Tieto liikkeessä pitkällä 1800-luvulla

Learning English at the Expense of the Union? The (colonized) voice as a vehicle of knowledge and political transfer

In 1892, an extra-ordinary speaker rose to deliver a speech at the Cambridge Union. In “the best maiden speech the House had heard for a long time”, he spoke about University politics and the powers of the Vice Chancellor. Like many of his peers, this young man was being prepared for a life as a public speaker and as a politically informed and engaged member of the British Empire. He would become a civil servant after graduation, and a scholar after his retirement. The Union had, by 1893, a long tradition of delivering new members to the legal profession and the Houses of Parliament, training its members in parliamentary-style debate.[1] This was considered by many to be a central part of University life, not least because Cambridge, like Oxford, was a place where the social and political elites sent their sons to prepare them for their future roles as leaders of businesses, institutions and indeed the nation. Becoming good speakers, and meeting their peers in conversation and debate, was an important part of that process. The speaker who so passionately spoke about University matters in 1892 was no exception to that, but he did stand out. As a reporter of the Granta noted, “Mr. Yusuf Ali is far and away the best Indian Speaker who has appeared at the Union in my recollection. […] He has a complete mastery over the English language”.[2] By any measure, Ali was a legitimate, even central, member of the Union. His presence at the University was similar to that of his peers: his was an influential and wealthy family, and he would be expected to take up an important role in the management of the empire after his education.[3] He was particularly active as a speaker and, as noted, appreciated for his skill. And yet, for all his social conventionality and rhetorical brilliance, he stood out mainly for his ethnic background: he was an “Indian” speaker.

Interestingly, the reporter for the Granta did not call attention to any visible or physical characteristics, but to Ali’s speech as such: despite being a relative stranger, it was suggested, he ‘sounded right’. And in that, Ali was thought to be exceptional, as most ethnically ‘other’ speakers were routinely ridiculed or criticized not only for their language and pronunciation, but also for the sheer sound of their voice. In what follows, I will focus on these moments of aural disruption and ‘otherness’ at the Union-debates at the end of the nineteenth century. The voices of (mainly South-Asian) ‘colonized’ others mattered, I will argue, because they were heard as more than mere voice: public speech and its sounds carried – and carries still-  meaning far beyond the speakers’ intentional message – it also articulated understandings of normality and of belonging.[4] The presence of ‘other’ voices in a space that existed almost exclusively to train young men to speak like the white, able-bodied, elite British political leaders they would become, therefore sparked particular anxiety.[5] They not only disrupted the accepted soundscape of British (upper) middle-class masculinity and politics, they also threatened to expose potential fluidity and mobility – of skills, of ideas, of ideology – where stability was expected and desired.

In the following, I examine disruptive and ‘integrated’ voices like Ali’s in the Cambridge Union at the end of the nineteenth century using the reports of the Cambridge Review, the Union’s (limited) archives held at the University Library and humorous as well as more analytical reviews of the Union’s proceedings in student journal the Granta as my main guides.[6] Since the Union was considered so central to university life, its activities were reported and commented on extensively, often as much or even more so than Varsity sports. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw a slight rise in ‘other’ students. Reforms allowing their presence at the University had started being implemented from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.[7] But despite very small percentages of ethnically other students joining the student population, their presence led to a much more substantial anxiety over rising ‘diversity’. In the next three sections of this text, I will first discuss Cambridge’s character as a homogenous and homosocial community that nevertheless understood itself as ‘diverse’ and the threat ethnic diversity seemed to pose to this community. Second, I will show how the Union was understood to be a ‘reflection’ of the University community as a whole, in different ways, and how ethnic others were increasingly audible but also increasingly heard as a problem within its inner circle. Third and finally, I will show why aurality and audibility of these voices was, socially and politically, important. It was through these characteristics that ‘foreign’ voices gained both their disruptive and their assimilative power.

Pioneers or intruders? The first ‘others’ in a homosocial world

In order to understand the potential disruptive power of ‘other’ voices in the late nineteenth-century Union, it is useful to examine how the community in which their voices were introduced, understood itself. The Cambridge Review and Granta offer interesting insights, representing a conventional, ‘traditional’ perspective on the University and a more irreverent, student-led and progressive one respectively.[8] The University was, predictably, a highly homogenous place throughout most of the nineteenth century: women were not admitted at examinations, membership of the Church of England was enforced until after the Cambridge University Act was passed in 1856 and quietly expected throughout most of the century.[9] Despite such strong ethnic, religious, gendered and class-based limits (only those sufficiently wealthy to have attended public schools would, generally, gain admission), the image of the university painted in the Granta and Review was above all one of many differences. In a small community of white middle-class, Christian young men, all of whom were highly skilled at navigating the rules of their closed community, other markers of difference were mobilized to create subgroups.[10]

The Granta, in particular, showed hyper awareness of these small differences. Its consistently satirical, tongue-in-cheek tone was supported by a cast of sharply drawn humorous ‘characters’ with whom it populated its image of the University community. Dons were described with acerbic – but above all very specific – vocabularies, allowing students to understand their teachers as a collection of distinctive ‘types’. Likewise, students could be divided into character types such as ‘the smug’, ‘the new man’, ‘the bore’ and others. The “genus of the young political prig” had, apparently, not yet arisen at Cambridge.[11] More importantly, students themselves would identify with the different groups they belonged to, either by circumstance or by choice. The dedicated oarsman could ‘belong’ to his team, and turn to the Review and the Granta not only to find himself represented, but also to distinguish himself from the members of other groups, such as theatregoers, hunters or the debaters of the Union.[12]

Varsity societies and clubs in the pages of The Granta. The Granta, 19th January 1895, p. 138, held at the Cambridge University Library, Special Collections.

