The British Empire Library

Ribbons Among the Rajahs: A History of British Women in India Before the Raj

by Patrick Wheeler

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
How timely! Ribbons among the Rajahs fits perfectly the new 'Me Too' movement ensuring women are recognized and put on a closer to equal footing with men. The lives of British men during the East India Company's presence and through the early years of the British Raj are closely documented. But, asks the author, what about the women? His trenchant, humorous account of the women's experiences in India covers the period up to 1858. Quoting from his extensive research, mostly from journals and letters, he doesn't mince words describing a voyage from England that could last five months in a ship no bigger than the Isle of Wight ferry. Passengers, close-quartered with minimal privacy, suffered inadequate cabins separated by canvas and crammed with clothes, bed covers, kitchenware, perhaps even a piano or harp. Adventurous women, drawn by a quest for a husband, escape from boredom or simply independence were greeted as the 'fishing fleet,' young men mingling with the porters to watch prospective brides come ashore. New arrivals settled mostly in the Presidencies, Madras, Bombay, and up the east coast to Calcutta, while others were more isolated in the mofussil, the small towns or rural areas up country.

Chapters blend easily into each other, describing the households and the society in which the women and their families lived, English traditions and lifestyles mingled with the exotic. Social life was codified by rank, occupation, salary and position, and the less formal but equally rigid division of 'gentlewomen or ordinary women' with familiar snobbery reaching from the distant shore. Wheeler explored the treasure trove of letters and journals, a source vanishing in our email age, written by affluent women whose experiences were comfortable, by contemporary standards, to those almost struggling financially, who nonetheless had plenty to write home about. They reveal details about their lifestyles and were as gossipy as they pleased. At unimaginably large dinner parties, the hosts were obliged to tolerate acquaintances who were 'under-bred and overdressed' while they 'all sit round in the middle of the great gallery-like rooms talking in whispers and scratch their mosquito bites'.

In spite of the correspondence about daily life, whether cheerful or complaining, all was overshadowed by the unrelenting threat of death that came often without warning. An invitation to lunch might become a funeral the same evening, children and adults succumbing quickly. Widows must cope, returning to England or finding a way to support themselves - not easy options. Surely there were nightmares deciding about the well-being of children, wrenched from mothers to escape early death, to receive an English education, or maybe to retain-their 'Britishness'. A number of the women ran schools in India, often for the poor and mixed-race orphans. Others ran vast households that were questionably simplified by the number of servants. Day to day the women gardened (or instructed their gardeners on how to grow preferred vegetables), played cards, collected curiosities to display to friends, and organized 'fancy fairs,' the precursor of boot sales.

Despite the apathetic teenager who professed 'I have no curiosity' when offered a book, reading was popular, and when ships brought in newspapers and magazine several months old, women fell upon them for fashion updates, recreating the styles with imported or local fabrics. To keep their pale skin, women used as a base a toxic white lead-based cosmetic that caused the 'loss of eyebrows and a receding hairline,' well garnished with 'a theatrical variety of potions'. The book is a delight to read and has a double bonus. Patrick Wheeler, who is also a physician, describes diseases and the unhealthy surroundings that took lives so early. Further, he has chosen marvellous photographs to complement the narrative and show the vitality and fortitude of the British women in India.

British Empire Book
Patrick Wheeler
First Published
Pen & Sword History
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2018 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe