On an otherwise unremarkable Easter Sunday, 1899, a middle-aged Burmese woman named Ma Gun was returning from prayer at the Shwedagon Pagoda, on the grounds of the British Army Cantonment in Rangoon. In the cantonment, the newly arrived West Kent Regiment was in quarantine due to a smallpox outbreak in Rangoon. Most of the regiment was finishing their midday meal when a disturbance broke out near “C” company’s barracks, on a wooded hill overlooking one of the main roads leading to the pagoda. Details of what happened were disputed, but facts soon emerged alleging that a number of soldiers from the Regiment waylaid Ma Gun near their barracks and sexually assaulted her in a case that came to be known as the “Rangoon Outrage” in the press and by the British government. This case, and the military’s apparent attempt to cover up what happened, demonstrates that the imperial project was far from monolithic, and that different elements of the British Empire’s mechanisms of control frequently worked at cross-purposes. The masculine code of the soldiers involved trumped the legal and moral structures designed to control their behavior and undermined attempts to rationalize the benefits of colonial rule.
Feminist historians describe rape as violence against women for the purpose of social control, and as a way for men to assert their masculine identity. Susan Brownmiller goes as far as to state “From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”2 Studies of nineteenth century England show endemic sexual violence among the working classes, and that the legal system was increasingly trying to control working class violence, including expanding definitions of rape and more actively prosecuting it.3 The example of the Rangoon Outrage raises a number of questions. To what extent did attitudes in far-flung posts of the Empire reflect legal thinking in the metropole? What level of disconnect was there between working class ideas of sexual access and the legal culture that British soldiers in Rangoon found themselves in at the end of the Victorian era? Ronald Hyam has made the argument that Empire was a sexual playground for the British bourgeoisie, but did this apply to the working classes who made up the common soldiery?4 Did restrictions on prostitution, part of the late Victorian moral project that had a large impact on the military, encourage violence against women? If Empire was a fundamentally masculine project, and rape was a means of establishing male dominance, why was the Raj so concerned with prosecuting this case and punishing those responsible? The answers appear to lie in bourgeois concepts of proper behavior that extended from the slums of industrial cities to far-flung imperial posts. In this case even the bourgeois officers, the “gentlemen” who were supposed to control the working class, seemed actively to protect the soldiers involved in a heinous crime. Colonial masculinity was not monolithic, and this case shows that the masculine code of the military could cross class lines.
Shani D’Cruze argues that the Victorian attitude was one less concerned with the rights of women and more concerned with policing public violence:
[S]exual aggression in men was “normal, healthy and inevitable” and constituted serious criminal behavior only when it violated another man’s rights of sexual access, or violated class hierarchies or involved sufficient physical injury to make the assault provable regardless of the sexual dimension involved.5
Where does this case fit? In the imperial context, another element is present, the façade of control that the British needed to project to maintain colonial order, a boundary that the soldiers’ behavior in this case clearly violated. After 1860 the Crown engaged in a systematic attempt to bring India more into line with principles of British jurisprudence, which laid the grounds for conflict in a more complex environment that added race to the legal mixture.6 Did the law apply...