British women in India

Author Katie Hickman discusses the pioneer women who headed east rather than west to seek their freedom, fortune or simply new lives

Subscribe to All About History now for amazing savings!

Generally we talk about people heading to the New World in this era, but was heading east considered an equally viable choice for those with the money and means?

Katie Hickman is author of bestselling books of non-fiction including Daughters of Britannia – made into a 20-part series for BBC radio – Courtesans, and Travels with a Mexican Circus. Her historical novels include Aviary Gate, The Pindar Diamond and House of Bishopgate
[Image source: Oxford Literary Festival]

Since my book covers a three-hundred year period, from 1600 – 1900, it is hard to generalise about the exact numbers of women who went east, to India and other parts of the subcontinent, compared to how many travelled west to the New World. It is worth considering, though, that even by the eighteenth century, it was a far more globalised world than is generally recognised. One of the women I write about, Eliza Fay, an independent business woman who made the dangerous and difficult journey to India three times in the mid-eighteenth century, also travelled to the America to sell cloth (unfortunately her vessel was shipwrecked and her wares destroyed before she got there). The family of Elizabeth Marsh, Fay’s contemporary, travelled not only to India and the Americas, but to North Africa (where Elizabeth was taken into captivity and narrowly avoided being sold as a slave), the Caribbean, Brazil and even as far as the Falkland Islands. In the seventeenth century, the numbers of women travelling to India were very small indeed, but they increased steadily throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pretty much in line with the influence of the East India Company, which began aggressively to acquire land, and to set up their own enclaves, from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. 

What opportunities were there that women could grasp in India that wouldn’t have been available to them in Europe?

I do not think it was so much different opportunities that awaited women, as more of them. It was also a society that, in the early centuries certainly, was a good deal freer and more socially porous than anything they experienced at home. The British – by which I mean the East India Company, which until the mid-nineteenth century had almost total control over who was, and was not, allowed to travel to India – were energetically building up their own communities throughout this time. The three main enclaves were the Presidencies of Madras, Bengal and Bombay, all of which needed amenities such as shops, bakeries, millinery establishments, schools, boarding houses, theatres and so forth, all enterprises in which women excelled. A surprising number of them worked as traders, or she-merchants, who contemporary witnesses recorded as driving “as large a trade as men, and with no less judgement. Nay, some are so forward as to have invoyces, accounts current etc., in their own names, though their husbands are in being.” 

One of my favourite stories is that of Mrs Hudson, a Jacobean lady who was one of the first three Englishwomen to make the voyage to India in 1617. She took with her £100 (the equivalent of £24,000 today) with which she intended to buy indigo. The East India Company factors, jealous of their monopoly, took a very dim view of this, but rather patronisingly ‘allowed’ her to buy cloth instead: “she may be lucky as a calling duck,” one wrote (in other words, not lucky at all), ‘so let her try.” Try she did, and made herself a tidy fortune. The freight alone on her shipment cost her £30, more than £7000 in today’s money.

It is worth noting here too that women were able to invest in the East India Company itself, and many of them did. There were fifty-six female shareholders by the end of the seventeenth century. Less than a hundred years later, 16 per cent of all EIC stock was owned by women.

What were the risks and challenges of this journey east?

The risks were enormous. In the seventeenth century, the journey could take upwards of eight months in a leaky little ship about the size of two double decker buses. Boats were shipwrecked, blown to smithereens by hurricanes (descriptions by some of the survivors are absolutely terrifying), attacked by pirates, as happened to Elizabeth Marsh, and even by the French, who were at war with Britain on and off throughout most of the eighteenth century, and whose quarrels frequently played out on the subcontinent as well as in Europe and in America. Charlotte Hickey, travelling to Calcutta in 1782, experienced both of these on the same journey. Her storm-battered boat, the Rayhna de Portugal, limped into harbour at Trincomalee in present day Sri Lanka, where, having lost everything other than the clothes she stood up in, she was promptly taken captive by the French and held prisoner for several weeks. Luckily for her, she was an extremely beautiful courtesan, and her chivalrous captors soon let her go. 

Another huge challenge, both on land and at sea, was sickness and disease. Epidemics such as cholera and ‘the bloody flux’ (dysentery) could rip through a ship with disastrous consequences. There are descriptions of vessels sailing into harbour like ghost-ships, with every person on board either dead or dying. It was not an undertaking for the faint-hearted. 

British men and women in India during the Raj. Image source: wiki/Life

What would have been the pros and cons for travelling east rather than west in this era?

Again, much depends upon the particular period in which they went, and what their motives were. Women who went west to America did so in the main as emigrants, by which I mean that they did not intend to come back. They went to escape religious persecution, and after the Revolutionary War, to be part of a society that they believed to be free from the tyrannies associated with Old World monarchy. They encountered a native civilization that was sophisticated in ways that they did not understand, but technologically speaking no match for their own. They had absolutely no scruples about displacing the Native Americans and taking their land, by force when necessary. 

