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27 April 2023

Tropical Trials – A Handbook for Women in the Tropics

‘Many and varied are the difficulties which beset a woman, when she first exchanges her European home and its surroundings for the vicissitudes of life in the tropics.’  These are the opening words of Tropical trials – A Handbook for Women in the Tropics.  ‘This sudden and complete upset of old-world life, and the disturbance of long existing associations, produces, in many women, a state of mental chaos, that utterly incapacitates them for making due and proper preparations for the contemplated journey.'

Front cover of Tropical Trials with a white sunshade and a sun radiating the names of countries in the tropicsMajor S Leigh Hunt, Madras Army, and Alexander S Kenny, Tropical trials – A handbook for women in the tropics (London, 1883)

The book was published in 1883 by Major Shelley Leigh Hunt of the Madras Army and Alexander S Kenny, demonstrator of anatomy at King’s College London, as a companion work to their On Duty Under a Tropical Sun which had been intended for the use of men. The authors had received several requests from women to write a book for them with guidance about health, clothing, travelling and the management of children in the tropics – India, Burma, Egypt, China, Hong Kong, Australia, and Melanesia.

They claim that the ‘physical resources of women in withstanding the hardships and discomforts imposed upon them’ by tropical life are limited compared to men.  But a woman of sound sense can maintain her body and mind in a healthy state by anticipating the difficulties, and be victorious in her struggle with tropical trials.

List of topics covered in the section on clothing and outfit Clothing and outfit
Grey or dust-coloured dress is recommended for travelling on land or railway.  A pith solar topee is not becoming but essential to avoid danger from the sun.  A silk gossamer veil worn with the topee cuts out glare and dust.

A variety of equipment is suggested – trunks; travelling baths; mosquito curtains; punkahs; goggles; lounge chairs for shipboard use; guide books and maps; toilet requisites; sheet music; books and stationery; saddlery; lamps; candlesticks; cutlery; china and glass; tea trays; household linen; insect powder; sewing machine; piano; refrigerator; mincing machine; coffee mill; knife-cleaning machine; scales and weights; crumb brush and tray; tool chest; chess and backgammon sets; garden seeds; bats, nets and balls for lawn tennis.

 List of topics covered in the section on travelTravel
The book moves on to hints for travelling by sea, rail and road. Advice is given about shipboard life, and going ashore: ‘No lady should ever attempt to land at any port of call without the protection of a male escort’.

 List of topics covered in the section on dietDiet
In temperate climates, ‘injudicious indulgence’ results in temporary indisposition but in hot climates could be disastrous, perhaps resulting in permanent damage to health.  Plain wholesome food is necessary to keep a woman in good health, not tasty ‘kickshaws’ calculated to create an abnormal craving for highly seasoned and harmful snacks.  Women should abstain from alcohol except in cases of sickness and under medical advice.

There are hints on domestic economy - servants, houses in the tropics, stables, dogs, and gardens.

 List of topics covered in the section on the maintenance of health More topics covered in the section on the maintenance of healthMaintenance of health and the treatment of simple maladies
This section is 200 pages long.  One treatment which caught my eye was belladonna linament for sweaty feet.

 List of topics covered in the section on management and rearing of children

Management and rearing of children
‘Children of European parentage are difficult to rear in the tropics’ – their constitutions are unduly taxed by a climate which pushes forward their growth whilst making heavy demands on their physical resources.  In the way that forced vegetables lack flavour, these ‘hot-house nurselings’ generally lack the vigour and stamina possessed by children reared in more favourable conditions.  Parents therefore send their children to Europe if circumstances permit.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Major S Leigh Hunt, Madras Army, and Alexander S Kenny, Tropical trials – A handbook for women in the tropics (London, 1883), British Library shelfmark 7581.bb.10.


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