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She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen by Katie Hickman

Courtesy of Katie Hickman/ Sunday Times

In February 1617, a young woman, Frances Webb, set sail for India on board an East India Company [EIC] vessel, the New Year’s Gift.   In the 17th Century, the company had strict rules prohibiting women from their voyages, but Frances Webb and another Englishwoman, Mrs Hudson, had managed to circumvent them by claiming to be the female attendants of a third, an Armenian Christian, Mrs Towerson, who had married an English sea captain, and was returning home with him to the Mughal city of Agra.  

It did not go well.  

 “Before I pass the equinoctal, I am to acquaint your Honours and Worships with a strange accident which hath happened contrary I do think to any of your expectations,” the Master of the New Year’s Gift wrote in a letter to the Company directors in London.  “One of the gentlewomen which came with Captain Towerson and his wife is great with child, and at present is so big that I fear that if she have not twins she will hardly hold out to Surat [the Mughal port on the coast of Gujarat].”  It transpired that the pregnant woman, Frances Webb, had not only formed a liaison with one of her fellow travellers, Richard Steele, but at some point on the journey had actually married him, “under a tree.” (The East India Company archive is surprisingly full of these lively details.)  Clearly, the couple had hoped that her pregnancy could be kept secret until they arrived in India, “but that her belly told tales,” the Master noted acerbically, “and could no longer be hid under the name of a timpany.”  

Unlike the groups of women I have written about in the past – women married to British diplomats, in Daughters of Britannia, and 18th and 19th century English courtesans, about whom very little was generally known – when I came to research a book about the experiences of British women in India I found that absolutely everyone had an opinion.  

Usually it was the same opinion.  Everyone knew that the widening of the cultural divide between the British and Indians was entirely due to the increasing numbers of women who made their way to India in the ‘fishing fleets’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  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.   And, most particularly, everyone knew that it was women who somehow had put a stop to the inter-racial marriages that were such a pleasant multi-cultural feature of life – for English men, naturally – in 18th  century India.   Indolent, racist, snobbish, passive – the legacy of the British memsahib seemed to have become stuck in some hazy notion of the Raj, with all its attendant, imperial evils.

But before the mid-19th century, though, there was no Raj.  Between the foundation of the East India Company in 1600 and the birth of the British Empire in India stretches a period of 250 years.  During this time many thousands of women found their way to India.  Who were they?  And what on earth can possibly have induced them to make a journey that was as long and dangerous as a voyage into outer space might be today?  

Mistresses Webb and Husdon would have been well aware that the round trip to India could take several years to complete.   During that time they would be at risk not only of hurricanes, piracy, shipwreck, and attacks by rival merchant ships, but also of disease.   There are accounts of vessels so ravaged by the ‘bloody flux’ [dysentery] that they sailed into harbour as ghost ships, every person on board either dead or dying.   

Despite Frances Webb’s unexpected acquisition of a husband and baby en route, domestic bliss cannot have been the reason for their journey.  These women were tough adventurers, every bit as intrepid as the men.  Once arrived in Surat – and in direct defiance of the English ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, who tried everything in his power to force them to return to England –  they set off almost immediately to travel five hundred miles from Surat to Agra.  

Frances Webb was soon living in some style, with a coach, a ‘palinke’ [palanquin], seven horses and ten servants at her command.  More unusually still, she caught the attention of some of the women of the Emperor Jahangir’s court, with whom she found herself on frequent visiting terms.  Her account of one of these visits of courtesy, complete with a detailed description of the ox-drawn chariots, slaves, clothes, gift-giving and feasting involved, is the first of its kind, and predates all others by Englishwomen by more than 120 years.  

While Mrs Webb was busy making friends at the Mughal court, her companion, Mrs Hudson, had other, even more interesting ideas. She had arrived in India with £100 (equivalent to £24,000 today) and immediately set about investing it.   First, she tried to put her money into indigo, but the EIC merchants, jealous of their monopoly, soon put a stop to that.  Instead, they suggested that she invest in cloth –  and stood back, one feels, to have a good laugh at her expense.   “She may be lucky as a calling duck,” Roe wrote with heavy irony, “and therefore try her.”    

As it turned out, it was Mrs Hudson who had the last laugh.  By time she returned to England two years later she had amassed a cargo so considerable that the freight alone was £30 (more than £7,000 today) making her the first of many successful ‘she-merchants’ to ply their trade in India.  

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the land-grabbing, tax-collecting, para-military behemoth that the East India Company would one day become, was no such thing.  Not only did it have no thoughts of conquest, but for many years was not even the most successful trader to the Indies, frequently bested by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French.   Its first territory on the subcontinent was acquired almost by accident.  The tiny archipelago of Bombay had originally come to the newly-restored Charles II as part of the dowry of his bride, the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza.  Charles sent troops there, and then in 1668, not knowing what to do with it, leased it to the Company, for a rent of £10 “in gold, on 30th September, yearly, forever.”  

