Thursday, 27 January 2011

Ayahs working on 19C seas


Just out: my article: ‘Ayahs who travelled: Indian nannies voyaging to Britain in the nineteenth century’, Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter, January, pp.5-8.

What interests me is the race as well as gender were key issues in the mobility of these women. They were the nearest Britain got to employing non-white women seafarers. Ayahs can't really be seen as counterparts of Lascars because they were employed by individual passengers, not by shipping lines.

One ayah sailing as late as 1922 was Mrs Antony Pareira. An article describes her:
‘scanty greying locks … once … lustrous... and black as crow’s tail, [with] ear-rings of quaint native workmanship… smiling and complacent, gentle and maternal, soft-spoken and plainly self-reliant, with small dark eyes alight with keen intelligence…a mother at sixteen ...

'a past mistress in the peccadilloes of the high seas: an adept at doctoring in stubborn mal de mer; and as much inured to the customs and routine of a trim liner as any gold-laced skipper who ever paced a bridge or used a sextant.’

Perhaps the saddest case – and one that indicates that the stress of travelling and the tensions about power between ayahs and memsahibs - is that of the Abbot’s un-named ayah. She was travelling from Ceylon to Plymouth on the steamship Violette, in June 1885.

When Mr Abbot went to get a cup of tea 'the woman seized the eldest child, a beautiful, fair-headed girl, six years old, and thrust her through one of the ports, and then jumped out herself.

Both fell into the sea, and although the steamer was stopped, nothing could be seen of the child … great consternation and regret … the children being great favourites on board.’

This BASA article is part of a much bigger work I am doing on ayahs who sailed.

1 comment:

Shalini Peiris said...

Hi Jo! I find the history of Ayahs fascinating so your article was right up my street! According to records, The Ayahs Home in Hackney remained "in business" until 1942-- I was wondering if you had any accounts/anecdotes of Ayahs travelling to England in the early 40's as well?