In the documentary The Lost World of the Raj, India-born Eurasian woman, Nancy Vernede, recalled that when she got married to a young recruit of the Indian Civil Service in Lucknow, one of the first experiences she had as a newly-wed bride was a severe episode of malaria after being bitten by mosquitoes on her honeymoon.
For memsahibs like Nancy, danger seemed to lurk everywhere in the colonial Indian space. They lived in the perennial fear of the unknown tropical diseases and infections which struck the masses ever so frequently. Apart from the severe epidemic diseases that made rounds across the country, fevers of all kinds struck people around them, claiming lives at appalling rates.
The spectre of death loomed over them all at all times, and memsahibs were constantly aware of the likelihood of developing a fatal illness. Moreover, deaths from diseases were often sudden and unexpected, and it was common for people to succumb even when they were at their healthiest.
It must be kept in mind that European women were deemed to be especially susceptible to diseases as it was believed that the tropical ailments impacted them with greater severity. Fear of illness made them research on various maladies that commonly recurred in India, and they stayed conscious of the harmful effects of the insalubrious climate over their minds and bodies.
Since they lived in remote mofussils and distant stations where medical facilities were often limited or absent altogether, they often had to rely on their own faculties for diagnosing as well as treating illnesses with medicine they brought from home, or procured locally if available. They knew what medicines were effective against various diseases.
Most memsahibs were wary of “native” methods of cure and believed that they were likely to feel rather more sick if they took local drugs or herbs. In such a situation, “self-treatment” was preferred, and for most British women in India, medicine became just another part of domestic management. Even before they came to India, they read and studied basic medical manuals meant for those setting out for distant colonies.
Sometimes, if they ran out of European medicines, they used a very specific variety of Indian drugs, but only after proper research. Books like Remarks on the Uses of Some of the Bazaar Medicines and Common Medical Plants of India (1874), by Edward John Waring, gave information on multiple types of medicines including antacids, astringents, antispasmodics, diuretics, purgatives, narcotics, and even sedatives, to help families administer drugs themselves whenever needed.
Monica Campbell Martin, stationed in Domchanch with her husband, who worked as the Assistant Miner Manager and Zamindar Manager, was a staunch advocate of Western methods of cure, but believed in the healing properties of various native medicinal herbs, such as correctives for dysentery called “aishaph ghul”. Neem leaves were useful for poulticing and fomentations, and she steeped them in hot water during summer to relieve prickly heat.
Whenever there was a dearth of quinine, memsahibs resorted to chiretta, which was a kind of tonic and intensely bitter febrifuge that could be purchased in most villages (a petit verre was a good alternative although it was a forbidden luxury for many). Veronica Bamfield had witnessed a lady who was cured with some blackish seeds that the family’s servant procured from the bazaar after European physicians at the hospital were not able to cure her.
Sometimes, servants and locals from around villages came to memsahibs for help, in case of minor illness or injuries, and even for gynaecological ailments and pregnancies, they were quite happy putting together concoctions of medicines from their medicine chests along with local herbs like rhubarb, ipecacuanha, etc. They had studied the British medical manuals well, and had memorised dosages for minor maladies. They knew, for instance, that for headaches and even malfunctioning livers, Halloway’s pills worked well. Constance FG Cumming mentioned how her servants, in the 1880s, were always asking for dawai because they were prone to get a touch of fever.
At times, memsahibs even helped villagers realise the importance of timely medical help. Monica Campbell Martin wrote of how in Domchanch, twenty people in the village were bitten by mad jackals. They required immediate medical attention to cure rabies, but many of them refused to get treated. Monica and her husband exerted their influence to convince them.
Monica was so proactive that she also ran a “rough and ready” sick parade in her own home’s veranda to treat and prevent malaria. Indeed, in case of lack of medical facilities, memsahibs became proxy doctors and physicians for those around. E Augusta King even became a stand-in dentist for some villagers.
She wrote: “Two villagers suffering from toothache came to ask us for medicine, and as, fortunately, I always carry a bottle of Bunter’s Nervine with me, I was able to doctor them, with the help of some cotton wool and a long sharp splinter of wood. Their pain was relieved almost instantly, and, the fame of this medicine spreading, another poor fellow came presently with his face swollen.”
Memsahibs also tried to follow various precautionary measures for Europeans in the Indian climate, however, no matter what they did, they knew disease was inevitable. Flora Annie Steel cheerily declared that she had a good record of recovering from various illnesses: “Certainly I am an animal: I have such recuperative power.” This is not to say that memsahibs did not suffer because of the unpredictability of their health conditions, but most were comfortable dealing with illnesses and could medicate with relative ease. Many of them even documented the spells of sickness within their families, and charted out their dealings in medicine whenever they experienced it.
The might of mosquitoes
However, memsahibs like Nancy discovered (almost immediately upon arriving), that all their studies in prevention and cure fell apart when it came to malaria. Aside from contagious debilitating diseases, one of their biggest enemies in the strange land of India was nothing larger than a grain of rice: the mosquito. These intrepid memsahibs braved dense jungles, lived in perilous conditions, faced wild animals on hunts and travels, faced pirates, dacoits, and even mutineers, but found to their dismay that they could be undone by a bloodsucking fiend on wings that buzzed in their ears all night long during long summer nights!
The risk of fevers, especially from mosquitoes, was a particular nuisance to the memsahibs, who were not used to them to begin with. Sometimes, a memsahib’s face would be covered with tiny red bumps from being bitten all night despite mosquito net curtains. In the dark, they would not be able to swat them, and suffered through long nights of misery as they battled with the buzzing pests, unable to sleep.
Some declared war on mosquitoes; wore special anti-mosquito sleeping drawers, and were careful to wear their canvas boots while going outdoors, etc. They kept their beds draped with fine netting to keep mosquitoes away (although they knew they would be bitten one way or another). Some of them employed extreme strategies such as keeping their beds soaked in paraffin the whole night. But the odours wafted around them, making them giddy throughout the night.
Mosquitoes were in such abundance that Christina S Bremner referred to them as a “curtain” that constantly hung over her as she slept fitfully at night. She wrote:
“They bit me in the winter when everybody said there were none. My face and person were bedecked with bumps raised by mosquito poison when all declared they could not bite... I grew wonderfully expert at killing the enemy. Whilst the more heavy-moving masculine animal was slowly gathering himself together preparatory to an onslaught, I had laid a row of corpses on the table, victims of my agility... Nothing but ether and chloroform will prevent me thinking of them.”
It was near the end of the nineteenth century that the Nobel Prize-winning doctor Ronald Ross discovered that the parasitic fever called malaria, which had such a staggeringly high mortality rate, was linked to mosquitoes. Even though the illness was so common, it was surprising how it could hit people with sudden force. Memsahibs wrote how they would be bed-ridden and delirious for days. The fever would be accompanied by chills as well as breaking out in a sweat in the middle of the night.
It could also strike a person multiple times in the span of a few months and leave them weakened. Rosamund Lawrence struggled with her fever for days, and lay quaking, surrounded with hot water bottles under layers of rugs and carpets, just to get the fever to break. She experienced typhoid and malaria together and was completely diminished at the end of it.
The administration took rigorous measures to rage their battle against the vicious insects. There was steady research on the cause and treatment of malaria, focusing on eradication and cure. The Malaria Committee of the Royal Society, who had been to Africa, came to India in 1902, and toured Calcutta, the Duars, Jeypore Hills, Punjab, and other places, trying to make their assessments in relation to atmospheric and topographical factors.
Centres of industrial work, plantations, mills, and so on were recognised as cesspits of malarial fevers. Jungles, forests, and hilly districts were also recognised to be the spaces that were the breed- ing grounds of mosquitoes. In Calcutta, since flooding was common, filthy pools and marshy ponds caused malaria epidemics. Factors like the construction of the railways, irrigation networks, inadequate drainage systems, and improper sanitation drives exacerbated the problem of stagnant water, which in turn allowed for the breeding of mosquitoes.
Anna H Leonowens was travelling in Calcutta in the early 1880s when she wrote about how the city was at one point one of the unhealthiest parts of India. The entire landscape was flat with several muddy lakes, which were breeding spots for malarial mosquitoes. In places like Calcutta, there were a number of dense forests on the outskirts, but the streets had been carefully drained, and many of the stagnant pools of muddy water had been converted into gardens. However, the air remained impregnated “with impure exaltations arising from the low jungles in the vicinity of this city, called the Sundarbans”. In fact, memsahibs constantly exhibited concerns about the habitability of the colonised space in their writings and frequently expressed their disgust at the insanitary conditions of cantonments.
Be that as it may, malaria was so common that the British knew they had to live with it. The mosquito was a ubiquitous entity of the tropical space, and being bitten was mostly unavoidable. In fact, where malaria was concerned, memsahibs developed a kind of nonchalance because it was so frequent. For some, malaria became banal and not even a significant subject for discussion at times, so that if a memsahib came down with it, there would be no questions asked, no offence taken in case of rejected invitations, and no alarm caused.
Monica Campbell Martin caught malaria multiple times while living in a malarial district, Terai, in Nepal. There was a special type of malaria in the area called “aoul”. She had no choice but to suffer through it, since the nearest doctor was located 42 miles away.
The war against malaria was ultimately mainly waged with a few tablets of quinine. It was taken plain or mixed with tonic water, and sometimes even gin. In fact, the British had such enthusiasm for it that pills of quinine were passed around at dinner tables. It was the only sworn treatment for malaria, and the only hope against it.
Ipshita Nath’s forthcoming book is titled Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India.