Having spent a good deal of time trying to keep women out of India, the Company now reversed its policy completely.  For the new colony to succeed it needed to be populated, and for this to happen was going to need more than the handful of emaciated soldiers that was all that was left of Charles’s troops.  From being an expensive nuisance, women became, almost overnight, a necessary evil. 

Ever pragmatic, the company put out an advertisement, hoping to lure suitable women across the seas.  First, their aim was to attract couples; then – perhaps thinking of the plight of the soldiers who were still languishing there – it was spinsters, so long as they were ‘of sober and civil lives.’  “That if any single women or maids, related to the soldiers or others… shall be willing to go to Bombay,” it was announced in the Company minutes on 30th December, 1668,  “20 shall be permitted to do so at the Company’s expense.”

When this largesse did not have the desired effect, the EIC tried a different tactic.  In order that there might be “a supply of young maidens, that have had a virtuous education,” those on the Company committees who were also governors of Christ’s Hospital – a charitable institution for orphans – were urged to find “young women bred up there to be disposed of in this way.”  The desired age group of this job lot was to be between twelve and thirty.  

It is hard to imagine the thoughts of an otherwise destitute twelve-year-old as she made her way, friendless and alone, to the west coast of India in the 1670’s; nor is it known how many young women took up the Company’s offer, but it is certain that at least some did,  perhaps not so much the spirit of adventure as out of sheer desperation.  Bombay had a higher mortality rate than anywhere else in India – “two mussuouns” [monsoons] was one contemporary estimate of the average life expectancy, while not more than one in twenty children lived into adulthood .  Despite this, the colony prospered. 

By the beginning of the 18th century, the company had thriving communities in three key settlements:  Madras, Calcutta and Bombay.  The numbers of European women in India were still tiny – in Bengal at this time a few hundred at most – but there were just enough for a society of sorts.  Women attended balls and masquerades, sent home for the latest fashions, drove about in expensive carriages, and amused themselves with high-stakes gambling (a terse EIC directive from 1721 laments the outposts infected by “the itch of gaming”.)   

De rigeur for all newly arrived ladies with social ambitions was the curious ritual of the “setting up ceremony”.  Charlotte Hickey, the wife of the diarist William Hickey, underwent this in Calcutta in 1772, when she appeared “stuck up, full dressed, in a chair at the head of the best room…. three gentlemen being selected for the purpose of introducing the respective visitors, male and female.”  Curtseys and salutations were exchanged in this way from seven in the morning until eleven o’clock at night, for three days running.  It was, William  wrote, “a disagreeable and foolish ceremony”, with more than a whiff of the meat market about it, but one that was in vogue for several more decades.  

Charlotte herself must have faced the marathon with more than a twinge of apprehension.  She was neither a lady, nor in fact Mrs Hickey, but a notorious London courtesan, Charlotte Barry, who had travelled to India with her protector and, as many women like her would do, had magically re-invented herself somewhere on the high seas.  

Courtesans were, of course, nothing new in India.  The so-called  white Mughals – as certain thoroughly ‘Indianized’ EIC officials have become known – are often described as having taken Indian wives, but in the vast majority of cases these were actually ‘bibis’ or mistresses. There was no sense in which these Indian ‘wives’ could, or would want to play a part in the kind of society that the English had in mind.  

Far from keeping themselves snobbishly aloof, British women frequently lamented how hard it was to meet their Indian sisters.  One of the many culture shocks that they experienced was the startling discovery that all Indian women at this period, Hindu and Moslem alike, except for the very lowliest servant castes, observed purdah.  Purdah women lived secluded lives in their own special quarters, completely segregated from all men except from their closest male relatives.   Very few English women were privileged to cross this divide, and when they did so, there were perplexities on both sides.  Fanny Parkes, an eccentric free spirit from Wales, who travelled alone and extensively throughout India in the early 19th  century,  described how she had to wait four years before she was able to meet any Indian women other than her own servants.  Later, becoming friends with many high-ranking zenana ladies, she reflected on the cultural differences that kept them apart.   Quite apart from English women’s shocking insistence on flaunting themselves in public, many of the accomplishments that they held so dear were regarded as completely degrading.  “Music is considered disgraceful for a lady of rank, dancing the same – such things are left to nautch-women,” Parkes wrote.  

Nautch women – a courtesan class, but highly-respected for their musical and poetic abilities – were among the very few Indian women who could appear freely in mixed society.  In the 1780’s Elizabeth Plowden met the celebrated diva, Khanum Jan, in Lucknow, with whom she formed an extraordinary musical collaboration.  An accomplished musician herself, Mrs Plowden was able to transpose Jan’s songs into European notation, and the resulting ‘Hindustani Airs’ became all the rage in British drawing rooms.  In recognition of this mutually creative partnership, the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, bestowed the title of begum on Mrs Plowden, the exquisitely decorated and gilded ferman for which is still held in the British Library.

