Last week, I talked about the American midterm elections and the connection (or lack thereof) between white women, suffragettes, and a lack of concern for people of color and their issues. This week I want to start with the same issue, but in Britain instead of America.
British women (at least the over-30s) got the vote in 1918, two years before American women. The campaign for women’s suffrage was a brutal one in Britain; one account called the suffragettes “a large network of free-lance militants engaged in repeated acts of criminality” (“Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIknRGKCKZo). If this phrase were applied to people of colour, rather than to white women, today, they would be labeled terrorists—and indeed, in their own time, many of the British suffragettes were called terrorists, and some supporters of women’s right to the vote distanced themselves from the movement because of the violence. However, the suffragettes are now seen, 100 years on, as heroes and are celebrated in children’s books.
In many popular books and media for children, the image of the celebrated British suffragette is middle- or upper-class and white; examples of this include the popular Danger Zone series by Fiona MacDonald and David Antrim, Avoid Being a Suffragette! (Salariya 2008); and the BBC programme “Horrible Histories,” whose “Suffragettes Song” video includes only white women, and middle/upper class women as leaders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmUA6_6UJJU). The song discusses the violence (“burned down churches, smashed up shops, attacked MPs”) but concludes with celebration (“Suffragettes, sing! We’ve done it, ding, ding! At last those men see you should treat us the same”). Imagine if—even 100 years ago—women of colour were involved in burning down churches, smashing up shops and attacking MPs. Imagine if—even 100 years ago—people of colour were not just looking for the right to vote, but for their independence from the British Empire. Would they be celebrated in children’s books today like Emmeline Pankhurst or Emily Davison?
But of course there is no need to imagine, because there were people of colour at that time who were suffragettes. There are many whose names we do not know, but one that we do know is Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess brought up in England who became a suffragette—significantly—after traveling to India and seeing the effect of colonialism on her people. Singh, one of the many royal godchildren that Queen Victoria adopted after more or less stealing the thrones/countries of the children’s parents or grandparents, was brought up to a life of luxury. But her parents, exiled from India to quell any hope that the Singh family would return to rule, were unhappy in their gilded cage; her father ran off with a mistress and her mother drank herself to death. Sophia and her sisters, knowing nothing else, became society princesses in the Edwardian era. Her trip to India, where she was recognized as the daughter of Ranjit Singh, the last Maharajah of the Punjab, showed her how much her people had lost in being colonized and ultimately dominated by the British. After she returned to England, she became a militant suffragette, storming Parliament and attacking the Prime Minister’s car. But until recently, she has been absent from most children’s books about suffragettes.
Two recent books that include Singh are David Roberts’ Suffragette: The Battle for Equality (Two Hoots 2018), which pictures Singh (presumably) on the front cover as well as giving her a two-page spread inside, and Kira Cochrane’s Modern Women: 52 Pioneers (Frances Lincoln 2017). Roberts keeps the focus of Singh’s transformation to radicalism on being “troubled” (36) by the way the British had treated her family, but Cochrane’s book specifically mentions Singh’s “loathing” for the British Empire after her visit to India. For women of colour, suffrage was not just about the right to vote; it was about the right to represent themselves and be heard as people of subjugated nations. For years, Singh’s story was lost to child readers, and those that do depict her often shy away from her anti-colonial attitudes.
Another colonial rebel who has been—and still is—lost to child readers in Britain is a Nobel Prize winner and contemporary of Sophia Duleep Singh, Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, in the year that Tagore won the Nobel Prize, 1913, he translated his children’s book The Crescent Moon, into English and dedicated to the man who nominated him, Thomas Sturge Moore. The book, which is about the common everyday experiences of the child, is comparable to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Indeed, both collections address rainy days, the seashore, fairyland, and paper boats. Tagore’s “Paper Boats” speaks of how “Day by day I float my paper boats one by one down the running stream. /In big black letters I write my name on them and the name of the village where I live. /I hope that someone in some strange land will find them and know who I am” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6520/6520-h/6520-h.htm) while Stevenson’s “Where go the boats?” expresses a similar sentiment: “Away down the river,/ A hundred miles or more,/ Other little children/ Shall bring my boats ashore.”
Original illustrations from Tagore’s Crescent Moon–in this case by Surendranath Ganguli–recall similar illustrations of childhood in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (this one is by Maria Kirk from 1919):
How beneficial would it be to introduce children to these collections side-by-side and talk about the similarities and differences in both childhood and poetry in different parts of the world? But Tagore is unknown to modern British children (and indeed, many British adults). His Crescent Moon is not available in English editions for children, while A Child’s Garden of Verses has never been out of print. Is this because the ideas are incomprehensible to readers? Hardly. But after winning the Nobel Prize, Tagore became increasingly anti-imperial, and his one-time champions in the English-speaking world (who included the poet William Butler Yeats) soon decided “he no longer appeared to be the docile colonized Orientalist of their projection” (Mukherjee, “Thomas Sturge Moore and his Indian Friendships in London” 67). In his 1918 Nationalism, Tagore complains that “at the beginning of the British rule in India our industries were suppressed, and since then we have not met with any real help or encouragement to enable us to make a stand against the monster commercial organizations of the world. The nations have decreed that we must remain purely an agricultural people, even forgetting the use of arms for all time to come. Thus India is being turned into so many predigested morsels of food ready to be swallowed at any moment by any nation which has even the most rudimentary set of teeth in its head” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm page 126). Like Singh, it was Tagore’s nationalism and anti-imperialism that silenced him for British child readers. Singh is creeping back into the history of the suffragette (though not necessarily anti-colonial) movement, but so far, Tagore has not been returned to his place in the history of children’s poetry. The long arm of the British Empire continues to affect the way that British child readers experience their nation’s past, silencing those who dared to speak out against the Empire.