The British Empire Library

She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India 1600-1900

by Katie Hickman

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Katie Hickman specialises in writing about women, having previously published studies of British diplomatic wives, and courtesans in the 18*'’ and 19*’’ centuries. In her latest book she takes on a subject, the memsahib, who has long been of critical interest, and sites her within the topic of Empire, currently under hostile scrutiny. On both the memsahib and Empire, she takes a nuanced approach. The High Noon of Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seemingly inevitable, was no foregone conclusion. From the often shaky pursuit of trading connections in the 1600s, through battles with other European powers and Indian rulers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was not always certain that Britain would come out on top and impose the Raj in the wake of the 1857 Uprising. The memsahibs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, who were popularly assigned the negative image of spoilers of Empire, were in fact preceded by women with extremely varied histories and interests, who reflected the different stages of Britain’s engagement with India.

One of the most interesting and original aspects of Katie Hickman’s study is the light she throws on the British women who went to India from the early period of the establishment of the East India Company in 1600. Far from the stereotype of the middle class memsahib, these were tough women, inspired by a sense of adventure, and often the desire to make money on their own account in an uncertain world where British merchants were dependent on their acceptance by Indian rulers and traders. With the acquisition of Bombay in 1666, Britain gained a base in India. Working and lower middle class women — as well as orphan girls as young as 12 from Christ’s Hospital - were encouraged to sail to India to build up the infrastructure of the new British colony, the forerunners of innumerable women who for centuries ran small businesses and provided a wide variety of services. Their contribution is too often forgotten under the strangling image of the memsahib. Britain’s presence in India was challenged in the 18th century by wars with other European powers, notably the French, and local rulers.

It was a close run thing, and it is easy to forget that the British themselves were sometimes doubtful of their ability to survive. In this maelstrom, British women’s lives were far from safe. In the I8th century, some were captured by Marathas; Elizabeth Fay was held by Haider Ali and Elizabeth Marsh challenged by howling mobs on her travels round south India, a far cry from later days when memsahibs travelled the sub-continent with impunity, cared for only by their servants. However, the officers brought in to fight the wars, and the administrators to run the resulting areas meant the arrival in greater numbers of women from more educated backgrounds. Many of these like Sophia Plowden and Lady (Henrietta) Clive distinguished themselves by their love of Indian life and culture, and their communication of this to the outside world. On the other hand, the peace brought by the British control of Bengal and areas further south created an explosion of wealth from trade, not to mention chicanery. British society was rumbustious and raffish - with many women to match. As from the earliest days, reputations which would have been regarded as sullied at home were no barrier to acceptance in the highest levels of society. The moral conformists of the later 19thcentury would have been shocked.

Engagement with India in the 18th and early 19th centuries often meant close personal contact. Innumerable British men had Indian wives, and bibis - and some women also married Indians. The intermingling of cultures was cut short by increasing British control, when the imposition of rule came to be equated with distance. This official policy was enhanced by the encouragement of missionary activity, which Katie Hickman sees as one of the major factors for a declining lack of sympathy for Indian life and culture. In neither of these developments were women directly implicated, though they were a focal point of the increasing Anglicisation of the life of British India. Nevertheless, many women continued to engage enthusiastically with India, including the ebullient Fanny Parks, whose writing has Inspired generations of readers. The Uprising of 1857, the direct result of aspects of British policy, led to the establishment of the Raj, the abolition of the East India Company and direct rule by Britain. This was the era of what is popularly imagined as the memsahib, a privileged and dominant figure withdrawn from the world around her. While this is partly true, it must not be forgotten that, right or wrong, the treatment of British women and children during the Uprising created a hostility which lasted for several generations among many, though not all, of the British in India. On the other hand, the Raj provided many new opportunities for British women in India, among them teaching and nursing. Teachers included missionary wives, while others like Flora Annie Steele played a huge role in establishing secular schools in the Punjab.

Nursing is illustrated in the vivid and often harrowing account of a young Englishwoman, Hester Dowson, who sailed to Bombay to help in the epidemic of 1897-98. These first hand stories of women’s lives are one of the strengths of the book. We hear of their reactions to India, their delight in their experience and the culture and people around them, as well as their traumas and stress - not least in their accounts of episodes of the Uprising, including Meerut, the siege of Lucknow and the massacre at Cawnpore. Meanwhile one of the highlights of the ensuing Raj, the 1877 Delhi Durbar, is also presented through the eyes of the Vicereine, Lady Lytton.

Women from across the social spectrum were implicated in many different ways in the evolution of the British presence in India. What could be further explored is the way in which empire itself increased the opportunities for women at a period when they were asserting their right to education and participation in the world of work and politics at home. The Indian Army gave scope for nursing and welfare work; medicine became the goal of young women doctors who found greater opportunity to work in zenanas than at home. Philanthropic social work often became the domain of women, and this, with their contributions to health care and education, greatly improved the lives of Indian women in particular. Politics too found its adherents: one of Mahatma Gandhi’s closest associates was the British woman Madeleine Slade. For all the current condemnation of empire, it must be remembered that it permitted women to make a lasting and often valuable contribution to India and her people. Katie Hickman’s colourful book enables us to see how this developed from the earliest days, and is highly recommended.

British Empire Book
Katie Hickman
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2020 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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