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Response to Review of Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire

Andrew Hillier’s main concern about my book – which he otherwise finds to be ‘engaging’, ‘readable’, ‘carefully-researched’, ‘stimulating’, ‘thought-provoking’, and ‘illuminating’ – seems to be that I was ‘too quick to infer that … monotony necessarily gave rise to feelings of “imperial boredom”’. Readers of the book will have to judge for themselves, but when, for example, Henry Keene, a longtime East India Company official, recalls in his memoirs that ‘Nothing can be duller than a long sea-voyage’, or when Anna Maria Falconbridge writes that ‘The novelty of a ship plowing the trackless ocean, in a few days became quite familiar to me; there was such a sameness in every thing… that I found the voyage tiresome’, it’s pretty clear they felt bored. Likewise for comments such as the following from mid-19th century emigrants to Australia, who suffered terrible boredom on their 100-day ocean odyssey: ‘Monotony and dullness’, ‘Monotonous in the extreme;’ ‘Nothing worth mentioning except sky and water and water and sky’. Or, as Anna Cook put it in 1883 in one of her letters en route to Rockhampton, ‘Every day is pretty much the same … All the women say the time hangs so heavily on their hands – they have nothing to do’. I feel very comfortable asserting that these travelers were bored.

As for governors and imperial officials, they too were clearly bored, from William Bentinck, who said so explicitly – ‘Boredom with the overwhelming load of uninteresting business’ – to Lord Dufferin, who said as much without using that exact word when he declared, ‘Dulness [sic] is the central characteristic of an Indian viceroy’s life’. Other bored administrators included General Wolseley, who wrote to his wife about ‘the dullness of each day’, to William Denison who in 1863 complained, ‘My life here [in India] is monotonous’. As to why imperial service became more boring during the middle decades of the 19th century, there were many reasons, but my book is very clear that imperial administration became considerably more bureaucratic during this period. Whereas the early-19th century Colonial Office was tiny, by 1871 there were 67 men working there, of whom one-quarter were copyists; the previous year the office sent or received some 26,000 dispatches, letters, and telegrams. Still, I take to heart Hillier’s concern that just because someone says their work was monotonous does not necessarily mean that they were bored, although when Meadows Taylor, who served as Superintendent of Bazaars near Hyderabad in the 1840s, regulating grain prices, inspecting meat, and making daily reports, blurted out, ‘Of course it was monotonous. What Indian staff appointment, with a daily routine of work, is not?’ it seems pretty clear that he was bored, at least with that aspect of his life.

Hillier also criticizes my decision not to devote an entire chapter to the experiences of women, and claims that up until the last chapter women are ‘little-mentioned’. In fact, the experiences of women on board ships figures prominently in the chapter on voyages, and the obvious reason why I did not include women in the chapters on governors and soldiers is that women did not serve as governors or soldiers! As for why women did not receive an entire chapter of their own, one of the arguments of my book is that when it comes to imperial boredom, the experiences of men and women were substantially the same. In addition, Hillier accuses me of reiterating the trope of the bored and boring memsahib, suggesting that ‘a more nuanced approach would have examined ways in which women overcame their boredom by pursuing activities in which they were anything but bored’. Indeed, I do just that in my discussion of Julia Maitland, who, with her husband helped run a Christian school for boys and was involved in famine relief, and Lady Dufferin, who founded the National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India, later known as the Countess of Dufferin Fund, to recruit and train female doctors, nurses, and midwives.

But the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that women were bored all across the empire, from Emily Eden in India who complained about the ‘dull’ and ‘fatiguing’ days that became so endless she eventually lost track of time, to Emily Innes in the Malay States who recalled that ‘There were … many hours during which we either had nothing to do or could do nothing’, to Mary Mowle, an Australian settler who wrote in her diary in 1850, ‘The same old story… the same routine… What a life to lead, what a waste of existence’, to Emmeline Lott, who was employed as the governess to Isma’il Pasha’s son in Egypt and grumbled about the ‘irksome monotony’ of her ‘daily life’ which ‘produced a most unpleasant feeling’ in her mind, to Ethel Berry who followed her husband to the British Yukon and wrote about how ‘There was nothing, absolutely nothing to do’ except sit at home and stare out the window, day after day.

While Hillier is correct in observing that imperial writers only occasionally used the term ‘boredom’ – although some did – my book demonstrates quite clearly that during the 19th century a rhetoric of boredom developed to describe what increasing numbers of men and women were feeling, and that words such as ‘dull’, ‘tedious’, ‘uninteresting’, and ‘monotonous’ not only expressed dissatisfaction with present circumstances, but were in fact veiled confessions of discontent with the empire itself. Moreover, this widespread and pervasive boredom had very real consequences, from drunkenness, desertion, and suicide among soldiers who could go decades without being involved in a single skirmish; to administrators who took earlier retirement or requested transfers from out-of-the-way locations where they felt lonely or isolated; to the tens of thousands of would-be emigrants who were so dissatisfied – in many cases, bored – with their lives overseas that they returned to Britain; to the numerous men and women whose boredom led them to confess their loss of faith in the imperial mission. The empire’s early years may have been about wonder and marvel, but the Victorian Empire was a far less exciting project, with implications not just for our understanding of the British Empire, but for how we think about boredom, one of the quintessential modern emotions.