chapter  5
20 Pages

Dirt and disease

So wrote Angela C. Spry in her introductory remarks in an 1894 publication titled The Mem Sahib’s Book of Cookery. The part of the colonial household that is of most concern to this book is the kitchen. Although it was the heart of the colonial home, providing nourishment to the family, it was not embraced by those who lived in it. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that family members would rarely have stepped inside the kitchen from one day to the next. As discussed in Chapter 3, the colonial kitchen in Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states was situated well away from the main house, usually about forty-five metres away.2 A covered gangway connected the cookhouse and the bungalow to keep out the rain.3 In India, the cookhouse, as it was more commonly called, was also situated at the back of the house, sometimes, in a separate building, well away from the house, and, in some cases as part of the stables in the compound. Like other authors of the cookbook and household manual genre, Spry

attempted to convey several messages: that dirt was deplorable and shameful; that the memsahib was duty-bound to ensure that the kitchen was kept clean and in good order; and that the memsahib could keep a vigilant eye without expending too much time in the kitchen. Implicit in these instructions was the understanding that the memsahib’s gendered role included helping to create a barrier between the clean and pure colonizer against the filthy and barbaric colonized. This chapter looks at European thinking on health and disease in the tropical colonial environment from the nineteenth century and how it influenced the daily domestic life of the European in the colonies. Household guides and cookbooks reveal how colonials viewed dirt and how they attempted to eliminate dirt within the household, particularly the kitchen. The mission of keeping the home pristine fell to the memsahib but, as the kitchen was the focal point for food preparation of which native servants were

in charge, it was deemed to be a losing battle. Rather than physically taking over the kitchen, the memsahib made her retreat and instead relied on and yet mistrusted her servants to maintain cleanliness in the kitchen. Household guides recommended the morning parade of inspecting the cleanliness of kitchen premises and equipment stores and disbursing of supplies. It is clear that supplies were measured out for the day’s requirements as the servants could not be trusted to have access to the food stores, but memsahibs did not venture into the ‘cookroom’ often.