Thomassee: The first Australian ayah

Many of the stories of the travelling ayahs and amahs that we are learning about today concern those women who travelled between Asia and England during the period of the British Empire. As part of this project, however, we are looking for stories of women who travelled south from India and China, to Australia. These women are few and far between, and they are very hard to locate in the records. To find their stories, one strategy we use is to revisit the few historical accounts we have of Asian migration to Australia in the colonial period, to see if we can find women domestic workers amongst them. This blog is about one of those stories, that has revealed, rather unexpectedly, the existence of perhaps the earliest ayah in Australian history.  

Her name is Thomassia, or Thomassee, or Thamassah – her name in the records is spelt so many different ways – and no picture survives of her. But we know that she arrived in the colony of New South Wales in 1818, with her mistress, Mrs Sophia Browne (nee Forbes), on a ship called Mary from Calcutta.

Figure 1 West View of Sydney NSW, c. 1810 Walter Akhurst & Co PIC Drawer 2181 #S6270

Also on board ship were fourteen Hindu workers from Bengal, all engaged as indentured farm labourers to work on Sophia’s husband William’s land grant south of Sydney. But Sophia, who had with her two of her daughters and her younger sister, had also brought with her a full retinue of servants to help in the house. They included two servants who tended to the table and kitchen, a khansamah (or butler) and a khitmagar, a cook, and a tailor, all of whom were Muslim men; there was also a washerman to do the laundry, and his assistant, who ironed, who were probably Hindu. The washerman and the butler had brought their wives with them, too. Then there were three women servants, Thomassee, and two younger women – just girls really, probably aged about 14 – called Bucktin and Paree. This was a fairly typical household for British India at that time. In New South Wales, though, it wasn’t.

A wealthy Calcutta merchant, with exciting plans to run a regular trade between Calcutta and Sydney, William Browne had been welcomed with open arms by the Governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Lachlan Macquarie, when he first arrived in 1816. Macquarie himself had an Indian background, and even a manservant from India. He provided William with land and convict labourers to add to the four Bengali men who William brought with him.  William enthused about what ideal workers they were for the colonial enterprise, with their “mild and submissive manners, sobriety, honesty and docility,” and, perhaps most importantly, their willingness to tolerate low provisions and low wages. In the middle of 1819, however, all that changed, when William Browne found himself before the colony’s bench of magistrates, defending himself against allegations of mistreatment and serious abuse of his Indian workers. Over a period of four days in early July, the bench considered written and spoken depositions from no less than 22 of his employees, attesting to gross abuse and their earnest desire to be freed from their contracts.

To his dismay, the magistrates found that his workers had indeed been “insufficiently and ill fed, unduly worked, greatly aggrieved and unjustly treated,” and ordered all of his Indian workers (some 40 people) to be released at once from his service and returned to Calcutta.

They were gone by the end of month, landing back in India at the end of September, where the Indian government pronounced that they had taken “precautions” to prevent the further embarkation of such persons to NSW without “adequate security for their good treatment” by their employers. [1]

This story routinely appears in Australian histories of immigration and labour, and has been used by historians to trace the origins of Australia’s aversion to indentured non-white labour. However, until relatively recently the episode has only ever been represented as a story of what we might recognise as public, and male agricultural labour. [2] That the conflict was played out in the domestic arena as much, indeed more, than it did on the farm, you would not know from the way the history has been previously recounted. Nor would you know that there were women involved.

In 2013, the story of William Browne’s Indian workers was revived for an exhibition on intercolonial trade between India and Australia, at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney. For the first time in almost a hundred years, the voices of the Indian workers would be heard. The curator, Michelle Linder, had located the depositions of Browne’s workers and hired actors to read a selection for the exhibition – including Thomassee’s testimony. If you scroll down to the bottom of the curator’s blog, you can hear her words for yourself. [3]

We hear Thomassee complaining of the treatment that she received at the hands of her mistress Sophia. She was not alone. The two other female house servants complained of being beaten, and so did most of the male servants. Thomassee, Bucktin and Paree also prepared a joint memorial that they had delivered to the Governor, asking him “to dissolve the bond of slavery in which Mrs Browne deems them held” and let them return to India.


