She Travelled: The Portrait of Joanna de Silva, the Indian Ayah at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

My encounter with Joanna de Silva, a nursemaid from eighteenth-century Bengal, India, was rather serendipitous! I came to know of the portrait of Joanna through a research network of scholars and enthusiasts committed to unravel the history of Indian ayahs and Chinese amahs, the native nursemaids in the service of European employers in colonial India.[1] Joanna de Silva’s portrait (1792) was recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York. According to the inscription on the top right corner of the portrait, Joanna was a native of Bengal and the “faithful and affectionate nurse of the children of the Lieutenant Colonel Charles Deare.” According to the MET’s records, Joanna later accompanied members of the family back to England, where she sat for this portrait.[2] In the course of two and a half centuries (1792-2021), Joanna de Silva and her portrait, travelled three continents, from India to England and then to the United States.

Who was this gorgeous compelling woman? Her name, suggesting a Portuguese connection, was memorialized through the creation of a notable British artist William Wood (1769-1810) known for his portraits. Her British employers must have been both affluent and kind to get her portrait painted with all her fineries. But how do we situate Joanna in the context of her time and her occupation?

Though she was a native of Bengal, Joanna’s last name suggests Portuguese ancestry. It is probable that she was Christian. The Bengal connection is understandable given Calcutta (now Kolkata), as the imperial capital until 1911, was the seat of British power. Most British officials and their household staff were from the Bengal Presidency.

Before India came under British colonial domination, non-indigenous enslaved and “free” Christian and Portuguese women constituted most of the household workers. These women, who came from various Asian societies dotting the Indian Ocean littoral, were once enslaved.

After they got manumitted, they entered the fold of the free Christian or Portuguese communities of the settlements and hired themselves as household laborers.[3] It is possible that Joanna De Silva descended from that lineage.

Interestingly, Joanna’s visit to England and the date inscribed on the portrait provide a twist to her story. The “inscription” on the portrait noted Lieutenant Colonel Charles Deare of the East India Company as Joanna’s employer who commissioned the portrait drawn in 1792. If Charles “Russell” Deare was the employer of Joanna,[4] historical records indicate that Deare “fell by a Cannon Shot” while he was “commanding the Bengal Artillery in the action fought between a Detachment of the British Forces and those of Tippoo Sultaun near Sattimungallum”[5]. Charles Russell Deare’s epitaph in the South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta shows that he died on 15th of September 1790. The year Joanna’s portrait was painted (1792) and the death of her possible employers in India (1790) do not match.

This historical enigma raises multiple questions: it compels us to investigate if indeed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Deare was Joanna de Silva’s employer in England. Was Joanna de Silva’s portrait commissioned to Wood during her visit with the Deare family but only completed in 1792 after her employer’s death? Did Joanna return to Calcutta with her employers? Is it plausible that Joanna de Silva stayed back in England? Or, did Joanna travel to England following Deare’s death to accompany his children, and the Deare family members arranged to have her portrait painted then, out of his estate? To retrieve and restore Joanna de Silva with authenticity one needs to conduct serious research.

Figure 1: The grave of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Russell Deare in the South Park Cemetery, Calcutta

While we may never know the particular circumstances of Joanna’s portrait, it is clear that she travelled! As one of those early travellers to Britain in the late eighteenth century, Joanna De Silva is comparable to the Indian traveller Sake Dean Mahomet (Sheikh Din Muhammad, 1759-1851) who served an Anglo-Irish officer in the army of the British East India Company and accompanied him back to Ireland in 1787. One of Dean Mahomet’s many claims to fame is for being the first Indian to write a full-length English text, Travels.[6] A recent commentator of Mahomet’s text notes that Mahomet was something of a “border crosser,” performing “balancing act[s] of the marginalized insider.”[7] Ayahs like Joanna De Silva who accompanied their European employers also befit the category of “border crossers” and “marginalized insiders.” While Joanna De Silva seems not to have left behind anything in writing, her portrait travelled from England to the United States, belonging to the private collection of the Dastich’s and the estate of John Richardson (provenance), and now adorning the gallery 615 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Joanna De Silva’s act of border-crossing earned her the privilege to command such a majestic portrait that seems to defy her subaltern status and position as a “marginalized insider”.

I am beginning to explore the history of this fascinating ayah Joanna De Silva who travelled far and wide. Any information on Joanna De Silva, her life, her employers, and the donors of the portrait to MET would be most welcome.

Swapna Banerjee 2021

Featured image: Joanna De Silva.

[1] The Ayah and Amah International Research Network.

[2] (accessed on Nov. 6, 2021). The portrait was acquired by the MET at the bequest of Mary Jane Dastich, in memory of her husband, General Frank Dastich, by exchange and Charles B. Curtis Fund, 2020.

[3] Titash Chakraborty, The Household Workers of the East India Company Ports of Pre-Colonial Bengal. International Review of Social History, 64 (S27), 2019: 71-93. (p. 73)

[4] The middle name “Russell” is missing in the MET Inscription.

[5] (Accessed on Nov. 6, 2021)

[6] The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth Century Journey Through India. Edited with an Introduction and a biographical essay by Michael Fisher (Berkeley: University of California Press, c1997 1997)  (Accessed on Nov. 6, 2021).

[7] Mona Narain, “Dean Mahomet’s ‘Travels’, Border Crossings, and the Narrative of Alterity.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 49, no. 3 (2009): 693–716. Cited by Matthew Wills, “Dean Mahomet: Travel Writer, Border Crosser,” (accessed on November 6, 2021)

5 thoughts on “She Travelled: The Portrait of Joanna de Silva, the Indian Ayah at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

  1. Thank you for this!

    The Portuguese angle is so interesting here. It seems from other evidence too that some of the most mobile and motile ayahs of the 1880s and 1900s were of Portuguese stock. Their Christian beliefs meant they traveled more readily than women who were bound by other religious beliefs. Joanna in the 1790s was perhaps one of the early prototypes. She was not a one-off person but an inspiration to many successors.

    LONG TRIP. By the way, Joanna’s voyage to England would have taken at least six months at that time – by sailing ship and round the bottom of Africa.

    HER ROLE IN HOUSEHOLD. Do you think that Joanna’s (apparent) presence in England after Charles Deare’s death indicates that she was such a mainstay of the household that she HAD to be included in the household wherever it went? She was perhaps a crucial transitional object, like a child’s blankie. And maybe she was the widowed Mrs Deare’s indispensable helpmeet, a substitute for the lost husband.

    PORTRAITS AS MNEMONICS & METONYMS. Having an expensive portrait painted might have been a way of deliberately holding onto a preferred memory of “India-and-happier-times-when-Charles-was-alive.” That is, this could an image of metonym for a particular commemorated version of India. It’s not just a woman’s portrait, is it?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Swapna, I hope you don’t mind but I have shared your blog post with Adam Eaker who is on the curatorial team at The Met – he is the one who reached out to me to alert me about the new portrait they had acquired. He would like to reach out to for you more information about the portrait as per your blog (for his curatorial research!) All my best, Farhanah

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Farhanah,
      Thank you so much!! Adam Eaker did reach out to me and now we are in touch. I’m grateful to you for sharing Joanna de Silva with us.

      Sent from my iPhone

      Liked by 1 person

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