‘My Faithful Servant’: Concubinage and Service in early Colonial Households
A veritable historical treasure trove can be found in the plethora of wills stored in Calcutta’s High Court. Among them are wills written by British men in the early colonial period, who frequently mention their ‘housekeeper’, a popular euphemism for ‘mistress’, or ‘faithful servant’, ‘female friend’, ‘mother of my children’, with the term ‘native’ used to describe Indian or mixed-race descent during the early colonial period.
Wills occupy a unique position as archival sources because they offer a glimpse into the shared personal space between the colonizer and the colonized. By the sheer number of mentions, we get to know how commonplace non-marital cohabitations were. The language, terms of endearment, details of bequests and purchase can all be called on to understand the workings of the interpersonal relationships British men had come to establish with the native concubine. The ways in which the language of the wills defines the concubine’s role in the British man’s writing becomes an aspect of her history.
Apart from the language of these documents, the issue of wages (or contention over them as a legal issue), as well as how the women were acquired spell out the crucial role money played in forging and continuing these domesticities. It also renders the generalized romanticization of the mixed-race concubinage problematic. Before we understand the terms of these connections, we need to ask whether exchange of money is inherent in concubinage, and, if it is, whether it obliges the concubine to render services. Do non-marital cohabitations in early colonial India, where local women were bought and paid to serve the colonial male, fall under such a service category, although without a legal contract? Did the exchange of money make British men possess the women on one hand, and on the other, make it equally possible for the relationships to be called off by either party? Can this money-based affect be seen as part of the ‘care economy’ of the eighteenth century colonial world?
General Claude Martin’s will, written in 1800, furnished elaborate details of how his concubines were acquired, ‘not as we term slaves tho paid a consideration for but the sum I paid was a present to the relations that I might have had a right on them as not to be claimed by anybody and those I acquired for to be the companion of my good and bad fortune and they were to be with me for life. I had them when in their childhood and I had them educated as virtuously as I could.’ Martin describes how the native Boulone, nicknamed Lise, reached him. It was through a Frenchman, who had purchased her from ‘cruel and inhuman’ parents.
Similarly, Richard Blechynden, a civil engineer, building contractor and an official assistant to Calcutta’s surveyor of roads, wrote in his meticulously detailed diary about how he acquired one of his bibis. Nancy was left by a certain Cooper – her master, on account of his marriage – and Luteeb, probably one of the men who helped in procuring concubines, informed him that a very pretty bibi was in great distress. As Blechynden recollected, ‘so much so that she would actually sell herself to anyone that would pay her Debts’.
These observations show that native mistresses were commonly acquired through exchange of money, on a personal level, blurring the various ways in which one could neatly arrange the variety of mixed-race interpersonal relationships. Claude Martin mentions his ‘amiable’ Boulone in loving terms, describes having her educated when she was just nine year old, and then goes on praising her for her humanity and generosity, leaving her well provided for.
Captain Thomas Williamson of the Bengal Establishment, writing in the first decade of 19th century, mentions the generosity of the Company in letting the European soldiery ‘marry native women’. He then clarifies,
Whether married, or not, each soldier is generally provided with a companion, who takes care of his linen, aids in cleaning his accoutrements, dresses his hair, and sometimes proves no bad hand at a beard! These doxies do, certainly, now and then, kick up a famous row in the barracks; but, on the whole, may be considered highly serviceable; especially during illness, at which time their attendance is invaluable.
Despite the ‘famous rows’ that the native mistresses could cause once in a while, their serviceability is noted at the level of the Company, which not only turned a blind eye to increasing numbers of native mistresses in the early colonial era but actually encouraged them to cater to the growing numbers of young soldiers. Williamson also states that native women are extremely important for the soldiers both as helpmates and as sexual partners.
When Europe came face to face with the East, ‘local’ women proved to be useful keys to the new language and other ‘mysteries’ of the local society. This was not limited to South Asia, and some very interesting works have delved into various aspects of such mixed-race relationships, including the strengthening of medical and cultural know-how. One Capt. Richard Burton, writing around mid-19th century, regarded the native concubine as ‘indispensable to the student, and she teaches him not only Hindostani grammar, but the syntaxes of native life … She looks after him in sickness, and is one of the best of nurses, and as it is not good for a man to live alone, she makes him a manner of home.’ In the wills too, while bequeathing money or goods in kind to these women British men often refer to the care received during illness along with other reasons, such as the length of their relationship, the women being mother of their child, faithfulness, and so on, highlighting the layered nature of the relationships.
The early colonial state in India had initially encouraged resort to native concubines, especially for the army. A native mistress was considered a safer option than the troops going to local sex-workers and becoming infected with venereal diseases or, worse, turning to one another. Both these scenarios were anathema to Victorian sexual mores. The establishment of Lal Bazars around the mid-19th century –places designated for sex-workers who were to serve only European military clientele – were for precisely the same reasons. It became a regulated way of providing sexual services to an increasing number of men in the British army in India. The ideas of maintaining racial segregations in terms of exclusive domesticities had already made native concubines a subject of frown and contempt. The Indian Contagious Diseases Act (Act XIV of 1868) took it further by laying out provisions for the supervision, registration and inspection of sex-workers in big Indian cities.
The terms of the relationship, including the issue of payment, were often dealt with on an interpersonal level, and so did not require any official policy. A reading of the wills reveals the variety of such domestic configurations, and it makes clear that such relationships were not merely sexual, but also added another dimension to the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. These everyday, intimate interactions between early British colonialists and the ‘natives’ were multi-faceted.
