chapter  3
27 Pages

Servants of empire: The role and representation of domestic servants in the colonial household

Edward Hamilton Aitken’s account of life in India in the late nineteenth century is a typical representation by colonizers of domestic servants, Indian, in particular, in the British colonies as being filthy, dishonest, undisciplined and unintelligent. Colonizers’ narratives on domestic servants frequently disparaged their characters and called into question their honesty, loyalty and hygiene; tales of inept and unintelligent behaviour were legendary. And yet for all their questionable standards of hygiene and supposedly low level of intelligence the service provided by the diverse range of servants, ranging from cook, butler, waiter, sweeper, dog boy, water carrier, laundry washer and so on, held together the imperial household. In his study of European ruling elites and their patterns of food consumption, Marc Jason Gilbert observes ‘the bitter racist diatribes directed against and also heartfelt tributes offered in recognition of the performance of the colonial kitchen staff. Nowhere else can one find the complexities of the relationship between Prospero and Caliban than in the kitchen’.2 This chapter will analyse the contradiction between widely held colonial stereotypes that cast servants as dirty and untrustworthy and the fact that they were entrusted with food preparation, a service that is intimate, vital and essential to health and wellbeing. The study of work performed by domestic servants for the colonists is an

area that has long been neglected. This chapter shows that domestic chores, in food purchasing, preparation and serving, were relegated to the local

people. The memsahib as head of the household held a supervisory role, to impose the rituals and tasks that defined the colonial home as a bastion of white imperialism. It can be argued in contrast that it was the servants’ local knowledge that procured food. Most kitchens were fashioned according to the requirements of the servants and the cooks did all the cooking, usually preparing local dishes. I will employ cookbooks and household manuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from both Britain and the three colonies to investigate the representation of the memsahib-servant relationship. These publications not only typecast native servants as unworthy but attempted to teach colonizers how not to behave in ways that can be seen as inappropriate. The physical nurturing of colonizers by the colonized underpins the most

personal and intimate of colonial relations. European colonial society deployed specific female rituals to mark boundaries between the rulers and the ruled. Fae Dussart, in her study on servant/employer relationship in nineteenth-century England and India, argues that this relationship in colonial India ‘was essential to the development of colonial domesticity’.3 Dussart stresses that the management of the colonial home was pivotal to the imperial civilizing project. The domestic sphere in colonial India, Dussart argues, was where memsahibs and servants together worked towards ‘displaying the values of British civilization to servants and visitors, insisting on cleanliness, order and respect for the ruling race and/or class’.4 The numbers of Britons in the colonies increased after 1918 for several reasons: the Colonial Office had started encouraging its officers in the colonies to marry, and improvements in tropical medicine, refrigeration and transport all contributed to a more comfortable lifestyle in the colonies.5 The memsahib in the colonial home became an omnipresent arbiter of manners. There was an understanding that the security of the white middle-class home derived from it being an oasis of civilized behaviour amidst alien surroundings and barbaric people. However, the memsahib could not single-handedly transform the colonial home into the symbol of British prestige without her domestic servants. Just as the army of domestic servants were responsible for the smooth

running of the upper class home in the Victorian era, the native servants were largely accountable for the purchasing, preparation and cooking of food as well as the cleaning and maintaining of the colonial household. In Britain, the kitchen was seen as the province of the servants and not the mistress.6

This ideal was replicated in the colonies. As early as 1795, cookery books were written for servants working for the upper classes. An illustration in a household manual showed a mistress presenting her servant with a cookery book, with the caption, ‘A Lady presenting her Servant with the Universal Family Cook who diffident of her own knowledge has recourse to that Work for Information’.7 Although colonial cookbooks were written principally for the colonial housewife there were also a handful published with translation into local languages within the books for the use of local servants.8 Gilly Lehmann’s work on the British housewife reinforces ‘the image of the lady of

leisure, a consumer of others’ services’.9 The employment and management of servants in the Victorian middle classes was not only about making home-life comfortable but it also meant ‘creating the kind of disciplined, deferential workforce which Britain needed if it was to maintain its position as the world’s premier nation’.10 In the colonial context, this was extended to ideas of promoting the white household as a prestigious enclave, that domestic menial work was the domain of the colonized while the memsahib ruled from within her domestic space. The memsahib-servant relationship was fraught with tension: on the one

hand the memsahib had to create a ‘Britain in the home’,11 and a model of bourgeois white domesticity,12 and on the other all this could only be achieved through the efforts of her servants who were frequently denigrated as useless, filthy and dishonest. R.C.H. McKie summed up how utterly dependent the European was on domestic service in Malaya and Singapore when he wrote,