Locating Ayahs in Transit: A Passage to Australia and other Parts of the World

As a social historian whose work focuses on domestic laborers in colonial India, I intend to unravel the story of Indian female domestic workers who travelled to Australia, directly or via England, and to other British colonies in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.

Today in India’s imagination, Australia chiefly looms large as a major competitor in cricket. But India and Australia were joined at the hip for centuries, both being colonies of the British empire. India was (perhaps) Australia’s oldest business partner and their transactions involved more than goods and services. Laborers in various capacities—servants, bricklayers, carpenters, agricultural workers, small merchants, and hawkers—were part of the movement between India and Australia.[1] As scholars demonstrated in different contexts, immigrant labor, including from India, was crucial to the colonization of Australia. Among these varied service providers figured the critical but less explored character of the ayah. Ayah, a term owing its origins to Portuguese cognate “aia” (Spanish “aya;” Italian “aja;” and Latin “avia” meaning grandmother) were native nurse-maids, the female caregivers to children, especially in the European households in India.[2]

Etymologically, the ayah is a recent import in Indian history that gained currency as  British officials started settling in India in the second half of the nineteenth century. But long before European advent, India had a thriving tradition of domestic service stretching back to ancient times. Texts, edicts, Jain, and Buddhist literature dating back to sixth century BCE have records of employing male and female servants. Medieval regional literature from the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries refer to female servants who engaged in cleaning, arranging, reordering the household, and running errands such as fetching milk. There are references to barber-women, washer women, sweepers or scavengers, personal maids, entertainers who cared especially for their mistresses.[3] The trend of hiring domestic workers went on unabetted through the Islamic empires and reached its apex under the Mughals.[4]

No wonder when Europeans arrived, they were astonished to witness the retinue of servants employed in Indian households. The Flemish artist F. Baltazard Solvyns (1760-1824) who stayed in India between 1791and 1803, left rich illustrations of servants in his paintings. Of his thirty-six plates on servants, only six were of female domestics. This limited number of women domestics and the nature of their work are suggestive of the sexual division of labor prevalent at that time and the restricted entry of women in the workforce population, especially in the urban areas. Subsequently, the Censuses of India of 1876, 1901, 1911, 1921 showed a restricted number of women workers in domestic service. The 1911 Census noted, especially with respect to Bengal harboring the imperial capital city of Calcutta, that nearly two-thirds of the actual workers returned under the head of domestic service were males. It further stated that, where a family could afford only one servant, the choice was always a man who could do the shopping and perform other outdoor activities better than a woman.

Figure 2. Lady with Ayah, c. 1860s. Wikimedia Commons.

Yet despite their limited presence, what made the ayahs so crucial in the colonial landscape? Numerous records from the colonial times and current research have revealed that ayahs were indispensable for raising children in Anglo-Indian households. The British mistresses or memsahibs (as they were called), who accompanied their partners to the distant land of India, depended heavily on the labor and care of Indian maids in bringing up their children. The ayahs thus entered the imaginaries of the Europeans who later reflected on the memories of growing up in the colony. But in sharp contrast to the personal memories, in everyday interaction the ayahs were serious subjects of contempt, caution, and ire–described as lazy, inefficient, dirty, and corrupt in British official handbooks, manuals, and medical texts.[5]

Furthermore, whether eulogized or condemned, the service of the ayahs often extended beyond the domain of the household.

The ayahs acted as caregivers and surrogate mothers to British children not only in India but they also hired themselves to mind children during the passage of European/British families to England and back.

There is growing scholarship on ayahs travelling to England during the period of British occupation of India. However, much less attention has been paid to ayahs travelling to other parts of the world. In this joint project, we seek to document those peripatetic caregivers from India and China who travelled to Australia and other British colonies accompanying the families of their employers.

The historian Samia Khatun has challenged the view advocated by earlier scholars that the diasporic population, especially women from South Asia, whether independent or as part of British Indian family, are hard to document and were rather limited in the Indian ocean world. Khatun emphasizes the passenger lists of ships arriving at Australian ports as possible registers to locate women travelling to Australia. Many of these women from Bengal, asserts Khatun, came as domestic servants—“ayahs accompanying white employers from British India to Australian ports and inland towns.”[6] A picture of an ayah from Punjab (below) attests to the fact that there were ayahs who travelled abroad from outside of Bengal as well.

