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Journeying Mercies

Is there any lady living in or  near London who could spare some time to help Mrs. Steeves supervising the Work Party at 33, Surrey Street? (…) Tea is at four o’clock and all who are good needlewomen will receive a warm welcome.


The Zenana or Woman’s Work in India: The Monthly Magazine…,1918

In A Nurse in Mapucheland(undated), Dorothy ORoyce describes the disappointments she initially faced to become a nurse overseas. After completing nursing training at the Midway Mission Hospital and Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, ORoyce applied to the Zenana Bible Medical Mission (ZBMM), arguing how fervently she felt called by God to missionary service. Unfortunately, her application was refused, so then she tried at another missionary society obtaining the same results. “Well, perhaps, I’ve made a mistake”, she thought. “Maybe God does not want me to work overseas?”[1]. Though a few months later O’Ryce did achieve her goal via another association, her insistence on fulfilling the missionary call illustrates the language and rhetoric that would shape the experience of thousands of English women in the late C19th and early C20th, those who contributed to and also benefitted from discourses surrounding health and travel, especially in times of war. Those young women who, as Dorothy O’Royce, arrived at 33 Surrey Street, and knocked on the doors of the ZBMM main offices to have some tea and participate in native trade by doctoring. That same address is where the current Kings Philosophy Department is, and these are only some curiosities that you will hear about such adventurous women working from (around the corner of) the Strand to the world.

Behind the Curtains: Lights and Shadows in Women Missionary Work


From the mid C19th, there were a number of British Protestant missionary programmes where women provided medical and education services as a way of evangelization. Despite their relevant work as agents of modern knowledge, female missionary stories have been explored belatedly only through the meticulous archival work begun by a range of multidisciplinary researchers (Stoler, McClintock, Burton, Levine, Hassan). Scholars have highlighted how, having a limited inclusion within the institutional structures of science and religious communities, women fashioned alternative voyages that re-articulated both the emerging market of colonial medicine and the nature of female work. As seekers in a period of political transitions, they not only nurtured and cared for the sick in amateur and professional modes but also challenged the field of science while transferring information from mission stations to home. Their privileged access to domestic native spaces and cultural traditions allowed them to distribute pills and medicines in exchange for native goods, producing opportunities for other travellers to engage with a variety of commercial practices within the global market. In doing so, they helped to establish the Western medical knowledge overseas, becoming producers and consumers, givers and takers, mobile and mediatory subjects of the British Empire.


The missionary archive testifies to one of the oldest female missionary societies in the United Kingdom, the Zenana Bible Medical Mission, headquartered in the Strand neighbourhood since the end of the Great War. Founded in 1852 by Lady Mary Jane Kinnaird in British India, the ZBMM took its name from the Persian word zenana, a concept meaning of the woman” and alluding to the part of a house reserved exclusively for the women of the household in Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu families. The ZBMM programme first focused on alphabetization, but soon expanded as a ministry to include the establishment of hospitals, schools and orphanages in the colonies and the publication of narrative accounts that circulated in the metropolises. With bestsellers such as Things As They Are (Carmichael, 1905) and If Not… (Knight, 1927), those literary materials served to encourage recruits to join the programme and also to raise campaigns that supported the economic maintenance of the association.


During the time the Society was based at King's, The Zenana or Woman’s Work in India: The Monthly Magazine of the Zenana, Bible, and Medical Mission (1893-?) was a true showcase of missionary voices and local talents. Edited in the Strand neighbourhood and sold for one penny across the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, the magazine was produced by British secretaries, advertisement agents and copyeditors, and funded by more than seven hundred subscribers throughout England. The interactions between medical ideas and evangelization taks were, of course, one of the most popular issues in columns by contributors. In contrast, medical objects were always one of the most controversial textual elements: portrayed as cultural objects, pillboxes, prescriptions and remedies helped female missionaries to symbolically consecrate themselves as female doctors of the communities they visited.