Figure 2 Ayah, or female attendant for European and Indian women, Calcutta, West Bengal. Francois Balthazar Solvyns, c.1808-1812.

Seven years after the hearings, the depositions and memorials made by Sophia’s servants, as well as those made by the fieldworkers, were collated as part of a report on slavery in East India, presented to the British House of Commons in 1827, and published the next year.  The whole episode occurred at a time of flux, between the passing of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, and the start of the official indentured migrant labour system in 1834, following abolition in the British overseas colonies – except for India. Thomassee and two other, somewhat younger Indian women working in the Browne household, Bucktin and Paree, were all considered, by the magistrates and by themselves, as being slaves, receiving no wages. They’d all been with Sophia since their infancy, dating their arrival in her household in Calcutta to around 1805. Slavery in India would not be abolished in India until 1843. But slavery was a highly sensitive issue in both India and colonial Australia.

Who was Thomassee? We don’t know very much about her at all. She described herself as a “ladies dresser” and needleworker, and she was probably only a young girl when she first came to work for Sophia. Like Bucktin and Paree, she was recorded as being an orphan. Her unusual name might be a clue, that she was somehow connected with the Indo-Portuguese Catholic community of Madras, the so-called “St Thomas Christians,” or perhaps she had come to the Browne household from a Catholic missionary school. [4] As Swapna Banerjee has noted in a previous blog, the term “ayah” itself has a Portuguese root. By the 1870s in India, the Christian Indo-Portugese ayahs would be known by the British as “first class” ladies’ maids, because not only could they speak English but they could also “dress hair, wash laces, silk stockings, &c., and, in some few instances, can use their needles, for all of which they of course expect to be better paid.” [5] We can only speculate as to her origins, and whatever Thomassee went on to do after she returned to Calcutta from Sydney: but it would be nice to think that she continued to lead others to strive for the remuneration they deserved.

Victoria Haskins 2021


Feature image: A female Anglo-Indian at her toilet being attended by three Indian servants. Coloured lithograph by J. Bouvier, 1842, after W. Tayler. Wellcome Collection

[1] East India Company, Slavery in India: return to an address of the Honourable House of Commons, dated 13th April 1826 for copies or abstracts of all correspondence between the Court of Directors of the East India Company and the Company’s governments in India, touching the state of slavery in the territories under the Company’s rule, or respecting any slave trade therein, as also copies or abstracts of any orders or regulations issued, or any proceedings held by those governments relative to the said subjects (London: EIC, 1828), 267-296.

[2] Alan Dwight, “The Use of Indian Labourers in New South Wales,” Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (September 1976): 114-135; R Jayaraman, ‘Indians,’ in James Jupp (ed), The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, 542-545 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1988), 542; James Broadbent, Suzanne Rickard and Margaret Steven, India, China, Australia: Trade and Society 1788-1850 (Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 2003), 23-24; Marie De Lepervanche, “The (Silent) Voices of the Indian Coolies: Early Indian Workers in the Australian Colonies,” in Bridging Imaginations: South Asian Diaspora in Australia, edited by Amit Sarwal, 58-84 (New Delhi: Readworthy, 2013), 58-59.

[3] See also an interview with author Roanna Gonsalves in Kumud Merani, “How Indian servants brought to Australia lived and survived in the 19th century,” SBS Hindi https://www.sbs.com.au/language/english/audio/how-indian-servants-brought-to-australia-lived-and-survived-in-the-19th-century  Accessed May 18, 2021. We are grateful to Roanna Gonsalves for providing us with a copy of the extract relating to the Browne enquiry, that she had received from Michelle Linder.

[4] See N Dhanalakshmi, “Catholic Missions and Social Welfare Activities in the Sixteenth Century Tamil Country,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 58 (1997): 278-284, 281-283.

[5] R Ridell, Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book, with Hindustanee Romanized Names; comprising numerous directions for plain wholesome cookery, both Oriental and English; with much miscellaneous matter, answering all general purposes of reference connected with household affairs likely to be immediately required by families, messes, and private individuals residing at the Presidencies or out-stations (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, & Co, 1877) [rev. ed., 8th], 5.

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