At the same time as Begum Plowden and Khanum Jan were making music together, the EIC was at war.  Robert Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757 was only the first in half a century of almost continuous warfare.  While the EIC would eventually emerge victorious, with vast amounts of land under its control, these were frightening, vulnerable times for the women who lived through them.  

Eliza Fay was one of two Englishwomen taken hostage by Haider Ali, the ruler of Mysore, when their ship arrived in Calicut, in south   India, in 1779.  Unceremoniously dragged onto shore by Indian sepoys, Mrs Fay and her husband were stripped of all their possessions apart from three watches that he had the presence of mind to conceal in his wife’s elaborate headpiece.   Sitting for many hours, shivering and soaked to the skin, while the Governor of Calicut sat “feasting his eyes” on his prisoners, Mrs Fay suddenly became aware of a ticking sensation on her scalp.  The pin that her husband had stuck into one of the watches to stop it working, had come loose.  “Never shall I forget what a terrible sensation the ticking of the watch caused!  I think had it continued long I must completely have lost my senses; for I dared not remove it, from fear of worse consequences.”  

After three months in captivity, and several failed attempts to escape dressed as a French seaman, Eliza Fay eventually made it to safety in Calcutta, where she went on to become an enterprising milliner and cloth merchant, learning both shorthand and double-entry book-keeping along the way.  In this, she was not at all unusual.  While marriage may have remained women’s principal desideratum, it did not stop them from succeeding in an astonishing variety of careers and business ventures.  They worked as traders, actresses, portrait-painters, dress-makers, shop-keepers, lady’s maids and governesses; they opened schools and orphanages, ran bakeries, confectionary shops, boarding houses, and millinery establishments. Later, they would also flourish as teachers, doctors, nurses and school inspectors.  Others found unlooked for opportunities as travellers, naturalists, collectors, botanists, patrons of the arts and writers.  

By the turn of the 19th century, however, there was a palpable shift in British attitudes.  The EIC was now de facto ruler of most of the subcontinent: from being lowly immigrants, the British were now the overlords of a conquered people.  In addition, and perhaps even more disastrously for Anglo-Indian relations, the rise of the Evangelical Christian movement in England would radically change the way Indians were viewed.  Missionaries, many of them female, who had until now been banned from India (bad for business) were now given free reign under the renewed EIC charter of 1813.  Among the very first was a single woman, the Baptist Miss Ann Chaffin, who hurried there almost as soon as the ink on the charter was dry.  

From being admired as the possessors of some of the most exquisite art and philosophy the world had ever seen, Indians were increasingly viewed as idol-worshiping heathens, ripe for conversion.  This pernicious new mind-set coincided with a surge in the numbers of women who were able to travel to India, a conflagration of events which proved disastrous, not only to their posthumous reputations, but also to their very lives.   

By mid-century, India was ripe for revolt.  During the uprisings of 1857-58, many hundreds of women and children lost their lives – and were avenged by the British with equal savagery.  One of the bloodiest massacres occurred at the military cantonment at Kanpur (Cawnpore), during which 73 women, and 124 children were butchered by five assassins wielding tulwars, curved swords.   Later, a scrap of paper was found among the blood-soaked detritus.  It had belonged to a young woman, Caroline Lindsay, who had herself been among the victims. On it she had written these stark words:

Entered the barracks May 21st 

Cavalry left June 5th

First shot fired June 6th

Aunt Lilly died June 17th

Uncle Willy died June 18th

Left barracks June 27th

George died June 27th

Alice died July 9th

Mama died July 12th

British imperialism has cast a long shadow.   While it remains true that prejudice of every kind – racial, social, imperial, religious – clouded many aspects of women’s involvement in India, this was not invariably the case.  Their testaments reveal an astonishing range of responses to India, and show that theirs is a longer, more complex, and more fascinating story than we have ever thought.  They saw death and suffering, but they saw marvels too.  Whatever their fate, none of the women who went to India could fail to be changed by it.  

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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine, April 28th, 2019

Katie Hickman’s ‘She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen:  British Women in India 1600 – 1900’ is published by Virago. 

Katie Hickman is the author of eight books, including two bestselling works of non-fiction, Daughters of Britannia – in the Sunday Times bestseller lists for 10 months and a 20-part series for BBC Radio 4 – and Courtesans. She has also written a trilogy of historical novels – the Aviary Gate, The Pindar Diamond and the House of Bishopgate – which have been translated into 20 languages.

Katie will be at Chalke Valley History Festival on Monday 24th June to tell the incredible stories of the first British women to set foot in India. Tickets are available here.