Institutional groups played a similar role in organizing belonging and distinction. A rich repertoire of stereotypes and stories defined the different colleges of the University, allowing students to identify themselves and others clearly (but only to the initiated). The Granta published, on its pages, a number of limericks playing on the character types attached to the University’s different colleges, clearly assuming that readers knew to read humorous content into these designations.

There was a young student of Clare

Who wore quite a tangle of hair

But this rough-looking image

Had been in the scrimmage

And so was a hero at Clare.[13]

Similar stories and stereotypes were attached to the public schools the students had attended in the past.

There is an Etonian of King’s

To the oldfashioned customs he clings

So he turns up his nose

With a statuesque pose

And sneers at Harrovian things.[14]

To those in the know, a ‘Harrovian thing’ or a ‘fellow of Clare’ carried meaning beyond just ‘pertaining to’ a certain college or school. It would suggest institutional history, (acquired) characteristics and personality traits, and possibly ancestral ties as well.

Learning to understand, use and manipulate this specialized vocabulary was part of the way one gained entrance to Oxbridge, was further developed at the University, and would later carry over to other institutions such as the bar and parliament, where older and younger generations of the community would continue to share a language.[15] From the 1850’s onwards, however, the small differences of school, college and family would be overshadowed by more radical forms of diversity as members of different religions, gender and ethnicity would gradually enter the University. Although their numbers were small – they never made up more than ca. 3% of the student population until the beginning of the twentieth century[16] – their much more dramatic difference required the development of a new vocabulary. The Granta would sketch the ‘New Woman’ next to the ‘New Man’ and ‘Girton Girls’ next to the gentlemen of Jesus, Caius or Clare.[17]

“Girton Girls”, or the imagination and representation of the first female students at Cambridge. The Granta, 14th June 1894, p. 391, held at the Cambridge University Library, Special Collections.

In the same period, slightly less cheerful limericks to describe a newly diversified student body appeared as well, betraying a sense of dread among at least part of the University community that the reforms would ring in far reaching changes.

In an ancient and grave University

All at once there appeared a diversity

Of Turks, Greeks and Jews

Hottentots and Hindoos,

Which altered that grave University.[18]

The unease students and staff felt over the inclusion of these newcomers resurfaced regularly: in student debates at the Union various iterations of the woman’s question were proposed each year, ranging from proposals to abolish the women’s colleges, over debates over the use and danger of women’s education to the issue of women’s franchise and questions of matrimony in general. The debates in 1896 even became known as ‘the Women’s War’.[19] On the pages of the Granta, these debates were reported on next to humorous sketches, poems and columns as well as more serious pieces on women’s education and potential political participation. These were, of course, all discussions in which women themselves did not participate. The first woman to speak at the Union did so only in the 1950’s. Debates about ‘colonial’ questions also appeared on its pages with regularity. The sheer presence of South-Asian students at the University offered no topic for debate, perhaps because their attendance, albeit in small numbers, was already settled by then, but seemed nevertheless to have led to considerable unease and anxiety. The Granta, which usually took a self-consciously progressive stance on the reforms – whilst still relying on conservative stereotypes for their humorous pieces – printed a particularly alarmist letter on the issue of the new ethnic diversity of the University community and general and the Union in particular in 1901.[20]

The piece was entitled “The black peril” and signed with the pseudonym “Jehu Pryde”. In it, the author took aim at what he called “not only a black peril which threatens the University but a yellow peril and a brown peril to boot”. The peril was one, according to him, of ‘submersion’: with the arrival of newcomers since the reforms of the University, white students would find themselves outnumbered soon. This was especially dangerous for the Union, according to Pryde, where “Europeans are already a minority, soon they will become a rarity, then a curiosity and finally a non-entity”. The author’s curious focus on ‘Europeans’ rather than Englishmen[21] shows to what extent the author thought of this issue of submersion in racial, rather than geopolitical or religious, terms.[22]

The issue was not merely skin-deep for Jehu Pryde, however. Particularly in the Union, what was at stake was also the soundscape of the University: the mere presence of ‘other’ voices seemed to him so disruptive as to make debates utterly inaccessible to ‘Europeans’ and therefore make the latter inaudible entirely.

