Untold Stories: The Travelling Ayahs Of The British Raj

Several projects are mapping the incredible journeys of South Asian women who were employed as ayahs with British and European families in the 19th century
Many ayahs travelled to Europe, Australia, and Britain with their employer families
Many ayahs travelled to Europe, Australia, and Britain with their employer familiesPhotos: Getty Images

There has been discussion around the adventurous women who travelled to India from Britain in the 19th century to seek a suitable spouse or to explore the region. However, little is known about another group of travelling women—the ayahs, who worked for British and European families. These women embarked on journeys across various landscapes and territories of the Empire, encountering multiple geographical, social, and economic conditions.

During the colonial period, the term "ayah" referred to the caregivers responsible for looking after children in European households in India. The British mistresses, also known as "memsahibs," depended greatly on these women, who also carried out additional duties. The ayahs from the subcontinent, a mobile workforce, played a significant role in the Empire's story.

It is estimated that between 100 and 140 travelling ayahs visited Britain annually
It is estimated that between 100 and 140 travelling ayahs visited Britain annually

Missing Stories

However, finding information about these travelling women and their stories is challenging. While working as a Research Assistant for the project "Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945," Avantika Binani discovered these women merely appeared as insignificant characters in the broader colonial discourse, often spotted lingering in the background of a royal painting or nursing a toddler.

"Our research took a 'history from below' approach, which focused on telling the stories of marginalised communities that were often overlooked/neglected in historical accounts. Unsurprisingly, there was no direct evidence (in the form of written accounts) of the kind of lives ayahs were leading," said Binani, who was assisting Dr Claire Lowrie—the Chief Investigator for the project.

The process involved reading between the lines and following various lines of evidence to corroborate a story. Binani wrote a blog focusing on the journey made by an ayah—Alice Nona—from Ceylon to Australia in 1949 with her employer, Olive Temple.

"I conducted my research by scanning the National Archives of Australia—particularly looking at the Department of Immigration file papers, correspondence and newspaper articles (on Trove). The newspaper articles were especially useful in understanding public sentiment around the issue."

Nona's story can be accessed on the project website (ayahsandamahs.com), which explores the experiences of South Asian women who journeyed across the Indian Ocean and arrived in Australia as nursemaids for children. The website is a part of The Ayah and Amah International Research Network, a collaborative project comprising interdisciplinary scholars from the UK, Australia, and the United States. The project focuses on researching the historical lives of South Asian "ayahs" and Chinese "amahs."

Many of these women travelled to Europe, Australia, and Britain with their employer families. Some stayed at the Ayahs' Homes located in Aldgate and Hackney, London.

Many ayahs were left stranded in England without work or a place to stay. To address this need, several Ayahs' Homes were established to provide temporary accommodation until they could secure employment and return to India. One such home in Hackney was recently commemorated with a blue plaque in June 2022, sparking renewed interest in exploring the lives of these women.

A section on ayahs in British India in the "Digital Encyclopaedia of European History" explains that ayahs could exert their agency by navigating unknown territories and negotiating with their employers. By serving foreign communities and sometimes travelling away from home, they could escape local patriarchy, social and cultural norms, and familial hierarchies.

Fragmented Links

"Our Migration Story," a website on migrations, presents stories of migrants who came to and shaped the British Isles. A chapter on ayahs talks about the seasonal visits by British families to their homeland

"On their seasonal visits to Britain, these families often asked their ayahs to accompany them or engaged the services of an experienced travelling ayah to take care of their children, the baggage and the memsahib," says the website.

By the 1850s, as travel became more regular, the number of ayahs brought to Britain increased. It is estimated that between 100 and 140 travelling ayahs visited Britain annually. While most travelled for economic necessity, some were motivated by adventure. One ayah, Mrs Antony Pareira, is said to have travelled 54 times.

However, the travelling ayahs have largely been forgotten. Arunima Datta, in her book "Waiting on Empire: A History of Indian Travelling Ayahs in Britain," says their experiences and identities have been overlooked in archival records and social memory even though, for nearly two centuries, they played a crucial role in the infrastructure of the Empire. Their labour enabled the mobility of thousands of families in the globalised world, which they helped create and participate in.

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