The history of the memsahib

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on August 09, 2019 Published on August 09, 2019

Beyond royalty: Hickman’s account covers the stories of ordinary British women who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances in India. - H Vibhu   -  The Hindu

The life and times of English women in colonial India come alive in Katie Hickman’s book ‘She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen: British Women in India 1600-1900’

Despite the plethora of perspectives from which the story of British occupation of India has been told, there is an area that remains largely unexplored — that of British women in India. Katie Hickman’s She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen: British Women in India 1600-1900 is a wide-ranging account that attempts to plug this hole. London-based Hickman is the author of six books including two books on history, Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia.

The British woman in India has been mostly portrayed with broad brushstrokes. She arrived here in ‘fishing fleets’, looking to find a husband, and, once married, she assumed the role of the indolent memsahib. But as Hickman shows repeatedly, the women were not a homogeneous lot. Some were as young as 12 or 13 — orphaned children sent by the East India Company (EIC) to become companions to the men in newly settled areas. Some, including those who arrived here in the 1600s, wanted to make money. Others came to escape the rigid stratification of English society and made profitable advances in their societal status.

Take Charlotte Barry. Leaving “behind a string of rich protectors and a fashionable address”, she boarded the EIC ship with one William Hickey. “Stepping on to the vessel as plain Charlotte Barry, she would step off it the other end in Calcutta as Mrs Hickey, a married lady of unimpeachable virtue, ready to take a full place in Calcutta society” in the 1780s.

She-merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen: British Women in India 1600-1900; Katie Hickman; Virago; Non-fiction; ₹699


Hickman describes how not all women lived comfortable lives. They undertook arduous sea journeys (and some land journeys that were perhaps even more fearsome) that in the 17th and 18th centuries could last up to a year. They were shipwrecked, attacked by pirates and beset by violent illnesses. The story of young Mrs Gyfford is fascinating. In 1721, she was widowed twice at 25. The first time was when her ship was attacked by the Marathas, and her husband (a Mr Chown) bled to death in her arms. She was then taken hostage and released along with other English prisoners for a ransom of ₹30,000. Her second husband, William Gyfford, met an even more gruesome death at Anjengo in south India. She lived to tell her tale. Hickman prises out these lives from letters that were written to relatives back home, from journals and even from shopping lists, printed books and photographs.

It is true that many women were insular — as snobbish and racist as the men — with little curiosity about their new country. Almost all believed strongly in the colonial enterprise — that British rule was best for India and that Indians were incapable of ruling themselves. Yet, like some British men who could not remain blind to the immense history and diversity of the land, there were women, too, who stepped out of the boundaries of what was expected. Hickman tells the stories of women such as Fanny Parkes, who travelled extensively, alone, and revelled being in the countryside. Parkes wrote, “How much there is to delight the eye in this bright and beautiful world! Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab, one might be happy forever in India.”

There were others — like Henrietta Clive, wife of the notorious Robert Clive. She travelled with her children from Madras to many places in the south. The formidable Flora Annie Steel spent 22 years in India, leaving behind novels and collections of folk tales gathered from the countryside of Punjab. There were nurses who worked in hospitals, and founders of schools for Indian girls. These were energetic, resourceful and open-minded women. Hickman also goes into the details of many other aspects of being a British woman in India, including pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood — the pain of mothers who lost their children, or those who sent off their children to England when they were as young as six or seven. She also describes the lives of these children, left at the mercy of relatives and in boarding schools.

The book draws to a close soon after 1857, when one kind of life came to an end. The sieges of Kanpur and Lucknow come alive in the voices of the women — locked into houses for months, watching their men and children die, then hacked, drowned, raped or taken as spoils by the rebels. It was a time when everything that lay below the surface came rushing out in a dire mass of cruelty.

As an account of why and how these women came to India and what happened to them, the book is as intriguing as it is readable, and the wealth of research is commendable.

What will niggle the reader will be the fact that the book never strays beyond the surface to examine why the women were here — colonialism. Hickman describes them at one point not as colonisers but as immigrants, making their lives in a strange and hostile land. But were they not equally complicit with the men in propping up the Raj? Neither does the book have a perspective of India. What one sees of the country in the pages remains strictly what the women saw. For example, when the women write of their ‘craven’ Indian servants, there is no attempt to delve into the forces of poverty, caste and class that would have shaped the minds of these Indians. British women had as little knowledge of their Indian counterparts as the other way round. Alongside the many voices that are heard, if Hickman had attempted a deeper analysis of the forces of history, it would have been far more rewarding.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

Published on August 09, 2019
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