By contrast, women who went to India, especially the ones who accompanied husbands in their various capacities working for the East India Company, almost all believed that they would be going home again at some point. They might have wanted advancement, both for themselves and for their families, but it was advancement of the kind that they could take home with them, such as status and money. As individuals, they were not land hungry in the same way that American emigrants were. While the best of them came to be highly appreciative of Indian art, culture and philosophy, they were at the same time part of an Empire building project which ultimately devolved into the hands of the British Crown.

There were pros and cons to both scenarios, but the psychology was very different.

What was the lasting legacy of these women in the region?

For better or for worse, women were instrumental in creating the British society that, by the mid-nineteenth century, ruled either directly or indirectly over almost the whole of the Indian subcontinent. No-one today could see this as anything other than a cause for regret, but it would be anachronistic to think that the women themselves would see it that way. Most of them truly believed that they were doing good by being there. 

The areas in which women really did do lasting good, and have an honourable legacy, are in education, particularly education for girls, in which they were very active indeed, and also, in later years, as nurses and doctors. Since no Indian woman would have thought it proper to be treated by a man (other than through a hole in a purdah curtain) this was an area which created many opportunities for British women.

I also think that some of the travel journals they left behind are a very fine legacy. I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful Fanny Parkes, whose ‘Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque’ (published 1850) is a classic of its kind. She adored India and the Indians, among whom she had many friends, and her observations are absolutely the opposite of what people generally expect from a British woman in India: engaged, sympathetic, and deeply knowledgeable.

An illustration from Fanny Parkes’ Wanderings of a Pilgrim. Image source: wiki/Fanny Parkes

Are there any particular examples you could share that exemplify the pioneer spirit of these women?

The first three women to travel to India in 1617 are a brilliant example of the pioneer spirit. Mrs Hudson (mentioned above) and Frances Webb were engaged as female companions, to a third, Mrs Towerson. Maryam Towerson was an Armenian Christian from Agra, who had married two English sea captains in quick succession, travelled to England with them, and in 1617 was returning home. The East India Company at this point banned women entirely from their voyages, but they could not have refused to take Mrs Towerson back to her homeland, and the two others, Mrs Hudson and Frances Webb, managed to slip through the net by posing as her servants. They must have known the risks, but they did it anyway. The journey they undertook was an extraordinarily courageous leap into the unknown.

Mrs Hudson’s story is told above, but Frances Webb’s is equally interesting. Unbeknown to her employers she had fallen in love with, and secretly married, an East India Company factor who was travelling out on the same voyage. She became pregnant by him and narrowly missed giving birth on board the ship (to the utter consternation of the ship’s Captain, who wrote a furious letter about it to the Company Directors back in London.) Once arrived in Gujarat, and delivered of a son, she and her husband made their way to Agra with the Towersons, where Frances found herself living in a house with a coach, a ‘palinke’ [palanquin], seven horses and ten servants at her command. Soon she was on visiting terms with some of the ladies of the Moghul Emperor Jahangir’s court. Her wonderful account of these visits of courtesy is the earliest of its kind. Not bad going for a lady’s maid.

How did you go about piecing together the research materials for these stories?

Almost all the sources I used are in the British Library. The East India Company archives, which said to take up ten miles of shelf space, are housed there and are an extraordinary resource. They include everything from the indignant letter written by Nathaniel Salmon, the Captain of the ship on which Frances Webb and Mrs Hudson travelled in 1617, to a tiny elfin-sized piece of paper, barely bigger than a postage stamp, smuggled out by Lady Sale during her captivity in Kabul during the First Afghan War, all the way through to a series of heart-breaking letters written by Hester May Dowson, a nurse during Bombay plague years 1897-8.

Another illustration from Fanny Parkes’ Wanderings. Image source: wiki/Fanny Parkes

Were there any stories that particularly surprised you?

Almost all of them surprised me in one way or another. One particularly striking discovery was the methods by which, in the 1660’s, the East India Company went about luring suitable single women to India to populate their newly acquired settlement of Bombay (acquired through the dowry of the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza on her marriage to Charles II.) They advertised for them, by putting up notices on the doors of their Leadenhall Street offices. When the advertisements did not produce enough suitable women (they were supposed to be “of sober and civil lives”, which gives you some idea of what the standard of most of the applicants may have been like), the Directors applied to the governors of Christ’s Hospital, a charity for orphans, asking for a “supply of young maidens” between the ages of 12 and 30. It is hard to imagine what an otherwise destitute twelve-year old might have endured as she made her way, friendless and alone, to the other side of the world.

Could you tell us a little about the term ‘memsahib’, what it meant and what it has come to mean?

‘Memsahib’ literally means the sahib’s, or master’s, wife. Latterly, the word seems to have become associated with some of the worst excesses – snobbery, racial prejudice, imperialist airs etc – of the women of the Raj years, but it was, and still is, usually intended as a courtesy title.

[Banner image source: wiki/Illustrated London News]

She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India is available now from Virago for £10.99 and Katie Hickman can be seen at the upcoming Oxford Literary Festival at the Weston Lecture Theatre on 31 March 2020. Tickets start at £7. See the Oxford Literary Festival site for more details and the full lineup of historians attending.

Subscribe to
All About History now for amazing savings!