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Colonial British Children brought up by Indian Ayahs

The Ayahs or native Indian nursemaids made long sea voyages to work as house maids or as nannies for the British in the colonial era. One can still see these buildings called “Ayah’s Home” and have been shortlisted for a blue plaque, a type of inscription in London that alerts people to a place’s importance and gives an opportunity to people who are interested in history to include it in heritage walks. These buildings called the Ayahs Home or hostel for destitute ayahs in London’s Hackney. They have been a testimony of native Indian nannies or ayahs who often ended up stranded and penniless in the country in the early 1900s after they grew old and were of no importance to their masters.

The practice of hiring ayahs and other domestic help for the day to day chores was established during the East India Company’s rule, became more prevalent during the days of Raj and then continued till the middle of the 20th century. Domestic help in England during the colonial era costed a lot more than one in India, so the more wealthy Company employees could afford to have a couple of working staff members at their beck and call!! With passage of time when British families went back home to England, they brought along their family ayah or an experienced travelling nanny to look after their young children onboard and back home. It is estimated that over 140 such nannies would come to Britain every year then. One Miss Antony Pareira voyaged as many as 54 times choosing to make a career out of onboard childcare. According to a 1922 article published in a British journal aimed at the working classes, they embodied four essential attributes: honesty, cleanliness, capability and a need to be good sea travellers, understanding that the sea voyages were extremely long and not as easy as they are today. There were number of reasons, such as financial conditions, affection for the children that Indian nannies had and a wish to see Britain which persuaded nannies to travel a long distance from their homeland to Britain.

The gruesome part of it was that after having travelled a much difficult journey of some thousands of miles from their homeland on a rough sea and after finishing their on board services these caregivers were commonly  abandoned with little or no fare for their return. Some were clever enough to advertise their services through local news agencies and newspapers, but was difficult for the first-time travellers who found themselves helpless in an alien country and out of sheer helplessness took to begging in the streets to collect enough money for a return journey. Nonetheless, most of them lived in shabby dwellings or lodging houses while seeking further employment. In the 1890s, homes were set up by city missionaries to give shelter until a family returning to India engaged them. These establishments became ayah recruiting agencies, and also made it easier for missionaries who were at a rampant speed to convert people to Christianity.

Nowadays to elevate interests in the mind of the people an exhibition was also organised at the Hackney Museum, where some awe-inspiring photographs of ayahs with their employers were displayed for people to see and comment and further furbish some untold tales of these ayahs whom the family once employed. But it would be also interesting to hear realities from the other side; that is Indian family and friends of these women who were once employed by wealthy British masters and the miseries they had to go through.

Many British argue that Asian migrations to England were recent and that such recent migrants have done no significant contribution to the county, but these are false and uncalled allegations and can be put to rest by the roles of these caring women of yore, and their stories of hardships, sufferings and deceitfulness they suffered at the hands of their employers. Like the Ayahs from India, even nannies from China called Amahs too made similar journeys and they too, like their Indian counterparts had similar stories to narrate.

More commonly ayahs from Madras (now Chennai), in southern India and Goa in western India were said to be more common places of origin. These care givers were even subject to ridicule when it came boarding the ships to Britain, unlike all other passengers who had to have a medical examination, the  nannies  had to report four hours before the time of departure, much prior to the regular passengers, as they firsts needed to be sanitised before they actually boarded the ship.

“Ayah’s baby” was also a bit of a ridiculing phrase used in those days to describe either a disobedient or an attention-seeking child. But at the same time photographs from old family albums having an ayah was a sign of status which can be observed in the photographs, the manner in which these ayahs were portrayed. It was observed that these native Indian nannies, often donned simple sarees in different styles which reflected their native places of stay in India. Ayahs were even given western names like Ayah Julia, Ayah Maria and also from the surname of the family they worked for like Ayah Smith, Ayah Wilcock, Ayah Walter. But these given Christian names to the Ayahs further robbed their identity making it difficult to trace their actual places of origin.

Many questions remain unanswered about the feelings of arrival in an alien country, and in some cases the country that they dreamt or aspired to see. In quite a few cases the shock of being abandoned, with or without any financial assistance by the family who brought them for selfish motives of caring for their babies during the sea journeys or when children were young and growing in England.

This institution of Ayahs possibly was seen and learnt by the British when they came to India. They saw wealthy Indians having one or two for child care at their homes. Often a dedicated Aayah was hired to continue for as long as children grew up and they also contributed to other household works, such as cleaning, cooking etc. In fact wealthy women had personal servants too who lived all their lives with the family and even the Ayahs’ offspring’s continued to work for the family, making it a hereditary attachment with the family. Unlike the British example, abandonment of Ayahs was not prevalent in India as it had a joint family system and some one or the other in the home needed assistance. Also children were taught to respect Ayahs as they would other elders at home and that provided a robust inter-support system.

India is still quite dependent on domestic help and in spite of times having changed so much, Indians largely rely on servants for their day to day lives.