She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen: British Women in India by Katie Hickman - review by Lucy Moore

Lucy Moore

Ladies of the Raj

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


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With the Neapolitan saying “Vedi Napoli, e poi mori” [see Naples and die], I beg leave to differ entirely, and would rather offer this advice – “See the Taj Mahal, and then – see the Ruins of Delhi”,’ enthused Fanny Parkes while she was ‘vagabondizing’ through India in the 1830s. ‘How much there is to delight the eye in this bright, this beautiful world! Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab [horse], one might be happy for ever.’

Parkes, whose husband, a minor official in the East India Company, was not strong enough to accompany her on her travels, was just one of a parade of spirited British women who went to India during the centuries of its close association with Britain and fell in love with the land. With her sitar playing and unusual preference for ‘native’ food, Parkes, as Katie Hickman tells us, probably came the closest of all the women she has encountered in her research to being a female ‘White Mughal’. Parkes’s enthusiasm for India did not endear her to her countrywomen. ‘We are rather oppressed just now by a lady, Mrs Parkes, who insists upon belonging to our camp,’ wrote Fanny Eden, sister of George Eden, governor-general of India, when Parkes insisted on joining their official progress across the country, in a caravan made up of twelve thousand followers.

In She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen, Hickman introduces us to dozens of women who made India their home, whether by choice or out of desperation, between the foundation of the East India Company in the early 17th century and the latter days of the Raj. They came, Hickman relates, seeking their fortunes, not just as wives, mothers and daughters, but also as traders, teachers, geologists, patrons of the arts and businesswomen – fifty-six women were shareholders in the East India Company in the late 1600s.

Perhaps the most familiar (and derided) images of British Indian womanhood come from the pages of The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, coauthored in 1888 by Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner. This practical volume provided long lists of the equipment, clothing and skills required to maintain British standards anywhere in India. The young wife of an army officer travelling to the remote foothills of the Himalayas would need to load her camel caravan with (among many other things) six tennis dresses, six summer tea gowns, four flannel petticoats and four pairs of stays, though she could cast these aside, if need be, during the hottest weather. The ability to amputate a finger or toe if bitten by a deadly snake would be useful too. ‘The stereotype of the British memsahib, apathetic, indolent and pleasure-seeking, simply collapses under this onslaught of advice and endeavour,’ writes Hickman. ‘In its place an image comes to mind of an eager young housewife armed with hammers, tacks, brass nails, a goodly supply of Bon Accord enamel, Japanese black, varnish, beeswax, Putz Pomade and, above all, a formidable supply of energy: a woman, in fact, not unlike Flora Annie Steel herself.’

Alongside the redoubtable Mrs Steel and the splendid Mrs Parkes, Hickman introduces us to Constance Pley, a prosperous dealer in sail canvas; Charlotte Hickey, a former courtesan who accompanied her lover to Calcutta, surviving shipwreck en route and reinventing herself on arrival as a respectable married woman; Henrietta Clive, the daughter-in-law of Clive of India and a botanist, who travelled round the south of India with a retinue of 750 people, fourteen elephants, two racing camels for delivering messages, and her daughter’s pianoforte; and Honoria Lawrence, who crossed the ocean alone to marry the dashing Indian Army officer with whom ten years before she had fallen in love as a twenty-year-old.

These tales of fabulous adventures and devoted marriages pale beside Hickman’s harrowing account of the uprisings of 1857. In that year, Indian soldiers turned against their British masters with a violence that astonished them. In some places, including Lucknow and Delhi, British women and children were besieged, tortured and murdered. It is extraordinary to contrast the ease with which women like Fanny Parkes had moved through India a mere twenty years earlier with the fate of the seventy-three women and 124 children whose mutilated bodies were stuffed into a well in the gardens of the Bibighar at Cawnpore.

Hickman does not shy away from the difficulties of writing about women who were, as she puts it, ‘members of a colonising race’. ‘It is striking how few of them, if any, questioned their right to be there, and perhaps it would be anachronistic to hope otherwise,’ she writes. The self-righteous missionaries of the late 19th century, intent on converting heathen Indian children into clean and perfect Christians, are as distasteful today as brown Windsor soup. And while some of Hickman’s subjects relished their new lives in India, many others found their existence there unimaginably hard. Forced to leave their children in England or send them home alone, plagued by fear, loneliness and boredom, intense heat and unfamiliar diseases, these women faced the challenges of life in a new country with courage and determination, if not always open-mindedness.

She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen doesn’t take the story much beyond the uprisings. Perhaps Hickman was unwilling to address the more recent past, or perhaps she wished to avoid the well-rehearsed history of the ‘Fishing Fleet’. The last women we read about are nurses in Bombay at the turn of the 20th century. But what about the years leading up to independence? Did British women play no important role in the final decades of the Raj? This caveat aside, there could be no better guide to the world of British women in India, of kedgeree and cantonments, of pet mynah birds and punkah wallahs, than Hickman, whose warmth, wit and erudition sparkle on every page.

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