Above is a Podcast of the writer interviewing Dr. Raminder Saini about ayahs and subjecthood in the British Empire. The podcast was made for a class exercise to help students like our writer Morgan Marshall discuss the scholarship and content of their research. Take a listen and read on!
The Indian Women who Raised British Children
by Morgan Marshall
“ The ayahs of the present century, more akin to serfs than the domestic servants to which we are ordinarily accustomed”. - A.C Marshall in the 1922 Quiver Magazine.
Ayahs are single Indian women who worked as both domestic servants and nannies for British children in the 19th century. Ayahs worked in India for British families as well as aboard ships that travelled between Europe and India. In the 1922 edition of the Quiver, the author draws comparison between ayahs and serfs; instead of being bound to the land, ayahs were bound to British children. Although, tied to these children, they weren’t slave-like laborers, but rather motherly figures travelling colonial “water highways” with British families as a career. Read on to find out more about these Indian women who raised British children.
In India, ayahs provided expertise to their memsahib (the British mother they worked for) about how to survive and thrive in the colonial environment. They provided complete childcare for the white children, including feeding, bathing, clothing, and playing with the children. Often spending more time with their ayah than their biological parents. They also provided domestic and medical advice for the memsahib. For example, ayahs constantly stressed the use of wet nurses, this ensured the baby would get an abundant supply of nutrient milk and the memsahib would not exhaust herself. This was essential as the child mortality rates were double that of Europe.
On ships, ayahs were in charge of complete childcare, cleaning, laundry, looking after the baggage, and memsahib. Some even qualified as nurses and sailors. Antony Pareira, for example, was an experienced ayah that traveled between Britain and India 54 times and to Holland once. She was a young mother looking for adventure, finding her “life’s calling” by caring for children and travelling the “water highways” of the British Empire. This brought Indian women freedom to travel and explore the world, while earning decent money to provide for her own children back home.
What makes ayahs’ work so interesting is their inevitably close relationship with British children. This broke racial boundaries because ayahs were raising white children, while advising white mothers. Mary Sherwood, for example, was a Victorian mother living in India who wrote in her journal that her children “carry in their hearts the Ayah’s laughter and tears”. This relationship crossed racial and social boundaries, creating an ambivalent space in the British family. Many children became more familiar with Indian languages and culture because of the close relationship they shared with their ayah. So close, that when Mary Sherwood’s infant suddenly died, she heard her ayah “un-feignedly” weeping for “her boy”.
Life in Britain wasn’t always easy for foreign workers. The Ayahs’ Home was established to house, feed, clothe, and protect ayahs in England. Founded in 1897 by Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, the Home had 30 rooms and every year over 100 ayahs stayed there. The women were provided with a safe place, which offered Indian food, familiar languages, and culture. This institution was not only a place of refuge for Indian women but also doubled as a Victorian employment agency, helping Indian women find employment for the journey home. In 1900, the Rogers could no longer run the home, it then came under the control of Christian missionaries, as they saw the opportunity to help foreign women in need.
What is most fascinating about ayahs is how little information there is on them! I was astonished that historians knew so little about such courageous women that broke gender, race and class boundaries throughout the centuries. Their close relationship with British children allowed these women into important positions at the heart of a Victorian household. Whether their employers wanted or not, ayahs had a lasting impact on future British generations. Impacts that were undesirable to the British, as Victorians believed children were being “culturally contaminated” by a “weaker race”. However, this did not cease the employment of ayahs, their expertise with children was undeniably excellent.
About this blog writer: Morgan Marshall is an undergraduate student studying History and Art History at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus.