Women of Empire: Nineteenth-Century Army Officers' Wives in India and the U.S. West

Women of Empire: Nineteenth-Century Army Officers' Wives in India and the U.S. West

by Verity McInnis

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In his Rules for Wife Behavior, Colonel Joseph Whistler summed up his expectations for his new bride: “You will remember you are not in command of anything except the cook.” Although their roles were circumscribed, the wives of army officers stationed in British India and the U.S. West commanded considerable influence, as Verity McInnis reveals in this comparative study of two female populations in two global locations. Women of Empire adds a previously unexplored dimension to our understanding of the connections between gender and imperialism in the nineteenth century. McInnis examines the intersections of class, race, and gender to reveal social spaces where female identity and power were both contested and constructed.

Officers’ wives often possessed the authority to direct and maintain the social, cultural, and political ambitions of empire. By transferring and adapting white middle-class cultural values and customs to military installations, they created a new social reality—one that restructured traditional boundaries. In both the British and American territorial holdings, McInnis shows, military wives held pivotal roles, creating and controlling the processes that upheld national aims. In so doing, these women feminized formal and informal military practices in ways that strengthened their own status and identities. Despite the differences between rigid British social practices and their less formal American counterparts, military women in India and the U.S. West followed similar trajectories as they designed and maintained their imperial identity.

Redefining the officer’s wife as a power holder and an active contributor to national prestige, Women of Empire opens a new, nuanced perspective on the colonial experience—and on the complex nexus of gender, race, and imperial practice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806159362
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 11/09/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Verity McInnis is a Lecturer in History at Texas A&M University in College Station. Her articles have appeared in Military History of the West and Pacific Historical Review.

Read an Excerpt



[F]or the upholding of British prestige in the East, far more credit is due to the individual men and women who have carried out in their lives the loftiest conceptions of English truth and virtue, than to the collective wisdom of the office in Downing Street.

Maud Diver

In considering the men and women stationed in India as active agents of empire, nineteenth-century novelist Maud Diver attempted to dispel contemporary understandings of feminine weakness and caprice by portraying military wives as ambassadors of English civilization. Officers' wives stationed in British India understood this expectation to represent, and undertake duties for, the empire. Despite the availability of journals, letters, and travelogues, scant scholarly attention has been paid to these personal accounts. Similarly, despite increasing numbers of attempts to interpret the role of the American officers' wives stationed in the West, these women, thus far, have not been fully examined as major power holders.

At a time when women held no authority outside the home, the impact of nineteenth-century army officers' wives stationed in British India and the U.S. West adds a new perspective to studies of empire. In centralizing and comparing the female experiences of army officers' wives during the period 1818–1910, and by incorporating interdisciplinary approaches, it becomes clear that imperialism is not simply a masculine preserve. In constructing a distinct role these military women, who shared their husbands' sense of mission, generated power to design and project an imagined imperial landscape. By transferring, adopting, and adapting middle-class cultural values and customs they fashioned a new social reality within the military installations, influencing the development of imperial formations by cutting across and restructuring race, gender, and class boundaries. In feminizing military practices and by designing, reproducing, and policing social representations of empire, officers' wives held distinct, pivotal roles. By appropriating male spaces and applying an adaptive model of sociability, these women controlled markers and modalities to scaffold and maintain an imperial class — within which they became power holders.

But what constitutes imperialism? John Buchan attempted to answer this question in his novel A Lodge in the Wilderness. Hugh, a central character, argued, "We need a definition. ... I call myself an Imperialist ... I can give no summary statement of my creed." "Is not the reason because it is not a creed but a faith?" Lady Lucy responded, "You cannot carve an epic on a nutshell or expound Christianity in an aphorism. If I could define Imperialism satisfactorily in a sentence I should be very suspicious of its truth." A third contributor proffered, "No ... we don't want a definition. By its fruits ye shall know it. It is a spirit, an attitude of mind, an unconquerable hope. You can phrase it in a thousand ways without exhausting its content. It is a sense of the destiny of England. It is the wider patriotism which conceives our people as a race and not as a chance community." This spirit of destiny and patriotic rhetoric provides an ideological ideal, and explicitly underscores the intangible nature of "empire."

Traditional imperial history, however, recounts global rivalry, benevolent assimilation, cultural conflict, and economic advantages to justify territorial conquest. Hence, as Linda Colley observes, imperial studies were a "comprehensively masculine enterprise. ... [T]aught by chaps. ... [S]tudied overwhelmingly by chaps ... [and] centrally concerned with what chaps in the past, mainly of the pale variety, did to, or for, yet more chaps who were often not pale." To further advance emerging cross-disciplinary scholarship, however, she suggests that researchers adopt a comparative approach, and explore connections in power systems and actors. Patricia Nelson Limerick equally charges that "Western historians can play a central role in comparative studies of processes of colonialism and imperialism, locating the region in the big picture of world history." Indeed, she argues that similarities between the British and American imperial experience are "underdeveloped, neglected, even concealed." Considering "indirect rule as a device of colonialism," she suggests that "the process we have called 'westward expansion' or 'the frontier' or even 'conquest,' the devices, techniques, strategies, and justifications used by the Unites States bear an unsettling resemblance to thepractices used by European countries as they wielded power around the planet." Limerick adds that a logical comparative analysis would be of nineteenth-century army officers' wives who accompanied their husbands to the U.S. West with similar women of a European power. This study, in part, represents an answer to these calls.

