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Colonial Narratives and Crawling Black Ants: Encountering Lady Dufferin




As a visiting research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at the School of Politics and IR in February of this year I had a chance encounter with Lady Dufferin, Hariot Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood. A fellow traveller, but one that lived and died long ago, from 1843 to 1936 and who travelled a bit farther, from the UK to India, and other places following her husband Lord Dufferin. During her time in India, where she first arrived in 1884, she launched the Countess of Dufferin Fund which supplied female medical aid to Indian women. The largest women’s hospital in Pakistan, which was founded in 1898, still carries her name.

Lady Dufferin in Bromley House Library


I ‘found’ Lady Dufferin in the stunningly beautiful Bromley House library, established in 1816 right in the middle of Nottingham, on Angel Row. Bromley House subscription library is a hidden treasure that many who live and work in Nottingham do not know about. Or they might have heard about it, but never found the time to go. Bromley House library offers non-member researchers the chance to consult their library. During such a visit I encountered Lady Dufferin’s book ‘Our Viceregal Life in India’ published in 1889 based on her journal notes from 1884-1888.

As a political scientist I should maybe have studied her writing about Burma, or the Dufferin Fund, which Seán Lang called “an intensely political organization” in the edited volume ‘Contesting Colonial Authority’ (ed. Poonam Bala). As Lang argues, Lady Dufferin got caught up in political games when Indian nationalist utilised praise for her to criticise her husband, Lord Dufferin, when he resigned in 1888. He quotes the Dacca Gazette writing at the time that “though Lord Dufferin has done no good for the people of India, still his name will be associated with that of his benevolent wife and the fund she has opened”.

Female Colonial Travelers

This unusual and provocative turnaround in which a man is said to remain associated with his wife, rather than the other way around, alerts us to the gender dynamics at play. Sara Mills has described how female colonial travellers are “caught between the conflicting demands of the discourse and femininity and that of imperialism”. While their writing was rife with the same racial prejudices that can be found in ‘male colonial writing’, the female colonial authors studied by Mills focused more on personal relations with colonised people. Also, as they could not unproblematically adopt the masculine marked voice of authority, they had to find other narrative positions. Instead of that of the male hero, the roles of mother, wife and philanthropist were more readily available to women travel writers.

Encountering Lady Dufferin as a fellow traveller rather than (only) as political scholar, I was interested in reading the travel passages rather than the more obvious political references. Especially fascinating were those parts that seemed to offer small disruptions of the typical colonial script of English civilisational superiority. As I discussed in the workshop ‘Identifying Counter Narratives and Acts of Contestation’, which I organised during my time as a CSSGJ visiting scholar, identifying disruptions of hegemonic discourses is not a simple task and such (counter) reading can often only be tentative.

Narratives of Contestation?

Nevertheless, seemingly mundane descriptions could be very rich and inspire much thought. For example, at one point, Lady Dufferin describes her arrival in an Indian village as follows:

The village, when I reached it, seemed to me a most delightful place. I was not prepared for such clean and picturesque little houses; in fact, paradoxical as its sounds, the means of cleanliness in Indian villages generally seem to be the only dirty and unattractive parts – I mean, the water-tanks. They are perilously near the dwellings, and are unmistakably green, and it does not do to let one’s imagination dwell upon the various uses to which they are put. But the houses both as to colour and material look really nice. Mud walls do not perhaps sound delightful, but they are a good colour, and are hard and smooth”.

No doubt the narrative voice follows colonial conventions when Lady Dufferin sets herself up as the one to judge beauty and cleanliness. The expression of positive surprise is ambivalent but still hinges on the apparently usual negative evaluation of such villages. However, the explicit challenge to her readers’ expectations and judgments concerning mud walls shows a glimpse of relativising the objectivity of Western standards.

In an even more interesting passage Lady Dufferin describes a particular moment at a party she is invited to:

The society was much amused by the son of the house, a little boy who I had seen in London. I asked him if he had liked England, and he said, ‘Not much,’ which was a piece of unexpected truth-speaking greatly appreciated by the bystanders. However, as it was the absence of ants in England he deplored, I could not symphatise with his reasons. These black ants are always crawling about here and make one quite uncomfortable”.

The short fragment leaves room for the interpretation that Lady Dufferin equally prefers India over England, albeit for different reasons than the ones articulated by the boy. And though Lady Dufferin says to disagree with the boy’s reasons, she does not reject them as completely foolish. This could possibly indicate a decentering of Western criteria for judgment. At the same time, such reading for the ruptures in the colonial script could be at risk of missing the irony of her narration. However, Lady Dufferin’s reference to the ‘unexpected truth-speaking’ signals her awareness of the power dynamics in colonial encounters. And while this scene might be dismissed on the grounds that it is just a reference to a funny remark by an innocent child, such dismissal would not pay homage to the literary tradition in which children, fools and drunks are staged to speak the truth.

Complex Farewells

Lady Dufferin herself ends her book stating that she will not “attempt to describe the complex feelings which fill our mind as we step down from this great position and look back upon all the cares, all the pleasures, all the interests, and all the friends we leave behind”. In the absence of an explicit account of these feelings, her mixed feelings might rather emerge from her detailed narration of everyday events. While close (counter) reading of such fragments cannot be conclusive, they at least assist in destabilising one-dimensional accounts of (colonial) power relations, disrupting hegemonic narratives and revealing the complexity of the subject position of the colonial female traveller.


Dr. Sara de Jong was a visiting research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice in February 2014. She is now a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department for Development Studies at the University of Vienna.

Published inInternational Political EconomyTheory Revolution


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