In February 1919, for example, in a brief description of an influenza outbreak and famine in the Punjab, Miss F. Green of Valtoha appears particularly knowledgeable about the gadgetry and ingredients of a successful medicine to overcome influenza:


Here, like everywhere else, we have been having a terrible time with influenza (quite a new thing in this country). For two moths our ordinary work has been stopped and I (as many Bible woman had it and was unfit for work for six weeks) have been around giving medicine, milk and soup to any sick ones who would take it (chiefly Christians). A great number in this district have died from pneumonia following influenza, but far the most from starvation. The native medicine men forbid everyone to take milk who has a cough -and all with this influenza seem to have it- and give nothing for nourishment in its place -water is about all they get. They say, “Wait until the cough is gone, then take milk”, but so many die before the cough begins to go. Influenza has taken off very few aged or children nearly all strong men in the prime of life, or mothers, leaving tiny babies. Many have recovered who took medicine and milk in time, and now they are convinced of the fallacy of their medicine men’s advice. Latterly I was supplied with medicines and food from the Red Cross Fund in Lahore, through Lady O’Dwyer, and in future all medicines I need for here. We are now rejoicing over the good news of Peace -so many have got it into their heads that it is only for one month- so it is not easy to make them believe the truth. Many are rejoicing that cloth will be cheaper!! But one woman said to me, “How please the mothers will be to get their sons back again”.[2]


This passage, from Vol. XXVI, No. 304, allows the author to accomplish greater textual authority while contrasting her response to the outbreak with that of native men. Representing herself as a wise healthcare professional, Green emphasizes the active labour she performs in the colony and describes building marketplaces while exhibit her prestige as a successful healer. Despite the lack of medical kits and material assets, she insists that natives who relied on her knowledge happily recovered as a result of her consistent advice. Her firm conviction that there is a specific procedure for the treatment of the disease and her assurance that the native medicine men incurred fallacy give her an important place as a figure who is able to diagnose, analyse, and remedy native conditions and, by extension, native cultural practices. She confirms this statement, by assigning the main cause of the great number of deaths to the starvation that struck the foreign land and the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the natives (not her own). For this reason, she finally mentions that it is hard for some natives to believe that the end of the Great War is the truth, suggesting they are unable to properly understand one of the most famous prayers of the magazine in the last years: “Realize that victory in the World-War can only come to the nations whose hearts are right with God”.[3] By contrast, Green can only imagine affinity with native women. Since Indian counterparts have been essentially transformed through the education and medical work carried out in zenanas, they have the ability to empathize with British mothers who fear losing their children on the battlefield.


Following Hassan (2011)[4], what this Bible missionary displays is the formation of an imagined sisterhood that not only promotes the sense of possibility that colonialism could inspire, but also alludes to a joint struggle against oppression and patriarchal beliefs. The “new” educated Indian woman functions here as a figure shaped and imagined to reveal colonial progress and emerging feminisms. Green, on the other hand, positions herself as the institutionalization of the advance of a large umber of British women -not only of the middle and upper classes- as contributors to the public life. This way, references to the native woman, the reality of war, and the feelings of British women are narrated as a common experience occurring simultaneously -“like everywhere else”- and collectively.


Why were the editors of the magazine interested in publishing Green’s report? Why could a content like this be inspiring for women interested in activities taking place in 33 Surrey Street? Probably for the same reasons they had for reporting the death of a devoted missionary in Bombay two months earlier[5]. Probably for the same reasons Dorothy O’Royce did not even publish her memoirs: because gender inequalities can rarely be inoculated.

Sandra Araya Rojas.


[1] O’Royce, Dorothy. (Undated). A Nurse in Mapucheland. [Unpublished manuscript]. Private Collection.

[2] The Zenana or Woman’s Work in India: The Monthly Magazine of the Zenana, Bible, and Medical Mission; 02/1919

[3] The Zenana or Woman’s Work in India: The Monthly Magazine of the Zenana, Bible, and Medical Mission; 03/1918

[4] Hassan, Narin. Diagnosing Empire: Women, Medical Knowledge, and Colonial Mobility. Farnham, England: Ashgate Pub., 2011. Print.

[5]This is evidently another case of a tired worker whose furlough was overdue, succumbing to an attack of disease. She was much looking forward to her furlough, and her last letter received at her home spoke joyfully of the prospect”. The Zenana or Woman’s Work in India: The Monthly Magazine of the Zenana, Bible, and Medical Mission; 11/1918


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