In comparing the American and British officers' wives' experiences, a global analysis identifies similarities and differences to argue that both sets of women understood they held an imperial role. To be sure, written by a small number of women, the accounts tell nothing of those who returned home disillusioned with the dislocation of military life, nor of the enlisted soldiers' wives. This study does not seek to challenge existing methodologies or gender, race, and class interpretations, but makes visible a set of women who, thus far, remain generally underappreciated. In raising the profile of these historical actors, and by comparing two global locations, a compelling narrative emerges from this group of women writers that needs to be added to the historical record. Officers' wives influenced and sustained national prestige and legitimacy, as the designers and arbiters of a distinct imperial sociability.

There is no dispute concerning the description of Great Britain as an empire. With regard to the American experience, however, Richard Van Alstyne states, "In the United States it is almost a heresy to describe the nation as an empire. [Yet] the founders so regarded it ... and the word continued to be accepted usage through the middle of the nineteenth century." Julian Go suggests that the word "empire" acts as a conceptual scaffolding to prompt an analytical schematic. Empire, then, is a "sociopolitical formation wherein a central political authority (a king, a metropole, or an imperial state) exercises unequal influence and power over the political (and in effect the sociopolitical) processes of a subordinate society, peoples, or space." Imperialism, Go argues, is the processes through which empires are "established, extended, or maintained," and includes formations that "deploy multiple tactics, techniques, or modalities — sometimes unstated or unofficial — to realize their policies and extend or sustain themselves." Indeed, Richard Immerman examines the various scholarly debates "over whether the United States is an empire, is not an empire, or is something very similar to an empire." He concludes his investigation with a clear "America is and has always been an empire" and during the nineteenth century "was most ruthless in creating" the same. Immerman's views are supported by Linda Colley, who traces the existence of American imperialism to the continent-wide westward expansion beginning in the late eighteenth century.

Adding to the discussion, Paul Kramer provides a rich interpretive review of the scholarship of American "empire" and "imperialism," to argue that "despite claims to the contrary ... the imperial is a necessary tool for understanding the United States' global history." Instead of questioning "what the imperial 'is'— we should instead emphasize what it does." Kramer underscores the importance of utilizing "the imperial" to facilitate critical inquiry, and as a methodological tool, making "the use or non-uses of the words 'imperial' and 'empire'" redundant. He stresses, however, that "imperial" relates to dimensions of power, and encourages the investigation of comparative models and connections, not as "whole" systems, but selective elements. In accepting that multiple processes construct and maintain an empire, the intracontinental U.S. military-social complex of the frontier fort system, and the communities that evolved around the garrisons, represent an important variation of an imperial formation. Kramer insists that during the nineteenth century the United States was "an empire-building nation in which state and settler colonial conquest and the territorializing of the continent were fundamental to an increasingly confident national self-definition." Concerning the U.S. West, which he considers a continental empire, Kramer delineates the development of frontier urbanization as the imperial formation of settler colonialism. Here, as elsewhere in North America, towns and cities rivaled "for control of regional markets, resources, prestige, and labor power." Frontier fort towns, as hubs of such enterprise, generated the "dividing lines between civilization and savagery, modernity and backwardness," thus demark friends from foes, and "register the relative power or weakness of the imperial formations that they express and anchor."

In offering an additional perspective, Walter Hixson advises that the Spanish-American War and post-1898 overseas annexations are normally connected to a clearly recognized American colonial empire. Yet Hixson advises that "postcolonial analysis illuminates a much longer process of colonialism and empire building, long preceding the American Revolution and rooted in settler colonization." Settler colonialism, however, is just one manifestation of national expansionist practices utilized to produce, legitimize, and sustain power. Indeed, Nancy Shoemaker defines twelve such processes that often coexisted or fused, creating multifaceted structures. In considering the differences between the British and American imperial formations, Julian Go usefully offers an analysis to suggest that both empires began with state expansion. The acquisition of land, however, does not indicate an empire. Yet, in both the British (1688–1815) and American (1776–1945) experiences, both nations introduced imperial processes and practices identified by population of new areas by settlers, economic and administrative control by the governing bodies, military operations of policing and protection, and creation of imperial identities and ideologies.