Figure 3. “Ayah, Punjab, 1916 (Source: ebay, Apr. 2007)

My prior research has focused on domestic workers in colonial Bengal. It underscored the connection between the rising employment of domestic workers and the crystallization of class-caste-gender identity of the Bengali middle class. Garnering data from censuses, wage registers, domestic economy manuals, and family account books, my work demonstrated that until the 1930s, the number of female domestics in both native and European households was lower compared to their male counterparts. Hailing mainly from lower caste groups such as Bagdi and Jalia Kaibarta, poor, helpless women, many of them young widows, worked full-time as ayahs, wet-nurses, or house-maids in affluent native and British households. The nature of work for female domestics was undefined, varying from taking care of children to cooking and cleaning the house. Others engaged themselves as part-time maids, quite often following their caste-based trade. The maid-servants’ salary was almost always lower than the male servants.  In the case of hiring women, age and marital status were as important as their caste and ethnic backgrounds. There is no evidence of young unmarried women being hired as full-time maids in the Indian middle-class households.[7] Women hiring themselves as maids moved from one region to  another, mainly from the countryside to the cities. Those who were married often followed their husbands who worked as day laborers, millworkers, or in other capacities.

The travelling ayahs or “the ayahs in transit,” as I call them, were a distinct category in the global migrant labor force. Whether they shared the same profile as those who stayed and worked in India is the question to probe. In this new research I will investigate the life worlds of these early migrant workers’ who left their homes and crossed the “dark waters” (kalapani) of the ocean to make a living. My focus will be on locating those ayahs who travelled to Australia and other countries besides England.[8] It is evident from research now that those ayahs who accompanied the British family to England came back to India after fulfilling their obligations on board. These ayahs were temporary help “in transit” and did not form a permanent diasporic community abroad. Did the ayahs who travelled to Australia directly or via England and to other parts of the empire represent the same pattern? What was their demographic profile? Were they single, widowed, or married? What were their religious backgrounds? How did they manage their family life, their own children? What prompted them to venture out of their own land? Was their experience in the new countries any different from those who visited England? Did travelling abroad with employers’ families make them financially richer? Did they come back equipped with extra tools of power? Did they gain access to more resources for their children and family? How do their experiences compare with the present day migrant domestic workers from India? Furthermore, how do we map these early workers in the complex labyrinth of connected histories? How did gender, race, sex, caste-class, and empire intersect in the unfolding of these peripatetic lives?

I will explore this plethora of questions to unearth the lives of these ayahs in transit, the travelling ayahs about whose lives we know very little. My attempt is to trace their roots in India, to map the trajectory of their movements, to locate their lives in the interstices of political-economic relations and socio-cultural trends that undergirded the transition from being a local to a global migrant workforce.

Swapna Banerjee 2021

[1] J. Westrip and P. Holroyd, Colonial Cousins: A Surprising History of Connections Between India and Australia  (Australia: Wakefield Press, 2010).

[2] https://www.etymonline.com/word/ayah (accessed on Feb. 15, 2021).

[3] Swapna M. Banerjee, Men, Women, and Domestics: Articulating Middle-Class Identity in Colonial Bengal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[4] W.H. Moreland, India at the Death of Akbar: An Economic Study (Delhi: Atmaram, 1962).

[5] Banerjee, Men Women, and Domestics. Satyasikha Chakraborty, “From Bibis to Ayahs: Sexual Labour, Domestic Labour, and the Moral Politics of Empire”, in Nitin Sinha and Nitin Varma (eds.) Servants’ Pasts: Eighteenth to Twentieth Century South Asia, (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2019).

[6] Samia Khatun, Australianama (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 47.

[7] Banerjee, Men, Women, and Domestics

[8] Ayahs traveled abroad with affluent Indian families as well. They too need serious scholarly attention

7 thoughts on “Locating Ayahs in Transit: A Passage to Australia and other Parts of the World

  1. I had a query about the ayahs. Since ayahs were mostly hired for caregiving to young and very young children did they not require any special training? Moreover children being in English households did the ayahs have some communication skill in English? In brief what was the process of recruitment in English households?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Sunetra and thank you for your interest. The questions you ask are very pertinent questions. As yet, we haven’t seen evidence of specialised training in infant and baby care, but there were certainly were specialised baby nursemaids and wetnurses (called dhyes). There is considerable evidence of English speaking capacities of the ayahs, and references to what was disparagingly called “Kitchen Hindi” being used in the household between mistress (“memsahib”) and all servants. Recruitment is another question again and there were many different avenues for that. For our project we are particularly interested in finding out how the “travelling ayahs” (and amahs) were recruited and what connections they might have had to the women who worked in households in India. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Once these ayahs returned to their native village, what became their status as they crossed kalapani? Were they affluent enough to enjoy predominance in society?


  3. Hi Bhaswati, That’s a very interesting question. Thanks for asking.
    Those are the kind of questions I would probe in my research. If you have any inkling or trace of a returning ayah, please share with us.


  4. hello from India:)
    I am Mohana Priya, Mphil scholar, Loyola College, Chennai city.
    i have been working on the native domestic workers of british households in india. i dedicate two of my chapters to ayahs. your blog is a huge source to my thesis. i am indeed gratful. i would to thank you and the team.

    i would like to know if there are more sources available on ayahs who travelled with their masters.
    thank you!


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