Waiting on Empire. A History of Indian Travelling Ayahs in Britain

Datta, Arunima
Anzahl Seiten
291 S.
£ 35.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Florian Stadtler, English, University of Bristol

Arunima Datta’s “Waiting on Empire: A History of Indian travelling Ayahs in Britain” is an impressive feat drawing together multiple strands of research and archival documentation of travelling ayahs and their experiences. “Waiting on Empire” marks a new direction for Datta whose previous work has focused predominantly on South Asian women’s labour in South and South-East Asia. The book makes an exceptional contribution to the growing yet still marginalised research of the history of settled and transient South Asian communities in Britain. It also expands further the analysis of the historical record of cultures of care and caregiving in the context of the British Empire, which has increasingly become an important aspect in social and cultural historical research. A project that was over a decade in the making – Datta tells us she began her research in 2012 – she significantly expands on existing analyses by drawing together transnational archival strands in Britain and India. She also highlights the ongoing role ayahs play as caregivers through contemporary advertisements not dissimilar to nineteenth century travelling ayahs’ postings to solicit a passage home (pp. xiii–xiv).

In recent years, the figure of the travelling ayah has increasingly been in the spotlight, yet Datta’s study is the first full-length monograph devoted to these indispensable women in the imperial economy, described in 1922 by A C Marshall in the “Quiver” as “nurses of our ocean highways”. Undoubtedly, interest has accelerated in recent years with Farhanah Mamoojee’s successful campaign for the blue plaque outside the Ayahs’ Home in 26 King Edwards Street in Hackney, London, which was unveiled in June 2022. It was the first time English Heritage dedicated a plaque to a group of women, not a single named individual. In drama and fiction, too, the figure of the travelling ayah has increasingly been considered as a central protagonist – for example in the Royal Shakespeare Company-produced play, The Empress by Tanika Gupta, which is based on Rozina Visram’s pioneering “Ayahs Lascar and Princes”.1

Travelling ayahs took care of the children and the memsahib on long sea voyages. Especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the advent of steam-powered liners and increased connectivity between the subcontinent and Britain, they became vital service providers for administrators of British India and their families during the travelling season. Across its six chapters, Datta highlights their system of domestic labour. She focuses on women whose experiences resonate often through multiple layers of filtration in the archive. She meticulously and carefully decodes these records to raise important questions around agency and its discursive framing. Datta has an eye for these fissures and provides powerful interpretations of the archival source materials with which she works.

From the historical and contextual backgrounds of ayah recruitment and their vital support work for families employed as part of Britain’s imperial administration in Chapter 1, Datta then considers the plight of ayahs who found themselves abandoned in London and other parts of Britain, revealing through legal notices, trial reports in newspapers as well as correspondence between petitioners, charitable organisations and the India Office the precarious status of these women. In the process, Datta unmasks the empty official public rhetoric of the paternalism of Empire. Chapters 3 and 4 consider ayahs’ agency as they confront precarious situations of abandonment seeking redress from careless employers, as well as finding useful ways of passing time whilst stranded. The framework of “waiting” is especially well engaged here. Chapter 5 pays particular attention to the organisations set up to help ayahs – it is ingenious of Datta to focus on the Ayahs’ Homes and their mission so late in the book as it allows her from the outset to recentre the focus firmly on ayahs’ lived experiences and to spotlight the ways in which their own voices resonate within the archival record, rather than being spoken for. In the final chapter Datta considers the ayah in early 20th century contexts especially the precarious and dangerous work during the first and second world wars.

Datta’s analyses are expansive and draw on an impressive range of archival materials from Britain and India. Along with this detailed excavation work, the second part of the book comprises over one hundred and twenty profiles of travelling ayahs, including their photographs, drawn together through their passports in the British Library’s India Office Records collection. It is, along with its carefully curated illustrations and statistical tables and charts, one of the most extraordinary and important aspects of the book. What this final section of the book – some 178 pages – does so powerfully is to emplace as far as is traceable the individual experience of ayahs, emphasising, as Datta has highlighted in her previous research, the importance of travel documents as historical source materials. This will be an invaluable resource for anyone conducting future research into ayahs as well as educators in schools and universities.

Datta’s book very much rises to the challenge to expose the resilience of the ayahs by deconstructing notions of waiting as not something that is passive but active. It is here especially where she makes a strong case for their agency. The particular challenge faced by any researcher working on ayahs or South Asian seafarers for that matter is their often transient appearance in the records – in some instances it is even unclear how a grievance or appeal to the authorities is resolved. Datta considers some circumstantial contextual evidence to infer what might possibly have happened in some of these cases. Whilst being careful to state that we cannot know, it is perhaps here where the optimism of the will to confer agency feels on occasion sometimes overstated. One such example is the interpretation of a propaganda poster “War Work in Britain” (p. 132), depicting two women in sarees with tin helmets and gasmasks. Whilst it is not clearly stated who the women in the picture are, there is plentiful archival material available on the Auxiliary Ambulance station to which these women belonged which would have allowed for a more textured interpretation.

Datta is perhaps also a little too quick in passing over Visram’s work – while it is true that coverage of ayahs is limited in “Ayahs Lascars and Princes”, Visram significantly expands and deepens her earlier pioneering archival research in “Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History”2, a seminal study noticeably absent from Datta’s bibliography. In many ways Datta’s work builds on these research leads to offer a deeper, more expansive consideration of the working practices of travelling ayahs. Through close analyses of a wide range of sources, from passenger lists, to ship manifests, passports, and official records from the India Office, reading the archive against the grain, Datta brings to the fore the agency of these women, too often objectified in the records and cultural representations of the time.

Datta illustrates through her deep archival research that ayahs, far from being passive victims, were highly capable enterprising women. She convincingly outlines how this reality was masked by a prevalent misogynistic imperial discourse that perceived ayahs not just as domestics but also as domesticated, docile and subservient. Datta through her meticulous research counters this discourse. This book is an important corrective to bring sharply into view travelling ayahs’ enterprising resilient capacity. It is an important and necessary intervention that holistically reveals the important role ayahs played in the economy of empire.

1 Rozina Visram, Ayahs Lascar and Princes, London 1986.
2 Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain. 400 Years of History, London 2002.

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