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Colonial India through Women’s Eyes

  • Published at 03:20 pm March 14th, 2021
She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen: British Women in India

Book Review

British colonial history in India has a masculine frame. From the entrepreneurial venture of the East India Company to the subsequent formation of thBritish Raj, the colonial project is an investment of western ultra-masculinity. The imagination of white women in India is that of a “memshahib”, playing the piano, drinking tea and maintaining an ambivalent relationship with the native servant class. The most iconic of such a figure is perhaps EM Forster’s Adela Quested in his novel, A Passage to India (1924), who on arrival in“mysterious India”, suffers from contreltophobia by Dr.Aziz in the novel’s fictional Malabar Caves. Thus, at least in the novel and perhaps in popular imagination, Forster’s enquiry whether a true friendship is possible between an Indian and an English man in colonial India is a rhetorical one. It is not possible.Most certainly so when there is an English woman involved. 

In Katie Hickman’s opinion, this stereotyped feature of a “memshahib” as a killjoy in India is so ingrained in the cultural references of colonial history that challenging such notions seems somewhat redundant. Curiously though, the image of a “memshahib” is a product of the British Raj, which lasted only from 1858 to 1947, when, following the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-58, the British Crown under the queenship of Queen Victoria decided to take possession of the Company’s assets and imposed direct rule over the Indian subcontinent. The history of women from Britain travelling to India preceded the founding of the British Raj. Hickam’s book She-Merchants, Buccaneers &Gentle Women: British Women in India(2019) taps into the uncharted history of British women in the pre-British Raj colonial India.As the title rightly suggests, the women travelling to India during the period spanning from the 17th to the 19th centuries were both adventurous and opportunists. 

The loose linear structure of the book is a deliberate attempt to evaluate how once considered a ‘strange accident’ (p.18) of having a handful of women on an India-bound ship turned into a norm by the 19th century. The New Year’s Gift, the East India company ship known for sending exotic European presents to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1613(or 1617), also had three women on board – Frances Webb, Mrs Hudson, and Mrs Towerson. Among them, perhaps Mrs Towerson had a less adventurous identity, introduced as a wife of an East company ship, Mr Towerson. Frances Webb, pregnant while voyaging, was secretly married to Richard Steele, a fearless English merchant and an asset in the early days of English trading in India. Mrs Hudson, by contrast, was what we call an economic migrant. With £100 in her bag, she wanted to invest in the Company’s Indigo business.Being denied that, she invested in cloth trading. These early women rarely imagined themselves as memshahibs. Like men in early colonial days, their intention was to accumulate wealth in India through trading and to return to England with that accumulated wealth.  


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Once the patchy beginning settled in, the trend continued. By the early 18th century, especially to develop Bombay (which was a gift to King Charles II from his father-in-law, the Portuguese King John IV in 1661), a sizable number of British women were encouraged to cross the ocean. According to Hickam, both “gentle women” and “other women”as troops and labourers arrived in Bombay to develop the city and its English community (p. 54). The journey was perilous, to say the least. By the mid-18th century, English women were part of British societies and communities in different parts of India. The 19th century obviously saw a proliferation of recording histories by British women in India, in letters and diaries. Henrietta Clive (1750-1830), daughter-in-law of Robert Clive, was notable for her passion to travel across India and to collect minerals.The most influential female travel writer of her time, Henrietta’s works created a precedence for future female writers like Flora Annie Steel (1847-1929), whoseTheComplete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (a book she co-authored in 1888) was both timely and extremely influential. 

Primarily based on diaries, letters and recorded narratives of known and forgotten British women in colonial India, Hickman’s book provides a rich and fresh perspective of the British Empire throughout centuries, away from its male-centric lens. Quite interesting to learn that even in the late 18th century, many British thought that they were living and working on “borrowed time”in India (p.93), and that the British cultural influence and power would be over soon. The book crucially retells the events of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-58, and the subsequent formation of the British Raj (annulling the East India Company) from ordinary British women’s perspectives available at that time.Unlike their predecessors, by the mid-19th century, the British were so confident about their ability to command over India that even when tension was heavily brewing in Meerut cantonment in 1857, the British women in the cantonment were preoccupied with the “onset of the burning winds that presaged the arrival of summer” (p. 277). 

Hickman’s narrative is detailed and rich.Her descriptive mode of writing often runs the risk of being repetitive. Although divided in neat parts, the narrative often lacks the neatness, and the readers can get a bit lost in the fragments of vignettes and recounts. Notwithstanding the looseness of style, the book is both enjoyable and informative. It helps to connect the apparent disparate dots between history and contemporary geo-politics. Whether as an initial reference for research topics on British women in early colonial India, or as a time-travel document that can take us away from the grim time of the pandemic, She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen is a book worth reading and reflecting on. 

Rifat Mahbub, PhD, lives and works in London.


Book details:

She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen: British Women in India 

by Katie Hickman

Published by Virago

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