She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India by Katie Hickman

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Reviewed by Harriet

What an enticing title! Made even more so by the sub-title, ‘British Women in India’.  Katie Hickman, who herself led a peripatetic life as the daughter of a diplomat, has dug behind the stereotypical view of the British memsahib to reveal an endlessly fascinating collection of adventurous women from the seventeenth century to the late 1900s.

 Starting her research, she soon found that ‘absolutely everyone had a view on the subject’.  For example, ‘Everyone knew that if it were not for the snobbery and racial prejudice of the memsahibs there would, somehow, have been far greater harmony and accord between the races’. Yes, snobbery and prejudice existed – at least as much among men as women – and it’s undeniable that even among the most ardent lovers of all things Indian in Hickman’s cast of characters, almost no one questioned the inalienable right of the British to be there in the first place. But the first women from Britain to make their way to the sub-continent were about as different from the Edwardian ladies of the Raj, with their white dresses and parasols, as it was possible to be. Travelling under the auspices of the East India Company, these seventeenth-century women were tough and daring. Of course some of them went with, or in search of, husbands, but from that period onwards, many independent women went there to work. Their stories, as well as those of the wives of those of all classes from diplomats to tradesmen, are told here.

The first English women recorded to have set foot in India, in 1617, appear to be a Mrs Towerson, wife of an East India Company captain, and her two companions, Mrs Hudson and Frances Webb. Their presence on the ship disturbed the ship’s master, who described it as ‘a strange accident’. Frances turned out to be pregnant, and unmarried, but she soon put that right by hitching up with the child’s father, Richard Steele, who she married ‘under a tree’ at some point on the voyage. The conditions on the eight-month voyage would have been horrendous, and having finally arrived in Gujarat (where Frances immediately gave birth), the women found themselves far from welcome. There were attempts to send them home, which they resisted. In the end they all appear to have done well. Mrs Hudson managed to set herself up as a trader and returned to England with an extraordinarily large fortune, and Mrs Towerson, though soon widowed, seems to have thrived too. As for Frances, a former lady’s maid, she lived a far more luxurious life than she could ever have had in England, and had the distinction of being the first recorded Englishwoman ever to visit a high-ranking Indian woman in her home, a practice which she ‘often repeated’.

During the eighteenth century, the once tenuous foothold of the East India Company became much more secure. Living conditions in India became increasingly comfortable, and as a result more men felt confident in bringing their wives – or in some cases their mistresses – to share their expat life. In the latter category we find the famous beauty Charlotte Barry, who transformed herself during the course of the journey (in which they endured terrifying experiences in a days-long storm) from a known courtesan into the respectable wife of her protector William Hickey. One of her fellow passengers, a Mrs Eliza Fay, was not fooled:

She is so perfectly depraved in disposition, that her supreme delight consists in rendering those around her miserable – It would be doing her too much honour to stain my paper with a detail of the various artifices she daily practices to that end.

The Fays had a horrendous journey, having been shipwrecked in the storm and ending up for three months as the captives of the Indian Governor of Calicut, but they escaped and managed to join the society they had dreamed of. However as the wife of an attorney, Eliza Fay was rather out of her depth in the social circles she found herself in. She was much in awe of the wealthy, eccentric Marian Hastings, wife of the future Governor General Warren Hastings, one of whose satin riding habits, with its pearl and diamond trimmings, was rumoured to be worth £30,000 (about a million in today’s money). Eliza was a redoubtable woman, and made a career for herself running a millinery shop, learning double-entry book-keeping in the process.

It’s rare, even among the wonderfully fascinating and varied women here, to find any who really threw themselves into exploring this strange new land. Many were content to enjoy the comforts increasingly available to them and the luxury (though at times annoying) of being surrounded by numerous servants. Lady Nugent, who arrived in India in 1811, described her first experience of requesting a cup of tea:

the folding doors were thrown open and the huge butler … marched up towards me, followed by eight men, one with a cup of tea, another with milk, a third with sugar, and so on – one man with a silver stick with white cow’s tail to keep off the flies, etc.

Others struggled with ill-health, and the frequent pain of having to be parted from beloved children who had been left or sent back to England. Some ended up lonely, marooned in remote country places. But there were exceptions, one in particular of which must get a mention here. This was Fanny Parkes, who spent many months ‘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 forever’. On the whole, though, most women, and of course their men, disliked the country and its inhabitants, who they generally treated very badly.

The result of the supercilious and uncomprehending attitude of the colonisers was to be the Indian Rebellion of 1857-8, which convulsed the whole of North India and resulted in the often extraordinarily violent torture and killing of many women and children, as well as of course of their menfolk. These events, recounted in often painful detail, form a large part of the penultimate section of the book. The chief result of all this was that the British attitude to India and its inhabitants was ‘hardened and brutalised’. The East India Company, blamed for allowing the mutiny to happen, was disestablished, and Queen Victoria became Empress of India. This was of course the dawn of what we know as the British Raj, when the memsahibs in their white dresses finally came into their own.

Katie Hickman has an extraordinary story to tell, and tells it with great spirit, backed up by impressive research. Her book is a true page-turner and I was very sorry to come to the end of it.                

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and has done a bit of vagabondizing in India herself.

Katie Hickman, She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India (Virago, 2020). 978-0349008271, 400pp., paperback.

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