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  • Feminism, Vegetarianism, and Colonial Resistance in Eighteenth-Century British Novels
  • Marguerite M. Regan

Contrary to accepted belief, a vegetarian discourse replete with religious, medical, and moral arguments emerged during the eighteenth century. Moreover, anti-meat utterances, whenever they occurred, were often politically charged—shot through with questions regarding the status of women, animals, and vegetarian “Hindoos” (Regan 15). Until recently, most histories of vegetarianism paid little attention to the eighteenth century, making only passing reference to it and reserving rigorous explication of the discourse for the mid-nineteenth century and later. A few anthologies, however, went a step further and assembled canonical eighteenth-century statements on the issue but stopped short of treating them as literary phenomena.1 This belated attention to the proto-vegetarianism of the eighteenth century is not surprising given that the word “vegetarian” was not coined until 1847, and vegetarianism did not find its institutional expression until 1849 with the founding of Great Britain’s Vegetarian Society.2

Figuring prominently into this proto-vegetarian discourse are British perceptions of India. In eighteenth-century writings on India, the vegetarianism of the Hindus was at first considered a curiosity and later as evidence of racial inferiority. The English had associated their own hearty consumption of beef with military superiority.3 But now (as we shall see in the writings of Dow, Orme, Falconer, and others) they were associating beef-eating with superiority over not just military rivals but colonial subjects like the East Indians, who were, according to William Smellie’s 1791 Philosophy of Natural History, a “meager, sick, and feeble race” due to their vegetarian diet (144).

A vegetable diet, it was thought, contributed to weakness, indolence, and military ineptitude and, consequently, races like the East Indians were destined for subordination. But such politicized colonial discourse soon gave rise to [End Page 275] its obverse. Female novelists like Phebe Gibbes in Hartly House, Calcutta (1789) and Eliza Hamilton in Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796) opposed the denigration of the vegetarian other by contributing to an incipient feminist-vegetarian discourse (a discourse more explicit in the essays of contemporaries like Catharine Macaulay and Mary Hays). Both created a voice of female-centered authority in the literature of romantic orientalism, a voice of authority from which to critique the imperial project. They inevitably noticed an important fact about India that makes it unique among the world’s cultures: vegetarianism was a normative feature of the culture.

Critics have been divided over whether these novels support or criticize the imperialist project and over the extent to which they critique structures of class, race, and gender in Great Britain. One thing is certain—both defend the colonial administration of Warren Hastings and the East India Company. Mona Narain finds in Hamilton’s novel such strong support for a paternalistic vision of a “benevolent English empire” that any critique of patriarchy is compromised (598). Claire Grogan, on the other hand, asserts that Hamilton’s critique of patriarchy is alive and well, as evidenced by her creation of an “alternative female discourse of the East—one that contributes to and contests the field of Orientalism” (29). Gibbes, too, explores a new discursive space in her creation of Sophia Goldbourne, a voice of moral authority on the East who speaks the language of sensibility.

In what follows, I first establish how the imperial discourse surrounding vegetarianism reflects a gendered language of emasculation. Next, I examine Hamilton’s and Gibbe’s novels as critical responses. Such responses, when read through a feminist viewpoint, can be understood as contributing to the emergence of a modern, politically self-conscious vegetarian discourse. These novels, through their encounter with the vegetarian other, express sensitivity to the parallel oppression of women and animals in a patriarchal culture. In doing so, they make unprecedented impulses toward a vegetarian theory and praxis.

Cultural Contexts: Imperial Discourse Surrounding Vegetarianism

From the time of the founding of the East India Company in 1600 to the middle of the eighteenth century, England’s relationship to India was mostly a mercantile one (Teltscher 2, 17). Toward the latter half of the eighteenth century, however, England began to see itself more as a...


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