Ubiquity and Invisibility of Female Domestics in Colonial Archives

In 1797, the case of a girl named Raddie (most probably, Anglicized corruption of Radha or Radhi) leaving her foster parents’ house was brought to the notice of the local British magistrate. The case in itself was about establishing the culpability of a certain daroga (native police official), Ramlochun Dutt, a thirty years old man serving in a place in southern Bihar, situated more than 300 kms away from where he belonged to in Bengal. Mohun, the foster father, had accused Dutt and his official assistant of forcefully detaining his adopted daughter and cohabiting with her. Running into several pages and based upon eight depositions including Raddie’s the case brings out the complexity of the social identify of the female servant.

Mohun claimed Raddie to be his adopted daughter, a young abandoned girl he had found under a peepal tree probably at the age of three or four. Depositions suggest that at the time of the trial Raddie was somewhere between fifteen and eighteen. Raddie on the other hand simply said that since her childhood she was protected by Mohun. The accounts of witnesses who were Mohun’s neighbours, acquaintances and perhaps close friends further complicate her social identity. They implied that she could be an inferior second young wife, a mistress, a slave, a servant, a girl under ‘protection’, and not least an adopted daughter.

Raddie and Mohun’s wife had a fight over provisions of rice and clothes. Almost two months had elapsed between the time she left the house and her appearing in the court. In these months, she worked as a servant in two different households. She was given food and clothes by her masters. For a teenage girl, who could well be lusted by a thirty-year-old daroga or by her male masters, such provisions in exchange of sexual liaison could have comprised her ‘wage’.

For people like Raddie, the term ‘servant’ masks more than reveal her social identity, status and the nature of defined relationship within the household. Similarly, the claim of ‘protection’ could very well conceal the meaning and form of payment, obligation, dependency, and (sexual) coercion.

Stories such as of Raddie’s are bound to appear only in fragments in judicial archives. The servant-subaltern was not the concern of the judicial process. The case was not about delivering justice to the young girl who complained of being beaten by her master/adopted father and mistress/adopted mother. It was about deciding whether the magistrate’s dismissal of the daroga was justified. Dutt might have faced the same trial had there been any other person involved. Raddie’s presence in the archives was accidental.

We have no ways of knowing what happened to her once the trial was over with the revocation of Dutt’s dismissal on grounds of insufficient evidence. She might have gone back to Mohun’s house, found another master or migrated to some other town or place. And in each of these conditions she might well have continued being in a relationship of ‘protection’ including becoming a bibi to a European or working as an ayah in his household.

Figures such as Raddie are not uncommon in colonial archives but their presence is fragmented and accidental. They are at once ubiquitous and invisible. Their presence is event-related through which charting a full life-trajectory becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Even a cursory glance at literary and anecdotal references confirm to their widespread presence in a variety of South Asian households both in historical past and contemporary period. In most cases, however, their life-cycle narrative is incomplete. They enter and leave the archives not on their volition. Thinking about their history turns ‘informed speculation’ into a methodological tool.

Numbers give a definite sense to the scale of groups of people whose history we write. The picture gets clearer when backed up with figures. Unfortunately, at least for the early colonial phase it is extremely difficult to come up with any definite number of domestics. There is, of course, the problem of the nature of sources. Enumerative exercises of this phase are patchy and inconsistent. But more importantly, the muddled identity of a servant, whose presence in the household can be obscured and justified in many ways as seen in the case of Raddie, poses question to the idea of the number itself. We will return to the question of numbers in another entry in greater detail.

Beyond numbers and fractured presence in the archives, visuals provide some original insights into discovering the presence of female domestics. In colonial societies, usually male servants outnumbered female domestics. The two oft-repeated categories of women servants attached to European households were of ayahs and mehtaranee (female waste cleaners). However, in visual ethnography of ‘caste and trade’ and ‘profession and occupation’ that were commissioned by Europeans and usually drawn and sketched by Indians, we see some more female service providers. The Indian artists were providing information on workers that existed beyond European households.

The depiction of some female servants and service providers therefore becomes striking. The presence of gwalin, (milkwoman), paniharin (water drawer), jatanwaali (grain pounder), besides host of other women who were involved in weaving, tailoring, cotton carding, and selling vegetables and confectionary, sensitizes us towards locating female servants in Indian households.


(images reproduced from collections of British Library with their permission; please don’t reuse them)


For many of the work categories that are readily identifiable through male terms such as dhobi (washerman), nau (barber) and mali (gardener), we have to constantly remind ourselves that these were service providing households in which women work was equally important. Excessive or the only use of male category obscures female labour. Dhobin, nauin, and malin – the female counterparts – together with gwalin and mehtaranee were closely attached to a single or a set of households. Domestic service had a conjugal basis. There were families of masters and mistresses and then there were families of servants and service providers.

Beyond ayahs and to an extent mehtaranee, the direct presence of female domestics as distinct labouring group is almost absent in the institutional colonial archives (by which we mean primarily administrative and judicial correspondences). They appear in cases related to others. It is almost like they speak only when asked for.

Some blame must also be shared by the practitioners of the discipline. Coolies and lascars are well established subjects of ‘labour’ history. In spite of her being in the streets, alleys, bungalows, esplanades, and ships, even the most visible of the female servant, the ayah, has been left unaccounted for. The bias of the archives can unwittingly influence the frameworks of the historian.

The visual and to an extent literary sources, however, help raise some revisionary questions. The foremost among them is on the widely held view on feminization of domestic work. Because men heavily populated the category of domestic servants, in terms of numerical shift the argument of late feminization has been made in the Indian case. While broadly this seems to be the case, such an argument can possibly be relying on our understanding of European households in which female servants were marginal. Indian households, on the other hand, can potentially be employing a greater number of female domestics. There might be many more Raddies living under ‘protection’ even in households of very modest means.

By Nitin Sinha


1 thought on “Ubiquity and Invisibility of Female Domestics in Colonial Archives

  1. Pingback: Domestic gadgets and domestic servants in late colonial British households | Servants Pasts

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