An unbroken stream of broken patter, word follows word, words too crowded to be intelligible, too disconnected to be humorous, words merely, unmeaning, tedious, voluble. One by one the few poor whites remaining slip away in disgust. More Asiatics enter and sit in compact mases drinking in the turgid stream of verbose inanity with apparent avidity.[23]

Considering the small numbers of Asian, and even smaller numbers of African and Caribbean students in Cambridge around the turn of the century, Pryde’s discourse must have been recognized as dramatic hyperbole even by the most uncritical observer at the time. But his hyperbole chimed with the kind of discourse that could occasionally be heard at the Union as well, for example in 1895 when one of the speakers simply dismissed the opinions of the other side of the House which he referred to, according the the Granta’s reporter “as being composed of Jew, Turk or Infidel”.[24] Moreover, reporters of the Granta recorded the few Asiatic voices they could hear at the debates in very similar terms, poking fun at their perceived loquaciousness and accents, as I will show in the next section. Pryde’s crude depiction of the peril of submersion combined the sometimes juvenile attempts at ‘sharp wit’ that were characteristic of the Granta with the most alarmist shade of anxiety over rising diversity. In that, it was somewhat atypical, but its vocabulary, tone and main thrust were quite common. The fact that the Granta  printed the letter, but immediately contrasted it with an answer by Fazl-I-Hussain, a student at Christ College,[25] is perhaps most indicative of the status of this discourse: it was recognized and legitimized, but not necessarily endorsed.

At the Union: participation, assimilation and disruption

Fazl-I-Hussain’s response to Pryde’s letter was, in many ways, more exemplary of the reality of the limited inclusion of ethnic ‘others’ at the University. Appealing to King and empire, his response bore witness to the cultural work these newcomers had to engage in, in order to participate in University life. “You, Sir”, he wrote, “have allowed your pages to transgress against that Imperial courtesy which surely must bind together the most varied elements of His Majesty’s subjects”.[26] The response’s controlled tone seems a direct answer to Pryde’s accusations of “verbose inanity”. Nevertheless, Hussain also represented his ‘otherness’ quite openly, both in his letter and in life. As president of the Cambridge Majlis (a South Asian debating club founded in 1891)[27] he provided both an image of integration into University life, and a counterpoint to the idea that the Union could serve as a representation of the University population as a whole. This idea was, according to Pryde at least, a common one at the Union. Or as he put it “The Union is not the University but this is a fact of which it is impossible to convince the Union and which the Union conceals with some success from the world”.[28] And the Union did indeed seem to harbour ambitions of representativeness, attempting to claim that the opinions oratorically expressed on their floor were also present in the student body at large. The ‘results’ of votes passed over the motions put to debate in the Union were carefully recorded and published in both Granta and Review, giving the impression that these votes had at least some meaning beyond the debate itself.

More importantly, the Union and its members imagined themselves to be politically and ideologically representative of the nation and the empire – much like the House which rituals and practices they mimicked.[29] As a number of more seriously framed articles on elocution, eloquence and debate in the Review show, the Union was imagined – or at least liked to imagine itself – as a breeding ground for future political leaders. These would have to be trained extensively, as ‘the English’ were believed to be naturally unsuited for the grandiosity and theatricality of political speech. Or, as Lord Houghton phrased it in a festive speech at the Union in 1866:

Our national character is certainly not loquacious; our defects are all on the other side. […] I have attended public debates in France, Spain and other foreign countries, and I never witnessed abroad anything like the hesitation, the haggling, and the difficulty of finding words which prevail in our House of Commons. Englishmen always seem to say what they must say, while Frenchmen seem to be able to say anything they choose. [30]

‘Englishness’ was therefore assumed to be both a natural precondition as well as an impediment to be overcome for inclusion in the Union as much as it was for the House. Moreover, the connection between membership of the Cambridge Student Union, or its Oxford counterpart and later activity as an MP was hardly imagined. As ‘historians’ of the Union proudly pointed out, parliament practically teemed with former Union men. The Strand Magazine, for example, noted that the Duke of Clarence had said in a 1866 speech that “The Union affords, not only opportunities for social intercourse, but it is of great service for reading and study, and in many cases has given the first lessons to men who have afterwards ranked among our greatest orators”.[31]

It is perhaps because of this close connection between speaking at the Union and actual political representation and influence that newcomers at the University felt so incentivized to join. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, a number of ostensibly Asian names[32] appear in the reports of the debates, showing active participation of, for example, Mr. Tyabji, Mr. Taw Sein Kho, Mr. Aftah, and Mr. Nayudu (“That is the latest and correct way of spelling his name”, a Granta reporter remarked wryly)[33] on the debating floor. A smaller number still could also be found influencing the inner workings of the Union and its library. In 1886, for example, mr. Lowji M Wadia convinced his peers to subscribe to the Times of India and the Bombay Gazette, showing not only his own active participation in the actual running of the Union, but possibly also a growing interest in news from India among Union members at large.[34] An 1886 article in The Strand recounting the history of the Union included that “a noticeable feature is the number of Orientals who take part, and a very able, eloquent part too, in our debates. One has risen to the chair”.[35]  These all represent small moments of influence, but they do show serious efforts on the part of newcomers to participate and also a range of possibilities for them to do so. Although their visibility was perhaps somewhat exaggerated by virtue of their (still) relative novelty and rarity, ‘colonial’ members were certainly keen to make themselves heard, too.

