Her Devoted Ayah

Our project on the Travelling Ayahs and Amahs looks at families and family life embedded in histories of empire. In this first of a series of blogposts on the project, Victoria Haskins shares the stories from her own family, that sparked her interest in this history. 

Figure 1. Margaret Ann Goldie, c. 1859. Author’s collection

In August 1858 Margaret Ann Goldie, a young woman aged about nineteen, ran away to Australia. In the colony of New South Wales she married well and became the mother of a large family, and in later years, a land-owner in her own right. Maggie captivated her numerous daughters and granddaughters with her adventures, and her granddaughter Joan Strack took it upon herself to write down some of Maggie’s stories in the early 1930s. Maggie was, she said, the eldest daughter of the Harbour-Master at Singapore and a dashing sea captain of the East India company. Maggie’s earliest years were spent in India. But when she and her siblings were orphaned they were sent to the care of relatives in Scotland, who were ‘far from kind’ – so Maggie decided to get herself to Australia. In 1934, as Maggie lay on her deathbed, Joan recorded with pride that she ‘was a very beautiful & proud Scotch girl. … born in India & sent at an early age back to Scotland with her Ayah. She never ‘worked’ in her life…’

Joan Strack was my great-grandmother, known to myself as Ming. Recounting her own childhood memories of idyllic rainy days on her grandmother’s south coast property, Ming wrote of her grandmother bringing out a carved wooden box she said had been given to her by ‘her old Ayah,’ filled with treasures for the children to pore through, while Maggie’s servant, the ‘Queen’ of the local tribe, brought them hot scones, brownies and milk. As Ming built up the image of Maggie as an intrepid pioneer gentlewoman, the story of her Scots-Indian origins and the mythical figure of the devoted ayah played a key role.

Maggie’s actual origins are shrouded, and there is no evidence of this ayah’s existence beyond these accounts. A solitary photograph held amongst Joan’s treasured mementoes, showing an unidentified ayah and British child in some unidentified, possibly colonial space, sheds no more light on the issue.

Figure 2. Unidentified Ayah with unidentified child, no date. Author’s collection.

What can we make of this story? For Ming the ayah served to signify Maggie’s class and whiteness. The devotion of this travelling ayah was a device that connected Maggie’s imperial experience in India and the her colonial experience, as mistress to Aboriginal servants, in Australia.

Some years ago I reflected upon the the way that the representation of the ayah, circulated along the networks of empire, functioned to constitute a particular transnational ideology of white womanhood. In considering the authenticity of Maggie’s ayah story I remarked that, while it did accord with the British Indian preference for sending their children back to Britain once they were out of infancy, the ‘one discordant note,’ I said, was the insistence that the ayah went with her to Scotland. I suspected that the ayah who took Maggie back home to Scotland was a later embellishment that Maggie’s descendants could not resist. I assumed that Maggie’s devoted ayah circulated purely as a cultural notion – not as a real human being. 

But – as I would discover – there is, in fact, a whole rich and complex history of South Asian and Asian women servants travelling across the world with families throughout the colonial period and well into the twentieth century. It was groundbreaking work by historian Rozina Visram that first opened up this history. Now more and more historians are researching and writing about these extraordinary women, these first global domestic workers, and their journeys between India and the British Isles. Yet we still know very little of those who went further afield out of London, to other parts of the country (like Scotland), and further still even to the Australian colonies.

Women like the D’Oyly family’s tragic ayah who drowned at sea in the Torres Strait in 1834, on the way back to Java from Hobart. Or the ayah who accompanied young Jessie Street (the well-known Australian feminist) and her family from West Bengal to northern NSW in 1895. Their stories are still untold. So few of these women were named, that finding them in the records is a real challenge. But their stories are critical to understanding the past – making it very clear how projects of empire have always depended on the mobile carework colonised women.

Figure 3. Julia Weston’s Sewing Box – the Ayah’s box? Author’s photograph, 2020.

Soon after we embarked on this project, I was contacted out of the blue by a distant cousin I’d never met, who wanted to bring something to show me. When Cousin Julia arrived, she brought with her a simple yet expertly crafted sandalwood box, about the size of a large shoebox, painted red on the inside. This box, she said, belonged to one of her aunts – another of Maggie’s granddaughters – and when she was a child herself she remembered it sitting on the sideboard as a much treasured item. Julia had inherited it from her aunt, and today it serves as her sewing box.

Could this be the famous ayah’s box that Ming remembers from those rainy South Coast days? I don’t know and probably never will, but I like to think so. In any case, it seems a sign to me, that that the stories of these intrepid and adventurous women are ready to be told.

Victoria Haskins 2021

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