The Indian nursemaid, or ayah, and Chinese nursemaid, or amah, occupy a cherished place in the imaginary of imperial and colonial histories. Individual recollections of British colonisers in South and South-East Asia have been compiled into the one abiding childhood memory of the devoted native nursemaid. 

The project Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945 delves deeply into those memories to uncover the experiences of the extraordinarily mobile ayahs and amahs who accompanied colonial families along circuits of empire between Australia, Asia, and the UK over two centuries.

By exploring the historical experiences and cultural memories of these earliest global domestic workers, the project aims to illuminate a broader transcolonial history of domestic work. The project is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant.

Ayahs first emerged as a distinctive occupational group in India with the arrival of British wives from the late eighteenth century, to become the mainstay of childcare work for the British in India.

In Singapore, Indian and Malay ayahs were also present during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. By the 1930s, however, childcare in the Straits Settlements, and in Hong Kong, was the domain of Chinese amahs. But these Indian and Chinese women workers were not only employed in households in South and South-East Asia. They also accompanied British families, in considerable numbers, across oceans between Asia, Europe, and Australia.

And as they journeyed, the cultural symbolism of their role was also transported across and between nations and colonies. Their cultural representations, as exotic emblems of empire, were as mobile as the workers themselves.

The project will make a major historical contribution to international scholarship on domestic work, colonialism, and gender while adding significant new knowledge to Australian histories of labour and migration in global context.

There are continuing resonances of this rich and little-known history of mobile domesticities for present-day debates in Australia, Britain and Asia, on the legacies of empire and colonialism.

The project is expected to result in several publications plus offer social and cultural benefits by advancing our historical understanding of the entangled cross-cultural relationships that have shaped our world today.

Project Objectives

  • To contribute to our deeper understanding, and the international scholarship, of transcolonial histories of mobility and domestic service
  • To reconstruct, describe and analyse the historical experiences of travelling Indian and Chinese women child care workers with their employer families over a century and a half
  • To analyse and explain how colonial structures – and particular, the colonial demand for child care – generated global mobility for colonised women workers
  • To establish the historical patterns of such Asian child carer migration to Australia, both in the context of national history, and as compared with other colonial sites
  • To trace the historical transmission of visual and literary representations and family memories of the ayahs and amahs across multiple colonial sites

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