Their ability to do so set them apart from those other much-discussed newcomers at Cambridge: women. As one poem in the Granta spelled out plainly, women were frequent objects of discussion at the Union, but could not take part in the debates themselves:

With just indignation I trembled

When I heard what they meant to discuss

These shameless young men had assembled

To map out a future for Us![36]

The poem was entitled A Feminine Epistle and presented as if written at Newnham, one of the women’s colleges, on 23 February 1891, ostensibly addressing the recurring debates on ‘the reign of woman’ without extending the right to speak at the Union to women.[37] This must have been particularly galling because in their imitation of two-sided political debates – and probably in the occasionally misguided effort to be witty or incisive – the recurring debates on women’s educational and political inclusion could be uncommonly sharp. One was opened with the motion “that it is every man’s duty to be a misogynist”, and another with the motion “that the present anomalous position of woman is due to the follies of chivalry”.[38] A similarly sardonic tone was sometimes employed to discuss questions connected to various subjects of conversation connected to the empire. When debating the Boer War in 1900, for example, it was noted that “we have no quarrel with South Africans but only with their hopes of gaining empire” whilst another speaker, in 1891, took great pride in “denouncing the Turk”.[39] The young debaters seem to have been perfectly at ease scrutinizing these issues as much as they did each others’ ideas, even if the “English Speakers” possessed what reporters called “complete ignorance of the subject”.[40] Such scrutiny could easily be extended to the bodies seen to ‘represent’ such colonial spaces at the Union.

Granta reporters mocking the Union speakers’ style – or lack thereof. The Granta, March 10th, 1900, p.617, held at the Cambridge University Library, Special Collections.

Scrutiny of one’s voice, delivery and mannerism was, of course, an experience common to all speakers, and the reports of the Granta, in particular, excelled at ridiculing various speakers with a wide range of descriptions.[41] One speaker was described as a “great trombone” that was “out of tune”, another like a “thunderstorm” that seems grand, but in the end does “little damage”, collectively they were sneeringly called “our Cambridge Cicero’s”.[42] Nevertheless, as a visible minority, South-Asian speakers were singled out for particular attention, and some for particular criticism. The most obvious one was one closely related to Pryde’s sneering description of a “turgid stream of words”: whereas reports do not always tell us what some ‘other’ speakers had to say, or even how they delivered it, it was stated very clearly that – whatever their message was – there was too much of it. Two Indian speakers who took part in a debate on English literature were questioned because  “considering the nationality of these two gentlemen”, they evidently should have understood that they had no right to speak on the subject – another was described as speaking with “Oriental vigour”.[43] And in yet another debate on women’s education in 1893, framed as one on the dangerousness and uselessness of Ladies’ Colleges, the reporter noted the following:

May it in all courtesy be suggested that if a foreigner, who has a creditable but imperfect knowledge of the language speak, he should do so briefly. Gentlemen from India always have much to say and will say it all.[44]

Whilst this is a characterization that, as social linguists have pointed out, has been used for various minority groups and most notably women[45] to silence them, it also chimed with particular stereotypes of the talkative Indian, who was feminized and infantilized in the process.[46] Moreover, stressing loquaciousness as a ‘typically’ South Asian trait also widened the distance between these newcomers, some of whom were celebrated as excellent speakers, and the ‘naturally’ quiet and reticent Englishman, who would not even become too talkative after much training because, as former Union speaker Lord Houghton opined, “garrulity is not the sin of the English youth”.[47] The colonial sound was deemed ‘too present’[48] in a way that did not differ much, in the end, from the way in which Scottish and Irish speakers were frequently deemed ‘too loud’. [49] Even in praising Indian speakers, like the flattering descriptions of Yusuf Ali, loquaciousness played its part. He was characterized as “a speaker of the luxuriant and oratorical class” and in speeches in which he proved to have “a better command of English than any Englishman present” he was said to “gild many a trite truism with gold from the Orient”.[50]

Another frequent criticism levelled at ‘other’ speakers that they shared with other minorities, was that they did not make sense. Or rather, that their audience could not understand them. Whereas for Scots and the Irish this was usually linked to a regional ‘accent’ and for women and children to a lack of intelligence or sense, the (South Asian) colonial newcomers seem to have been heard to have all those characteristics. Not only could they be “hampered by a marked foreign accent”[51], their speeches could be heard as representing the “thoughtless opinion of India” on a subject.[52] One speaker was deemed to be so incomprehensible that the reporter noted that he “is evidently determined to learn English at the expense of the Union”.[53] Despite such descriptions, the reporters did shy away from overtly racializing their accounts of speech, and even criticized a speaker who “referred to the Chinese and Mumbo-Jumbo races” in a debate in 1889[54]: clearly such phrases were only permitted in what was constructed as a game of witty repartee, but not as a serious (political) argument.

