Destitution and its Discontents

Speakers: Raminder Saini, Hilary Buxton, Sarah Mass

Chair: Julia Laite

This panel will bring together three cases of disadvantaged actors in the metropole and the Empire to consider how the British dealt with problematic and incapacitated groups in their midst.  Looking at cases extending from London and Cardiff to Leeds and Bombay, the panelists consider how voluntary societies and private charities filled gaps in British welfare policy through efforts at rescue and rehabilitation.  Raminder Saini’s paper centers on the 1857 establishment of the Stranger’s Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which provided aid to destitute lascars in Britain by cloistering them in a space specifically designed for the “other.” Saini argues that this space, while altruistic in nature, sought to curtail Indians’ movement and opportunities in Britain.  Moving into the twentieth century, Hilary Buxton’s paper addresses British efforts to rehabilitate and re-train disabled colonial troops of the Great War.  Focusing on the Queen Mary Technical School for soldiers in Bombay, Buxton argues that this intervention formed part of a wider effort to define British obligations to its veterans while simultaneously managing the threat of colonial unrest.  Sarah Mass turns to the question of civic engagement and community support in postwar Britain, questioning how market traders styled their work as connected to the public good.  Mass contends that the desperate state of the marketplace in the aftermath of WWII led traders to idealize their role as social providers.  Together, these papers discuss to what extent the British state, private institutions, and individual civilians defined responsibility, adjudicated merit, and negotiated boundaries in an era of imperial expansion and global warfare.

Paper 1 Abstract: Raminder Saini, McGill University

A Home for “Strangers”: Providing Christian Charity to the Destitute Indian

In 1856, a year before the outbreak of the “Indian Mutiny,” the Church Missionary Society founded the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders in London’s East End. The Home officially opened in 1857, providing temporary lodgings, exposure to Christian doctrine as well as aid to destitute Indians so they could escape the drudgery of London’s East End. These efforts were spurred by the increasing number of destitute lascars stranded in the metropole in early nineteenth-century Britain. Lodging houses, such as the Sailors’ Home, were established to provide food and shelter to seamen, but these lodgings did not solve the problem of impoverished lascars wandering the streets of London. The East India Company, and later the India Office, were supposed to provide provisions for lascars and other Indians, but ineffective government policy resulted in Indians who had no intention of settling in Britain to become its unintended immigrants. By the 1840s, an increasing number of impoverished Indians caught the attention of Henry Venn and the Church Missionary Society who took concerted efforts to provide aid to these unintended immigrants.

This paper charts the significance of the Strangers’ Home as an important physical space for both colonial sojourners and destitute lascars. It argues that while the Home provided much needed charity, in establishing a defined space in which “strangers” from the Empire could and should congregate, evangelicals were attempting to isolate imperial subjects, especially Indians, from participating in white British society. Nevertheless, it is significant that where imperial policy failed, philanthropic efforts succeeded. In this way, this paper illustrates the contradictory or dualistic elements that formed with the opening of the Strangers’ Home in 1857.

Paper 2 Abstract: Hilary Buxton, Rutgers University

“The Crippled Natives”: Rehabilitating and Re-educating Colonial Veterans of WWI

In the last two decades, an increasing number of studies have attempted to examine soldiers and their post-WWI experiences.  While the experience and treatment of British soldiers has been extensively explored, the same questions with regards to colonial troops.  How did their “Otherness” affect the location and character of the bodily and psychological treatments that the British wartime state offered its non-white veterans?

This paper will look at a series of rehabilitative homes and health institutions formed during and after the war in India and the West Indies, to compare the experiences of servicemen in their attempts to access healthcare from the British state.  It argues that healing colonial soldiers’ bodies was part of a wider propaganda effort to safeguard against a rising tide of anti-colonial demonstrations in the Empire.  Healthcare provision for veterans, while partial and contested, was focused in areas where anti-imperial threats seemed greatest.  As a critical component of military control and administration in India, retraining and healing Indian veterans became a high priority.  In contrast, officials found it easier to relinquish responsibility for colonies with dwindling profits and which lacked a cohesive anti-colonial agenda, leaving black soldiers of the Caribbean adrift.

Out of a mediocre network of government-run hospitals and pension centers, only one rehabilitation center was founded to retrain disabled non-white servicemen in suitable work: the Queen Mary Technical School in Bombay, established in 1917. Lauded as evidence of Britain’s devotion to its imperial children, the center was funded by private donations from British and Indian benefactors.  It offered instruction in accessible employment, yet its scope was limited, accepting only a fraction of esteemed Sepoys and ignoring Indian laborers.  Tracing the history of this institution, the paper demonstrates how apparatuses of healing became devices of inequality.

Paper 3 Abstract: Sarah Mass, University of Michigan

Market Traders and the Parameters of British Municipal Citizenship

British marketplaces served as the multi-faceted core of provincial cities over the course of the twentieth century. As public institutions, they conveyed the ethos of providing quality staples to the most vulnerable citizens. And as hubs in urban shopping districts, the renting of a market stall was a relatively affordable way to grow a business. Yet what were the limits of the market’s “value” as British cities were physically and ideologically strained during and after the Second World War?

Focusing on the perspectives of traders themselves (set down in the pages of their journal, The Market Traders’ Review), and drawing on case studies in cities such as Leeds and Cardiff, this paper will argue that in periods of crisis, the public marketplace became a space where entrepreneurs parsed the meaning of civic belonging. Market traders — as the mediators between the responsibilities of local government and the basic shopping needs of the populace — could claim that their citizenship flowed from their commitment to the public good. This role was especially pronounced during the bombing of the Second World War, when marketplaces became stopgap solutions in the disrupted supply of provisions. Yet there were limits to this “public” utility. In the aftermath of the Second World War, impromptu markets cropped up on vacant bombed land, and spiv and transient interlopers took advantage of fluid market culture. In the face of these blemishes and the attacks they encouraged among authorities, market traders were forced to confront who was an insider and who was an outsider in their nominally “open” business community. The desperate situation of the wartime and postwar urban economy idealized the social provision role of the marketplace by excluding forms of trade deemed unworthy of this civic space.



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