Colonial Nursing: Travel and Travail

An online exhibition in conjunction with the broadcast of ‘Writing the Century: Passages from Empire’ 

BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour
3-7 November 2014  

Image of Hong Kong postcard 

Using letters, official documents, scrapbooks, audio and photographs, this exhibition explores the experiences of nurses who were sent to work in Britain's colonies between 1896 and 1966. It draws heavily from the archive of the Colonial Nursing Association (CNA) held at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

The materials from these nurses' lives tell a story which gives insight into British imperialism. In many ways, nurses were seen as the perfect mediators of the benefits which colonial medicine believed it would bring to European officials, settlers and indigenous populations in the imperium. The nurses taught 'hygiene', delivered nursing care to European and indigenous populations, practiced midwifery and undertook a wide range of public health activities, often in remote and isolated locales. They also taught local nurses, inculcating them into Western techniques of nursing practice.

The nurses' activities often reflected colonial assumptions of racial and cultural differences. One of their primary functions was to nurse and care for the bodies of those needed for imperial labour. However, by teaching 'hygiene' their activities also sometimes perpetuated racial and cultural separation. Thus, nurses contributed to the discourses of colonization. Some nurses did not perpetuate such separatism, however, and instead were engaged with the local population to an extent which their employer, the Colonial Nursing Association (CNA), did not condone.

Most of the nurses' letters available in the Bodleian Library's archive were written to their employers. Therefore, one must assume the nurses crafted these letters with care, and were selective in what they included. However, other material, such as scrapbooks and images, give us an even more complex vision of nurses' time abroad. Following the CNA through from its founding in 1896 up until the 1960s, we see photos of nurses in the colonies, their letters home, the material they collected in scrapbooks, the exams they took and the pamphlets they were given, as well as information their employer produced. We also hear first-hand testimony about one nurse's marriage abroad, as told by her husband.

This is a preliminary version of this exhibition, released to coincide with the broadcast of ‘Writing the Century: Passages from Empire’ on BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour on 3-7 November 2014. A more substantial version of the exhibition will be available by the end of 2014. 

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