Victoria Caste and Gosha hospital in shaping women’s healthcare in Colonial Madras by Arnab Chakraborty

In our latest fascinating post, Arnab Chakraborty details the intersections of gender, caste, and colonialism in nineteenth century Madras.

In late nineteenth century colonial India, it was extremely unlikely that upper caste Indian women were being treated at Western medical institutions. There were certain factors apart from caste, religious and class superstitions, and the purdah that kept the inner sanctum of colonial Indian households hidden from and untouched by the apparent glow of Western healthcare. Madras, one of the three presidencies in colonial India, had one of the most progressive and liberal healthcare systems in the colonial period, and it began to take note of Indian women who had remained mostly outside the realm of colonial healthcare until the 1880s. The need to diffuse Western medical traditions among the female population in colonial Madras led to the colonial gaze converging onto the so-called ‘inconsequential burden of the white men and women’ – the Indian women.

One of the first steps undertaken by the Madras government was to assimilate and ‘demystify’ the zenana (the private household where husbands or fathers of unmarried women were the only males allowed) which they believed would help to disseminate Western medical practices among them. While the government realised the importance of propagating health care among women, they found it tricky to bridge the societal norms that made it impossible to bring all women under its purview. Apart from the question of untouchability based on caste and religious segregation, the social fabric and hierarchical complexities in Madras made it cumbersome for the British officials to approach and understand the situation. However, the establishment of ‘The Royal Victoria Caste and Gosha Hospital’ in 1885 took note of such complex social structures and made sure that the local women were encouraged to seek medical care. This hospital was unique in its kind, as it had separate caste and religion based clinical wards, kitchens and also purdah to ensure that women felt comfortable enough to seek therapeutic attention. This hospital was placed under the Dufferin Fund (the organisation started by Marchioness of Dufferin in 1885) and was run on donations and government charities, although for money they were mostly dependant on the local royalties and elites who began to show enthusiasm at the prospect of having a caste and gosha hospital for their women. This demonstrates the willingness of the local elites and educated section to support the advancement of Western medical care for the women. On the other hand, it reflects the symbiotic nature of the colonial government in Madras and their heavy dependence on local benefactions. This policy however required more Indian medical women to join the ranks of practitioners as many ‘native’ patients remained unwilling to be treated by the Europeans.

Even though there was significant enthusiasm among the locals for women healthcare, it was not enough to cover the vast expanse of the presidency of Madras. To present a context, in 1891 the census of England, Wales and Scotland put the total population at 33 million while in the same year the Madras Presidency had a population exceeding 36 million. The medical profession was always in need of new recruits and along with the changing local attitudes towards Western medicine, government policies began to be more inclusive at the end of the nineteenth century. The government records show that it resulted in a paradigm shift in healthcare practices, in particular, female healthcare practices in colonial Madras. Such initiatives contributed to the expansion of medical care by and for Indian women, although, concerns have been raised about the role of the colonial government in sustaining and encouraging societal taboos such as untouchability rather than making an effort to obliterate those.

Arnab Chakraborty is a final year Wellcome Trust funded PhD candidate at the University of York. His current project examines the healthcare services in colonial India – his case study is the presidency of Madras. His broader research interests include history of health care and the policies in South Asia and other colonial contexts.