British Voices from South Asia
T. Harry Williams Oral History Center, Louisiana State University
George Mason University
These voices come from a series of 40 interviews conducted with men and women who participated in the British colonial experience in India. This site seeks to preserve their words and make their unique viewpoints available to a larger audience. The content first appeared in a 1996 exhibition at Louisiana State University curated by Professors Frank de Caro and Rosan Augusta Jordan.
The general introduction explains the overall purpose of the site and highlights some of the major issues and themes revealed through the interviews. While this introduction is helpful, teachers who wish to use this material in the classroom may want to remind students that these interviews only present the British views of the colonial experience and not those of the Indians themselves. While the perspectives and opinions that the speakers express are varied, they do not embody the full range of views on British imperialism in South Asia. Nevertheless, the site offers valuable resources. Specifically, the material provides a fascinating glimpse at colonialism through the eyes of those who most actively participated in it and is, therefore, worth a careful read.
The main content consists of transcribed portions of the interviews, which are arranged into six thematic categories. These sections greatly vary in length from approximately 50 words to 1,500 words. The material is easy to navigate. Each section, or chapter, has a separate introduction which sets the background for the series of interviews related to each specific topic. Approximately 20 images accompany each section. The first category is entitled “Passage to India.” These quotations explore the motivations that led these individuals to seek out life in the colonies as well as the details of the physical journey itself. The specifics contained in the anecdotal accounts provide a wealth of information.
The second section, “Running Your Empire,” provides tales about survey teams, military expeditions, and the daily details of the work involved in running an empire. Also in these quotes one can glimpse the aspirations, frustrations, and biases that individuals carried with them as they went about this work. “Life in the Bungalows“ details the domestic routines around which life in the colonies centered. This section also contains a great deal of information about the lives of British women in South Asia.
“Imperial Diversions“ provides tales of leisure activities, including many references to hunting. And, in “Never the Twain?“ we hear about the divide that separated the British from the South Asians and the regrets and rationalizations that often accompanied this socially enforced division. This is a good section in which to explore both the nature of power relationships and the impact of social and cultural constraints. Finally, the “No More India to Go To“ section provides tales about the end of British colonialism in South Asia and views on the emergence of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan as independent states.
I strongly recommend reading the introductions before moving on to the accounts. The illustrated overviews are an excellent way to understand the major issues discussed in the interviews. The site does a wonderful job of educating as well as presenting valuable primary sources.