Speech as vehicle: why voices matter

The way in which South Asian and other ‘ethnicized’ voices were described in Union debates may seem like an insignificant issue next to the enormous obstacles such students had to overcome to be present at the University and its social gatherings in the first place. I would argue, however, that these portrayals of (some) Indian speakers as talkative, senseless noise-makers who needed to properly ‘learn’ English if they wanted to be understood was not just a niche or minority concern. The young reporters’ approach to these voices – the way their ears had been trained to highlight some and ignore other aspects of Indian speech – is indicative of the wider assumptive world of representative and imperial politics in which all these young men were so keen to take part.[55] This political world was one in which being heard mattered immensely – and was highly predicated on whether an audience was willing to listen in the first place. As, among many others, Mary Beard has pointed out recently, British politics was and is suffused with resilient ideas on ‘proper’ education.

Classical traditions have provided us with a powerful template for thinking about public speech, and for deciding what counts as good oratory or bad, persuasive or not, and whose speech is to be given space to be heard.[56]

Beard’s main concern in this regard is gender but, as the above examples show, the issue was also compounded by ethnicity or race, as it was, of course, by ability, age, class and others.

Such ideas on “what oratory is good or bad” are culturally and historically specific but have also proven to be particularly persistent – partly because compliance to existing conventions and hierarchies is integral to the idea of good oratory itself, which makes it resistant to change. As scholar of Deaf culture and rhetoric Brenda Brueggeman has pointed out,

Speech must convey the force of the speaker’s passionate conviction without transgressing cultural codes of conduct and deportment. It must, that is, perform ‘normalcy’ even as it incites and inspires some difference (otherwise, we would not be moved by, or remember, it).[57]

Normalcy, in the context of late-nineteenth-century Cambridge educational and political contexts did not include a wide range of pronunciations of the English language, it was closely tied to the kind of ‘classical’ education that included Latin and Greek but excluded Sanskrit or Arabic, and it consisted of a range of gestures and mannerisms young men had acquired over years of public schooling.

Even so, additional training to produce ‘good oratory’ that would make a man politically audible seemed to be needed at University level. As an article on ‘impromptu speaking’ in the Cambridge Review stated, good speech seemed of increasing importance for the modern man.

There can be no doubt whatever that with the continued expansion of our political system, and with the gradual opening to the many of professions which have hitherto been confined to the few, the value of trained skill in speech as an instrument for success must immeasurably increase, and it is well worthy of consideration whether Englishmen would not do well to bestow time and attention in a more systematic manner on a subject which ahs hitherto been looked upon as the sport for leisure moments […]. It will be found that the man of ready speech will, other things being equal, outstrip his slow-tongued competitors – sometimes even though the latter have fare more solid intellectual qualifications.[58]

At a time at which the printed press reproduced almost every word spoken in public,[59] and at which governmental and legal positions were increasingly professionalized, being a good public speaker was of the utmost importance to the upper- and middle classes and thus an integral part of a University education. Presenting ‘good oratory’ and the skill of impromptu speaking as a skill to be learned and acquired, however, also potentially opened it up to ‘new’ kinds of speakers. As the Review article hinted at, the rising importance of speech seemed to be linked to a process of democratization of politics and the professions. The ‘right’ to be heard, to be politically audible may have been largely imagined to be innately and exclusively ‘English’ and therefore connected to notions of belonging and citizenship. The skill to make oneself heard, to convince and audience to listen, however, could be though of as far more flexible and mobile.

Newcomers may have lacked the education one could acquire at illustrious schools like Eton or Harrow, but they were – like their class and college-mates – steeped in University culture. Publications like the Granta and the Cambridge Review were not directed at them. In fact, as shown above, its discourse could be dismissive and even abusive towards newcomers. But they could also function as a guide book towards behavioural and social norms, pointing newcomers toward different social activities like sports or participation in clubs. In the hands of a clever and ambitious young man with a colonial background – such as Yusuf Ali or Fazl-I-Hussain – these publications could become a manual to acquire and mobilize characteristics of ‘the Englishman’ in ways that were uncommon in the colonies. The roles reserved for privileged, highly educated Indians in the colonial administration – like those of civil servants with a British background – were generally organized around silent obedience and being the ‘opposite’ of the English man at home. Or, as Jon Wilson put it, “as a man whose life was supposed to be circumscribed by rigid rules, the civil servant in India ended up as the antithesis of the manly, self-reliant Englishman celebrated in metropolitan political discourse”.[60] Being educated in English language, customs and cultures was part of these men’s ascent through the ranks of empire, but they were understood to be observers and ‘learners’ of English culture, not participating or creating it. Taking part in the unofficial social ‘curriculum’ of the University, such as participating in Union debates, implied a very different relationship to the ‘Englishmen’ these students were surrounded with.

According to unsympathetic observers like Jehu Pryde, their participation in the University and its social life presented an intrusion. For the students themselves, reading about, listening and above all speaking at the Union likely presented an opportunity to fulfil ambitions of social mobility in an imperial context. It is striking that, in both these diametrically opposed views, the notion of ‘mobility’, of moving from one space ‘into’ another is so central. Speech, it seems, fulfilled an important function as a vehicle for that mobility: it was their voices that propelled these young men to the centre of University life.[61] And it was also their voices that did important work in carrying cultural norms and expectations between different parts of the Empire. The ‘good orator’s’ voice carried good English, remnants of a classical education and political knowledge of the metropole. In the case of the ‘good Indian speaker’ it also potentially carried the promise of bringing all these things ‘back’ to the speaker’s homeland, where he might be able to occupy a role of some privilege and power.

