Anne Marie Rafferty: The Body Politic of Colonial Nursing

Between 1896 and 1960 8,400 nurses were sent by the Colonial Nursing Association to work in the colonies in the British Empire. Nurses were the second largest category of white single women in the Empire, occupying an in-between position in the colonial hierarchy sandwiched between the indigenous population and male colonial officials. Their primary function was to make the empire habitable and hospitable for trade and commercial purposes by nursing colonial officials and their families but also rehabilitating the bodies of the indigenous population to support the economic interests of imperial labour. Nurses were often motivated to work in empire on account of the freedoms it offered from the customary forms of supervision and stifling conventions of British society. The Colonial Nursing Association played on the sense of adventure, agency and autonomy that nurses could experience in the far flung corners of the British Empire. Yet nurses found themselves both the sources of bio-power as well as subject to it by the super-ordinate authority of their employers and colonial authorities. This paper will consider the way in which the discourses of imperialism and nursing were mutually reinforcing and constitutive of each other. It explores the ways in which colonial/nursing ‘embodied’ Britain’s imperial interests and civilizing mission and the practical ways in which nurses performed their professional and personal authority abroad. Nurses were portrayed as models of hygiene and sanitary practice for colonial subjects to emulate. But in order to inculcate so-called ‘natives’ with ‘civilised’ standards of medicine the nurse had to attend first to her own personal hygiene and bodily needs. This paper contends that while the empire held out the prospect of freedom for British nurses it brought with it new and unexpected constraints.