Friday, 23 March 2012

Guest post - Women in India

I mentioned a few days ago that London based genealogist Emma Jolly has just had her new Tracing Your British Indian Ancestors book published by Pen and Sword. I am currently about a third of the way through the book, enjoying it immensely and looking forward tonight to reading about the various military and EIC regiments in India in Chapter 5 (particularly as one of my ancestors makes a guest appearance!). One of the key things about the book is the sense of the society that existed in all spheres of influence within the country. Emma's kindly agreed to do a second guest post for this blog (her previous Scottish GENES post is available here), and this time she takes a look at the women of India. Enjoy!

Recently I have written a guide for those tracing their British and Anglo-Indian ancestors in India. While researching the book, I read a number of fascinating and revealing accounts of life in India written by Britons and Anglo-Indians. Some of those writers are very well-known. Rudyard Kipling, for example, needs no introduction.

However, other authors may not be familiar. Despite this, their words deserve to be read as they provide a unique insight into lives led in India during almost four hundred years of British influence and rule.

Amongst my favourite works are the memoirs of women who lived in India, including and Julia Charlotte Maitland (1808-1864) and Maud Diver (1867-1945). Female writers tended to include greater detail on social life, food, medicine, and matters relating to children. All these are particularly evident in the letters of the gossipy Eliza Fay (1756-1816) (see post at

One woman writer remains anonymous. “A lady resident” published her guide for fellow women in the sub-continent, The Englishwoman in India: information for ladies on their outfit, furniture [&c.] . . . in 1864, just a few years after the demise of the East India Company and the creation of the India Office.

Like me, the lady resident was a keen fan of curry. Food is covered in detail in the book, and she includes delicious-sounding recipes, like this one for “Mint Chutnee”:

½ lb. green mint leaves.
1 ounce red chillies
¼ lb. salt.
¼ lb. raisins or kismis.
2 ounces green ginger.
¼ 1lb. brown sugar.
1 ounce garlic or onion

Pound with a quarter pint of vinegar, mix well
and pour over the chutnees half a pint of boiling
vinegar: when cold, stopper the bottles.
N.B. Country vinegar answers perfectly for most chutnees.

Although the lady resident is happy for children to eat spicy food, she warns of avoiding “tamarinds and cocoa-nut in the amah’s curry” whilst the amah (ayah) or wet-nurse is feeding a British infant. In order to ensure the amah’s comfort and to encourage the flow of her milk, the resident advises “a warm bath, with soap-nuts, and oil for her hair at least once a week”.

Some of her advice seems odd when compared with historical data. Her belief that, “In many respects, India is a more healthy country for very young children than England” is not supported by details in burial registers. She moderates the comment by saying that she is not referring to “the children of European soldiers, among whom, from many causes, the mortality is fearful; but among the upper classes, where there is no exposure to the sun, and proper food and accommodation . . .”

The contrast between the lives of upper and working class Britons in India is apparent here and in other primary texts. Too often the British in India are lumped together. Yet close research reveals a number of strata in work and society. The more I research the British in India, the greater I find the differences in lifestyle between the classes.

More experiences of women in India can be found in excellent collections of memoirs, diaries and letters in UK archives, such as those in European Manuscripts (MSS Eur) at the British Library and at the Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge.

The Englishwoman in India: information for ladies on their outfit, furniture [&c.] . ., and Julia Charlotte Maitland’s Letters from Madras: during the years 1838-1839 can be read in full at The Original Letters from India of Mrs Eliza Fay can be read at

Emma Jolly runs the London based Genealogic research service (, with her particular interests in London and British India. In 2008 she was awarded Your Family Tree magazine's Beginner Book of the Year Award for her first book, Family History for Kids. Emma writes regularly for family history publications. Her latest book Tracing Your British Indian Ancestors was published by Pen & Sword in March 2012. Further details can be found at:

No comments:

Post a Comment