Conversely, the ‘other’ orator could also contain aspects of otherness in his voice. As pointed out, oratorship and speech were seen as skills to be learned. And whilst elite public schools and universities were presented as premium places to do so, they were not the only places where good speech could be acquired. Those who came to Cambridge from faraway places like Kolkata or Mumbai had not, perhaps, acquired the trappings of the ‘English’ orator, but they had also not been hobbled by its associations with wooden, tongue-tied stubbornness. More importantly, these ‘other’ speakers might have brought skills of different types of public speech to the Union – such as Ali’s ‘luxuriant’ style.[62] These may have been difficult to understand for their English audience, but seemed to have made an impression nonetheless. The image of a fast-paced, overly wordy speech seems to have been, above all, overwhelming: it inspired ridicule as well as awe. In many ways, it is perhaps because these ‘exotic’ but well developed practices of public speech were such excellent vehicles of knowledge, culture and politics that they aroused such anxiety in their (English) audience. The intrusion seemed all the more effective and real because such forms of oratory seemed to promise – or threaten, depending on one’s perspective – real mobility, and therefore potentially real social change and upheaval.


The voices of Ali, Mehta, Hussain and others whose names were not, or badly, recorded at Union debates were ‘heard’ as disruptive, then, because they were mobilized exactly ‘like’ Englishmen’s voices: as vehicles of political ambition, oratorical skill and of cultural knowledge. That they were heard as different and intrusive was due to the fact that such ambition was deemed misplaced, the skill acquired in the wrong places and the knowledge of culture was seen as artificial. Nevertheless, these differences were received and discussed in terms of acoustics rather than as political or cultural issues. In other words, it was in the ears of the audience that these disruptions, moments of difference and a feeling of ‘submersion’ initially took shape. When reporters ‘heard’ a passionate speech from South Asian debaters as nonsensical noise, they did so with ears culturally attuned to the norms of ‘good oratory’ they had acquired during their years of elite schooling. When a particular Indian voice was designated as an especially good one, this judgment was also based on ingrained understandings of both ‘good speech’ and ‘good Indians’.

The strong connection that was drawn between the right to be heard and being an ‘Englishman’, a term that implied class as much as it did gender and ethnicity, made the soundscape of the Union particularly difficult to navigate for any newcomers. This was true for Scots and Irishmen, earlier, young men from colonial backgrounds around the turn of the century or, later, women. Whilst access to the Union also gave them opportunities to study, analyse and attempt to imitate and appropriate norms of public speech, successfully performing ‘normal’ public oratory would be heard as particularly transgressive. The fact that it was always a voice that carried public speech, an audible ‘something’ to which listeners could not simply close their ears, always issued from a particular body, is therefore important. The vehicle itself, because it was a visceral, living, embodied ‘something’ was not innocent of political and cultural balances of power. Whatever it ‘carried’ with it – be it skill, knowledge or opinion – was always already coloured by this unavoidable, gendered, ethnicized, classed physicality.

Josephine Hoegaerts is an Associate Professor of European Area and Cultural Studies at the University of Helsinki. Her current research focuses on the aesthetics and politics of the voice in the long nineteenth century.

This research was carried out as part of the CALLIOPE project (ERC StG 2017).

[1] See e.g. see Taru Haapala, Political Rhetoric in the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, 1830-1870, Palgrave, 2017.

[2] The Granta, 30 January 1892, p.167.

[3] He did indeed serve as an Indian Civil Servant for two decades, but would later become more widely known as a scholar of Islam and translator of the Qur’an. See e.g. M. A. Sherif, Searching for solace: a biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, interpreter of the Qur’an (1994).

[4] As David Le Breton has noted, speech is always co-dependent on various acts of hearing and listening, especially for its ‘meaning’:  “la signification d’une parole ne se donne jamais dans l’absolu mais dont la manière dont elle touche celui qui l’entend”. David Le Breton, Du Silence, Métallié, 1997, p.7.

[5] Parliament, in particular, has a strong connection with voice and speech. As, among others, Mladen Dolar, points out, it is (linguistically and culturally) imagined as a place for speaking. Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, MIT Press, 2006, p.109-110.

[6] Both the Granta and the Cambridge Review are still held at the Union’s library.

[7] Paul R. Deslandes, Oxbridge men. British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850-1920, 2005, p.184-228.

[8] Both Cambridge and Oxford have brought forth a range of ‘newspaper’-style publications, often run by and for students. The Granta was a student weekly that ran from 1889 onwards (it was turned into a literary magazine in 1979, and still appears in that form). The Cambridge Review, A Journal of University Life and Thought has an even longer history, and had a more conventional/conservative reputation. See Arthur Sherbo, “The Cambridge Review”, Studies in Bibliography, 53 (1999), p.193-199.

[9] ’The University of Cambridge: The age of reforms (1800-82)’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, ed. J P C Roach (London, 1959), pp. 235-265. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol3/pp235-265 [accessed 10 April 2019].

