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South Asian nannies, ayahs, journeyed to Britain by the thousands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They accompanied their employers throughout home-leaves or were hired just for the sea voyage itself. These traveling nannies have often been portrayed as voiceless and faceless victims of “unscrupulous employers and an indifferent government,” but historian Olivia Robinson writes that they created an “unexplored global network of working women of colour […] leveraging opportunities for themselves and demonstrating considerable independence and assertiveness as they journeyed to and from the metropole.”

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When the East India Company ruled India, 90 percent of the British men there were married to Indian women. After the 1857 rebellion against the EIC, the British government took control of colonial operations. British men marrying British women became of “political interest” to the Empire. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, continues Robinson, made the voyage to and from India “shorter and more bearable and did much to encourage large numbers of would-be brides to settle in India.”

British colonial families worked to replicate metropolitan norms. In India, domestic service “remained a predominantly male occupation until 1930.” But British women believed women were “innately suited to childcare,” even as ayahs were typically infantilized as dependents (though they were on average older than British servants).

“It was the Europeans who insisted on female caregivers,” writes Robinson, “an extension of metropolitan attitudes towards the value of women and their place in the home: access to work as an ayah was thus highly gendered and created a new employment sector for local women.”

Though they slept near their charges in colonial homes, making them the only servants to sleep in the house, aboard ship ayahs were assigned “deck-class” tickets while their employers were in first. Before more comfortable amenities were introduced for servants in the 1920s, there were no beds for deck class ticket-holders. In the 1920s, “Ayahs’ Washplace” and “Ayahs’ Lavatories” also became features of steamship deck layouts. The Viceroy of India “allocated five double-bunks to ayahs in a separate dormitory on E deck” in 1928, one deck below the crew. In passenger lists, ayahs would be listed not by their own names but by their employer, for example: “Mrs. Orme’s Ayah.”

Once in England, disengaged ayahs typically went to the Ayahs’ and Amahs’ Home in Hackney, run by the London City Mission. The Home’s superintendent said it protected vulnerable “little brown ladies” far from the tropics. The hostel was also a residential employment agency and charged a “not inconsiderable sum” per week for room and board. The India Office, the government department overseeing the administration of the colony, also used the Home to get destitute or abandoned ayahs back to India. It was, writes Robinson, “a highly practical means of removing (inherently undesirable) non-white women to their colonial origins.”

But Robinson also shows that shipboard ayahs were an “elite and premium workforce.” They were paid substantially more than non-traveling ayahs in India. Independent and resourceful travelers, some ayahs made the roundtrip from India to the UK repeatedly. More than a few also used the opportunity to purchase goods for resale in India; they were, writes Robinson, “capable, entrepreneurial, resourceful and independent.”

“At a clear disadvantage due to their class, race and gender, what is striking is that they seem not to have been passive in the face of injustice,” she notes.

They appealed to the India Office, local courts/magistrates, and the police when ill-treated by their employers in Britain. Robinson describes an Ayah International of sorts that was constructed by women from throughout the “East,” made up of different ages, castes, and religious affiliation (Hindu, Muslim, Roman Catholic) from India as well as women from “Colombo, Rangoon, Penang, Java, Singapore, Aden, and Japan.”

“The narrow space in which the ayahs were permitted to operate became fertile ground for them to derive advantages of their own,” concludes Robinson, “which reveals how the very structures of subjugation might open up corridors of opportunity for colonized groups.”

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History Workshop Journal, No. 86 (AUTUMN 2018), pp. 44–66
Oxford University Press