"The absence of empire in studies of American culture," led Amy Kaplan to argue that "multiple histories of continental and overseas expansion, conquest, conflict, and resistance ... have shaped the cultures of the United States." She suggests that the encounter between diverse identities attests to the inseparability of imperialism and cultural discourses of gender, race, class, and ethnicity. Donald Pease builds on this interpretation by acknowledging that American imperialist ambitions were predicated on military superiority, economic wealth, and political organization, yet he notes that the efficacy of these imperial encounters depended upon "cultural technologies" to succeed. Building on this holistic view of imperialism, Ranajit Guha provides a point of entry to examine the military wives as imperial agents. He advises: "There is something uncanny about Empire. The entity known by that name is, in essence, mere territory. ... As such, it requires no homes, if only because the authority, the imperium, from which it derives its form, function, and purpose, is easily sustained by forts and barracks." He concludes, "Yet as history shows, empire is not reconciled for long to this abstracted condition. Caravans seek the shade of camps, markets their custom in the garrisons. ... [S]ettlements grow, as empire too is seized by the urge to make a home of its territory." This interpretation is explored by Joan M. Mickelson, whose study of British women in India argues that an exaggerated model of English domestic virtues developed in India. Even though a wife's status relied upon her husband's rank, this "cult of home" provided the dislocated spouse with a sense of purpose and authority. In identifying domestic space as a location of imperialism, a landscape emerges within which to view military wives as active agents of empire.

To frame the discussion of officers' wives' behavior, the parameters of the "Cult of Domesticity" and "Separate Spheres" provide a baseline from which to explore the British and American female experiences. The existence of fluid domestic, gender, and class boundaries at the military outposts, however, facilitated the creation of a distinct imperial reality. Barbara Jeanne Fields offers a useful analysis that explores cultural construction as the negotiation of a social terrain through ritualistic discourse. She argues, "Ideology is best understood as the descriptive vocabulary of day-to-day existence, through which people sought to make sense of the social reality that they live and create from day to day. ... Human beings live in human societies by negotiating a certain social terrain, whose map they keep alive in their minds by the collective, ritual repetition of the activities they must carry out in order to negotiate the terrain, if the terrain changes, so must their activities, and therefore so must the map." The "terrain" of the isolated military garrison presented an unknown environment. The officers' wives, therefore, constructed an embellished model of Victorian domesticity to accommodate and remap the very different landscape. Rigid class distinctions and divisions were forged from military rank. For example, the wife of a garrison commander gained an inordinate level of power to control the sociability of, and access to, the imperial class. She vetted aspiring members and was afforded deference at all official and unofficial events. On some occasions, this senior lady exercised substantial power to command a garrison, effectively issuing orders to enlisted men that were immediately obeyed and, in one recorded episode, acted as a magistrate in a military-civilian affair.

In both the U.S. West and India, American and British imperial formations required a notable military presence, which operated from an infrastructure of distinct installations. The British utilized benevolent imperialism to control the indigenous populations through discipline and example. In the American experience, the army acted as the vanguard of white settlement, enforcing and maintaining the social order to answer the needs of an expanding nation through indigenous removal. Statistical analysis indicates that approximately 70 to 80 percent of the U.S. Army populated the garrisons located in the West. This high percentage may suggest that many informal military traditions and processes would have been developed and implemented in the garrisons, thus setting standards throughout the entire institution.

In comparing the experiences of the British and American army officers' wives, who lived within the walls of the American forts and the British cantonments, this study contributes to the discussion of imperial sociability. It responds to Kramer's suggestion to explore "the dynamics of legitimacy ... the creation of buy-in ... the politics of production values, the radiance and prestige that attach to asymmetric power and wealth." In mapping experiences, it becomes clear that these women designed, directed, and maintained the social and cultural dimensions of imperialism, and constructed a distinct identity from so doing. For example, American Helen Chapman, writing from Fort Brown, Texas, declared, "I have seen women thrown upon this frontier under most trying circumstances, and I know they look with envy upon us who are sheltered within the walls of a garrison. There is this difference between being in the Army and out of it." In accepting and balancing the "slight annoyances" of life in the military West, with chivalric "care and kindness" proffered by soldiers, she understood her military status as quite different from that of a civilian. Living on the peripheries of empire, both groups of wives understood their roles, status, and identities were radically changed, now inseparably entwined to the mission and responsibilities of their officer husbands.

In considering the American experience, scholars suggest that officers' wives played central roles in the creation of a unique military culture. Women brought refinement and stability to their husbands' lives by creating comfortable homes in sometimes primitive conditions. They attempted to transport social values and cultural artifacts from core locations to the peripheries, to tame what appeared to some as a feral landscape. In the peripheral environments, then, the women and their husbands held a joint responsibility to adhere to military practices and support national aims, thus placing the military wife as an active contributor to imperial history.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Colonel [Joseph N. G.] Whistler's Rules for Wife Behavior,
1. Introduction,
2. Imperial Esprit de Corps: Nineteenth-Century British and American Army Officers and Wives,
3. Imperial Journeys and Arrivals: Couriers, Circuits, and Connections,
4. Imperial Women: Military Adjuncts, Station Sisterhoods, and Senior Ladies,
5. Imperial Pageantry: Officers' Wives as Public Actors and Ceremonial Performers,
6. Imperial Gender Crossings: Officers' and Wives' Dress and Homemaking on the Edges of Empire,
7. Imperial Gatekeepers: Officers' Wives as Social Arbiters of Empire,
8. Imperial Intimacy: Race, Ethnicity, and Class Relationships within the Home,
9. Conclusion: Imperial Women,
Appendix A: Glossary of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Indian Words,
Appendix B: Nineteenth-Century Forts of the U.S. West,

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