[10] Historians of masculinity have found that, especially for young men, homosocial environments were often constructed as a place to acquire and practice normative gendered characteristics and behaviour (the army is perhaps the most obvious example). Higher education seems to have been no exception. See e.g. Sebastian Zilles, Die Schulen der Männlichkeit.Männerbünde in Wissenschaft und Literatur um 1900, Böhlau Verlage, 2018.

[11] The Granta, 8 March 1889, p.4.

[12] Sports, in particular, emerged as a practice connected to the Männerbund, and to the modern construction of masculinity that placed men largely outside the home and ‘in’ the world. See e.g. Varda Bursty, The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics and the Culture of Sports, University of Toronto Press, 1999. This seems to have been particularly true for ‘Varsity’ sports. J.A. Mangan,” ’Oars and the Man’: Pleasure and Purpose in Victorian and Edwardian Cambridge,” British Journal of Sport History 1, no. 3 (1984), p. 245-71

[13] The Granta, 31 May 1889, p.4.

[14] The Granta, 31 May 1889, p.3.

[15] Ben Griffin has recently pointed at the importance of ‘communication communities’ to distinguish between different (concurrent) discourses and practices of gender, and of masculinity in particular. The combined, homosocial, worlds of the public school, higher education and higher politics certainly seems to represent such a ‘communication community’ in a very literal sense. Ben Griffin, “Hegemonic Masculinity as a Historical Problem”, Gender and History, 30, 2, (2018), p.377-400.

[16] Deslandes, “The Foreign Element”, p.60.

[17] Two ‘womens’ colleges’ were founded in the late nineteenth century, Girton College in 1869, and Newnham College in 1872. Women were first admitted to examinations in 1863, but would only be able to officially study and gain degrees at Cambridge University from 1847 onwards. On the history of the women’s colleges, see Elaine D. Trehub,  “Women at the University of Cambridge”, in: The Victorian Web, literature, history and culture in the age of Victoria, http://www.victorianweb.org/history/education/trehub/3.html accessed 10 april 2019.

[18] “The Return from the University Sermon, 1890”, Moslem in Cambridge, 1870, n.2.

[19] ’The University of Cambridge: The modern university (1882-1939)’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, ed. J P C Roach (London, 1959), pp. 266-306. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol3/pp266-306 [accessed 10 April 2019].

[20] Both Paul Deslandes and Samita Mukherjee provide their analyses of this particular letter in their histories of the uneasy inclusion of ‘newcomers’ in British higher education. See Paul Deslandes, “‘The Foreign Element’: Newcomers and the Rhetoric of Race, Nation, and Empire in “Oxbridge” Undergraduate Culture, 1850–1920”, Journal of British Studies, vol. 37 iss1 (1998), p.54-90 and  Sumita Mukherjee, Nationalism, Education and Migrant Identities. The England-returned, Routledge, 2010p.57.

[21] Both the University and the Union had a long history of also excluding Catholics, Jews, Irishmen and Scots, all of whom could qualify as ‘European’.

[22] “The Black Peril”, The Granta, 4 February 1901, p.4.

[23] “The Black Peril”, The Granta, 4 February 1901, p.5.

[24] The Granta, 7 December 1895, p.120.

[25] Hussain hailed from Peshawar and from a muslim background. Having graduated he was called to the bar in 1901 and soon started a career in law in the Punjab (and notably at the Punjab High Court) in addition to a political career in Punjab Legislative Council as well as the Indian National Congress. Husain, M. Azim, Fazl-i-Husain: A Political Biography, Bombay: Longmans Green, 1946.

[26] “Correspondence: To the Editor of the Granta”, The Granta, 9 February 1901, p.201.

[27] On the Oxford and Cambridge Majlis, see Shompa Lahiri, Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian Encounters, Race and Identity, 1880-1930 (London: Frank Cass, 2000), p.149-207

[28] “The Black Peril”, The Granta, 4 February 1901, p.4.

[29] On the rhetorical and political use of parliamentary procedure in the Union, see Haapala, Political Rhetoric, chapter 1.

[30] The Cambridge Union Society. Inaugural Proceedings., London and Cambridge: Macmillan and co, 1866, p.15.

[31] B.W. Willson, “Oxford and Cambridge Union Societies”, The Strand Magazine, 1886. (clipping held at Cambridge University Library, Cambridge Papers, J8520, Ephemera)

[32] It is not always possible to retrace these names, or connect them to otherwise known historical figures – partly because transcriptions of their names could differ wildly across documents.

[33] The Granta, 8 March 1889, p.9.

[34] “Private Business Meeting, Monday November 8th 1886”, held at Cambridge University Library, Cambridge Papers, J8520, Ephemera.

[35] B.W. Willson, “Oxford and Cambridge Union Societies”.

[36] Despite appearances, it is highly unlikely that the poem was written by a female student. Like the Union, the Granta was an exclusively male endeavour. The Granta, February 1891.