The fact that most of these relationships are recorded only thanks to the survival of legal documents (except in case of high-ranking British officers who left a trail of letters and private papers) only adds to their interest. They detail how the women became an integral part of the household, providing manual, sexual, and emotional labour – and, given the frequency with which the documents refer to the ‘mother of my children’, one must add reproductive labour to the list. In any case these children, almost always ‘natural’ or illegitimate, did not belong to the mother, but by virtue of being half-European, to the paternal side. Until the 18th century, many such children were sent ‘home’, but the racial anxieties of early 19th century put a stop to that. The colonial state then created orphanages and schools for the mixed-race children.
We read at times of men making provisions for the ‘faithful female friend’ in anticipation of their death or departure from India. For example, Samuel Mageough of Behrampore in his will made in 1791 asked his executors to find a good master for ‘the mother of his children’ Nancy, due to her ‘youth and good disposition’. He does not mention any other family member, and leaves everything to the child by Nancy. He also adds that if she gives birth to another one, then for it to be divided between both his children.
Also, Charles Cordery of Calcutta (d. 1793) leaves all his property to his housekeeper and beloved friend Elizabeth Maclean, alias Elizabeth Stagg, alias Elizabeth Bruce, alias Elizabeth Cordery. This clearly seems to be the case of one woman having been in the service of several British men. She had adopted their surnames and was now referred to as Elizabeth Cordery. It is for legal purposes that Mr Cordery mentions all her aliases in his will when he left all his real and personal property to her without any reference to anyone else from his family. The easiness which the wills refer to regarding native women entering the services of another man, and also the way the executors were asked by the old masters to find these women a new one, might have prevented these women to become the custodian of the children. The man would make provisions for the child’s future and education; the women denied their role because of their ‘native-ness’ and service.
This brings us to a pertinent issue: women’s agency. The sources suggest that they could readily leave a particular master and move to another. At times, a young native woman’s presence in a European residency was seen as a sign of her ‘availability’ to become a mistress. However, one only gets to hear her voice through the colonial archive, or at best, through court transcripts, translated by a British official into English. Not only were the words, language and subtleties used by these women thereby lost, but so too was the sense of how they identified themselves in these spaces.
It is of significance that we have only a few wills written by women, since women did not inherit property to dispose of as they pleased: they were usually bequeathed property only for the duration of their own lifetime, after which it reverted back to the man’s natural family. There are, however, court cases where native women blame their British masters, or others for theft, violence, rape and so on – such accusations allow us a fascinating peek into the details of their domestic workings. In early modern society, there was always an underlying anxiety that natives might use the law against Europeans, which sometimes became an undercurrent in legal proceedings.
Many wills mention the native mistress’s wages or emoluments. Though it is difficult to ascertain the exact amounts involved, we do know that wages at times became contentious, and that some women were paid in kind. James Macknicol, a coach maker from Calcutta who drew up his will in 1789, fleetingly mentions a servant named Rose, bequeathing her 1,500 sicca rupees along with some household goods. However, in a codicil to the will, he observes how his housekeeper has left him without any cause, and that ‘no part of what is mentioned in my former Will be given to her as I have settled all and every matter respecting what emoluments she has or shall receive from my estate to this day’.
Some matters became contentious enough to be taken to court, and in these cases the testimonies provide interesting evidence for various aspects of the relationships. It is here we hear the native women and their viewpoints. One illuminating case involved Henry Pyne, a Company merchant from Chittagong who allegedly broke into the house of his former bibi or mistress, Peerun, and stole some of her jewellery and money. The various witnesses in the case established that Peerun was the bread-earner of the family. Her sister, while giving an account of how Peerun acquired all that money and jewellery, mentioned that Peerun was first kept by Mr Jeffery and then by Mr Creighton. Thus, Peerun’s sister testified that the contentious jewellery and money were Peerun’s in the first place. The case also revealed that Peerun had also ‘presented a petition against him [Pyne] claiming her pay’. It is clear that Peerun and Pyne had a conjugal relationship that came to an end after about six months, and not very amicably.
Though this case resulted in acquittal, it revealed, as do numerous other wills, that it was not considered taboo for a native woman to have been kept by more than one man in her lifetime. Nor was concubinage ever officially put a stop to, in India or elsewhere. At no point did the law condemn or question the presence of native women in British households in India since the women in various ways provided comforts, services and a domestic structure.
Although native testimonies against an ‘English Gentleman’ were unlikely to hold up, we should note that Pyne’s licence to remain in India was revoked a few months after the hearing mentioned above because he was known to be an oppressive landlord in Chittagong. So it’s clear that early colonial law intervened in the workings of shared domestic space, but not enough to ensure any rights for the women serving the British man and his household. However, we do see native women negotiating with the modern law ushered in by the East India Company, by appealing over issues such as rape, emoluments, property being bequeathed to them, speaking out as witnesses, midwives and so on.
The more one studies wills and other legal records to trace the nuances of these interpersonal relationships during early colonial times, the more one recognizes the need to go beyond understanding them as a singular narrative. These relationships were forged in many ways, and they played out in multiple ways too. However, what remains common to all is the confines of a household, and the various ways the women provided for these early British colonizers. The only way native women could access early modern law was by physically serving and residing within the household of a British man. The households set up with a native woman was a shared and contested space, which could come under legal purview in cases of domestic discord and dispute. One court cases involved an elaborate discussion between attorneys as to whether or not concubinage was a legal contract in contemporary Britain.
While nothing can make up for the relative absence of the native woman’s voice – and, indeed, for their native names – one cannot claim they had a total lack of agency. Usage and terms of reference reveal that these women were not just sexual partners or servants, but instead often belonged to subtly layered, mixed-race households where female labour, racialized and gendered as it was, was also beyond the sacrosanct confines of marriage, making it possible for women to move about.
By Ruchika Sharma.