Gendering India: Effeminacy and the Scottish Enlightenment's Debates over Virtue and Luxury

By Chen, Jeng-Guo S. | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Gendering India: Effeminacy and the Scottish Enlightenment's Debates over Virtue and Luxury


Chen, Jeng-Guo S., Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


From the eighteenth century on, many British writers described Indians as effeminate. Thomas Babington Macaulay, for instance, stated expressly and bluntly: "The Castillans have a proverb, that in Valencia the earth is water and the men women; and the description is at least equally applicable to the vast plain of the Lower Ganges. Whatever the Bengalee does he does languidly."1 In this Whiggish historian's view, the Bengalis lost their independence to the Mughals and, centuries later, to the British, because of their effeminacy. Macaulay concluded: "The physical organization of the Bengalee is feeble even to effeminacy."2 According to Mrinalini Sinha, Macaulay's description influenced British thinking into the late nineteenth century.3 Sinha acutely observes that casting the Indian people as effeminate corresponded in time to the creation of a new British imperialist government and the arrival of "racial politics" in India. The concept of Indian effeminacy immediately caught on in Britain and it was routinely evoked in the contexts of Victorian sexual politics and racial theory. The ineffectual nature of the "Effeminate babu" was connected with the general unfitness of women for politics.4 This hybrid of racism and sexism may have influenced and been internalized by Nathuram Godse, who declared that he had assassinated Gandhi out of a fear of that the letter's nonviolent resistance "would ultimately result in the emasculation of the Hindu community."5 As an imposed and haunting identity, the attribution of effeminacy can be traced throughout India's colonial history.6

This paper will argue, however, that the language of effeminacy employed a range of meanings. To take one example, nineteenth-century discussions of effeminacy were intertwined with racial and physiological discourses.7 The strenuous Evangelical revival of the time gave rise not only to outspoken support for moral rigidity but to a tacit consensus on "Christian manhood."8 On the other hand, eighteenth-century Scots theorists and writers were not particularly interested in physiognomy, although their characterizations of Indians as effeminate implied physiological racialization. They were concerned, instead, with effeminacy as a moral and social concomitant of commerce, luxury, consumption, and corruption. In other words, they used the language of effeminacy to address economic and political concerns. Another striking difference is the fundamental secular-religious division, with earlier writers focusing on the practical world of trade and capital accumulation and later writers far more interested in spiritual issues. In contrast to the pejorative associations of the nineteenth century, in the eighteenth century the effeminacy ascribed to Hindus contained a range of values. This shift can be traced to a series of conflicts with profound consequences for Great Britain. Beginning with the Seven Years' War and climaxing with the Napoleonic Wars, British attitudes toward India soured and the alleged effeminacy of the Indian people became an irritant. Before these developments, in the mercantilist age, effeminacy was part of the larger, overall positive construction of Hindu culture developed in the newly established British Empire in India.

In this paper I wish to unravel the changing British construction of Hindu effeminacy through a study of how Scots writers wove that image into their anxieties surrounding the production of luxury goods for a European market. The result was cultural and ideological justification for British imperialism. In the 1760s enlightened Scots, including David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and Adam Ferguson, viewed mercantilism in different ways. Depending on which strands of republicanism he favored, any one of them might adopt a distinctive take on Hindu effeminacy. Scottish attitudes about the engendered subcontinent fluctuated with charges in British imperial policy. As many came to believe that the temperance and effeminacy, which they associated with Hinduism, were conducive to trading and manufacturing, they ignored the significance of India's Muslims.

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