[37]In his history of public speech in the nineteenth century, Joseph Meisel aptly notes that “women appear” in his study, “but, as was the case in national, public life, they appear for the most part in supporting, rather than leading roles”. Public speech was, explicitly, a man’s world (in politics and in the law, and largely in business and religion as well). Joseph Meisel, Public speech and the culture of public life in the age of Gladstone, Columbia University Press, 1999, p.11.

[38] The Granta, 13 June 1895, p.396.

[39] The Granta, 27 October 1900, p.39.

[40] The Granta, 1893, 6 February 1892, p.182.

[41] Their tone is similar to, and possibly emulated, that of the prolific parliamentary reporter, satirist and sketch-writer Henry Lucy. (On Lucy, see e.g. Andrew Sparrow, Obscure Scribblers. A History of Parliamentary Journalism, Politico, 2003, p.171, 202.)

[42] The Granta, 21 October 1893, p.22; The Granta, 11 June 1889, p.8, The Granta, 2 February 1895, p.169, The Granta, 25 January 1890, p.153.

[43] The Granta, 8 March 1892, p.246.

[44] The Granta, 28 January 1893.

[45] Ann Cutler and Donia R. Scott, “Speaker sex and perceived apportionment of talk”, Applied Psycholoinguistics, 11 (1990), 253-272. See also Robin Lakoff, “Language and Woman’s Place”, Language and Society, 2, 1(1973), 45-80.

[46] On the history of masculinity and processes of colonial effeminization, see Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The ’Manly Englishman’ and the ’Effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century?, Manchester University Press, 1995. On the colonail association of Bengali practices of (politicized) speech with ‘idleness’, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2000 (Chapter 7: Adda, a history of sociality).

[47] The Cambridge Union Society. Inaugural Proceedings., London and Cambridge: Macmillan and co, 1866, p.15.

[48] The equation between speech and ‘presence’ has a long philosophical history (which plays a role in imaginations of, among other things, democratic representation). See e.g. Mathieu Guillot, “La voix, comble de la presence”, Études, tome 394 (2001), p.383-394.

[49] As Jacques Attali has argued, ‘noise’ can essentially be defined as ‘sound out of place’. Vocal sounds can therefore be heard as ‘noise’, which deprives them of their discursive value. Jacques Attali, Bruits, Monoskop, 1977. More recently, a number of authors have pointed to the increasingly common observation that current ‘over-communication’ (most notably through the rise of social media) is often experienced as ‘noise’ rather than as meaningful conversation. E.g. Alain Corbin, Histoire du silence: de la Renaissance a nos jours, Albin Michel, 2016; David le Breton, Silence,  Paul Claes, De kinderen van Rousseau, De Bezige Bij, 2014.

[50] The Granta, 28 October, 1893, p.39; 18 February 1893.

[51] The Granta, 11 May 1901, p.321.

[52] A representation that also showed to what extent these students were seen as avatars of their colonial background, and not (just) as individuals. The Granta, 15 February 1890, p.202.

[53] The Granta, 24 May 1890, p.347.

[54] The Granta, 15 November 1889, p.72.

[55] Musicologists, and particularly those with an interest in historical performance, have called this accumulation of aural training and listening skills the ‘period ear’: how one ‘hears’ is informed, in other words, not only on what sounds are there to be heard, but also a host of norms, expectations and ideas about acoustic esthetics – and those are, of course, historically specific. See e.g. Shai Burstyn, “In Quest of the Period Ear”, Early Music, vol 25, n 4 (1997), p.692-701.

[56] Mary Beard, Women and Power: a Manifesto, Profile Books, 2017.

[57] Brenda Jo Brueggeman, “Delivering Disabitly, Willing Speech”, in: Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander (eds.) Bodies in Commotion. Disability and Performance, University of Michigan Press, 2005, p.17-29, p.20.

[58] R.C.L., “Impromptu Speaking”, The Cambridge Review, October 20, 1880, p.19-21.

[59] As Ivan Kreilkamp has shown, the rise of print culture supported a culture of orality and speech, rather than supplanting it, Kreilkamp, Voice and the Victorian Storyteller, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[60] Jon E. Wilson, The Silence of Empire: Imperialism and India in: David Craig and James Thompson (eds.) Languages of Politics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013, p.218-241, 219.

[61] This may have been connected, at least partly, to the perceived mobility of sound itself, which has been culturally understood as ‘moving’ from the speaker’s mouth to listeners’ ears. See e.g. Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, in which the voice is understood as a ‘missile’, leaving one body and entering another.

[62] Familiarity with ‘Adda’ is one example, see Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe and Esha Sil, Representing Adda. Bengaliness and post-partition melancholia, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2013. Different traditions of political speech, debate and extemporaneous speech existed across South Asia and the Middle East, and were also increasingly known in Europe e.g. August Ferdinand Mehren, Die Rhetorik der Araben nach den wichtigsten Quellen dargestellt, Verlag von Otto Schwartz, 1853; Douglas A. Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual in Colonial India: the Shaping of a Public Culture in Surat City,1852-1928, University of California Press, 1991, Gautam Bhadra, ”The Performer and the Listener: Kathakatā in Modern Bengal.” Studies in History, 10, 2 (1994), 243-254.

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