thoughts about Indians, and her letters portrayed what it meant for her to be British in India. (GRAHAM 1813).


In her book titled "Historical Disquisition," Mrs. Graham outlined a link appendix to a discussion of sciences, religion, arts, architecture, legislations, and judicial processes, and civil policies of the people of India. Through comparison of what comprises modern knowledge with what comprised the ancient one, the appendix was written to show the advanced state of Indian civilization and to encourage more respect for it. Her thoughts were in agreement with those of Adam Ferguson who had classified modern India as a repetition of the old (GRAHAM 1813).

That the Indian society had frozen in time, but also asserted that white people had a lot to learn from the subcontinent. Furthermore, by spotlighting the advanced stage of their civilization, Mary Graham had done with a hope that this would change the attitude of the Europeans and subsequently change the course of imperialism. In her conclusions in the Historical Disquisition she reprimanded Europeans for destroying or enslaving the native peoples of America and Africa, and also argued against the treatment of people of India as an inferior race (GRAHAM 1813).

She instead opined that Europeans should view the people of India as descendants of ancestors who had reached an advanced stage of progress in many spheres of life, hundreds of years prior to any step being taken towards civilization anywhere in the continent of Europe (GRAHAM 1813).

Mary Graham, through her writing tried to prove the ancient and advanced civilization of the peoples of India, using the stadial theory that shows societal development (a theory that was grounded in the Scottish enlightenment thought). From a different perspective, but with the same respect for the civilization of the Indian people and also in the same critical approach she had utilized in her discussions of the topics of colonization and imperialism, Graham wrote about the Indian subcontinent with much depth and a close contact with the country and its inhabitants (GRAHAM 1813).

Graham's studies and her establishment of the Asiatic Society is proof of the links that ties knowledge to colonialism and the Indian continent. In her role as a foreigner and a part of the colonial administration, she and her pandits decided to learn Sanskrit to counter what they considered to be the pandits duplicity. However, as an academic, she was heavily dependent and highly respectful of the pandits' learning and more so for the language she studied with their help (GRAHAM 1813).

The duplicity towards the people of India and their ways was also evident in both the content and the structures of the Asiatic Society that she established in Calcutta. Graham in her opening speech proclaimed that the society would not prevent any educated native from joining and added that the large European membership could be a sort of motivation to encourage the natives to contribute to its activities. In her visit still, Graham maintains the superiority of Europeans by agreeing with the writings of an Athenian poet who asserted that Asia was just a handmaiden and Europe, the sovereign princess. She continues with her comparative arguments stating that while the main priorities of European minds were logic and taste, the Asians thrived in the aspect of imagination (GRAHAM 1813).

Throughout her annual writings to the Asiatic Society, Graham had formulated a theory for the common ancestral origin of man and the consequent division into three groups by comparing customs, behaviors, languages, myths, and religion. Her research resulted in her discovery of similar linguistic forms between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, which led to her famous classification of a number of Indian and European languages under the term Indo-European (GRAHAM 1813).

Graham's philological discoveries have been widely acclaimed in history. In the late 19th century, however her celebration of India's advanced civilization began to be supplanted by an inclination to concentrate on what was regarded 'useful' and a berating of the people of India as nothing but "degenerate." Charles Grant in his work Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic subjects of Great Britain demonstrates this mentality, probably in its worst form. The book was first published in the year 1792 during the French revolution, which showed Grant's abhorrence against. Grant's paper is something that Mary Graham would most likely have read before she sailed for India. In fact, it looks as if Graham could have first initially asked Grant to help her attain a position in India. Not a practicing Christian, Graham was against the introduction of Christian missions in India, and agreed with many of the arguments expressed by Grant in his work (GRAHAM 1813).

Grant's work was the result of his 20 years of service in the Indian subcontinent and it narrated, what she referred to as, the corrupted morals and character of Hindu people in general and those of Bengal in particular. However, unlike other visitors to the subcontinent who attempted to construct a descriptive history of the region, Graham spared very little effort in discussing the history of the region before the arrival of the British people. She dismissed India's pre-British past as full of despotism and corruption that infiltrated their religion, laws, and government.

She also described the people as lacking in honesty and good-faith. Her answer to the problems that, she believed, faced the Indian society was to bring morality and a law-abiding nature and thereby joy to the Indian people through teaching, in English, in the useful arts particularly in Christianity. According to Graham, the British Empire had a duty to deliver the people of India from injustice and oppression because of the resources and other benefits they were taking from them, the disadvantages the people were suffering and should still suffer in their relationship with the British Empire as their subjects. In her conclusion, Graham stated that they cannot renounce them without any guilt, although they may also have great guilt in their ruling over them (GRAHAM 1813).


Copying the societies and clubs that Mackintosh had belonged to, in England and Scotland, the Literary Society of Bombay constituted of men who shared Graham's conceptualization of Europe. By gathering knowledge about the Indian subcontinent, the literary society aimed to improve governance of the subcontinent and European perception of the world and thus promote the progress of civilization itself. The gathering of knowledge besides the act of establishing the society, was itself thought of as an act of civilization. The masculinity of this endeavor was demonstrated in the review of Maria Graham's work by the Quarterly Review, which referred to Graham as a young woman who, like other women, went to India to get a husband instead of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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