Technologies of domestic labour

“Electric Servants” in British metropolitan homes

The decline of the grand institution of domestic service in early 20th C Britain is usually attributed to the sudden availability of new labour-saving domestic technologies. The “Fall of the Victorian servant” (to quote Pamela Horn’s book title) is often directly linked by British historians to the rise in the use of household appliances like vacuum cleaners, clothes washers, gas stoves, electric ovens, irons, and sewing machines. Many of these new domestic contrivances were infact advertised as “Electric maids” or “Auto Maids”, as we see below in the electric vacuum cleaner ad from the 1920s. Hotpoint Electric Appliance Company, formed in 1920 to sell General Electric branded domestic appliances in Britain, advertised a range of “Electric Servants”, from hotplates to toasters. Hotpoint announced the arrival of its new electric mixer to potential consumers: “A servant with grand references wants a job in your kitchen”. The British Commercial Gas Association, founded in 1911, used the much-complained-about “Servant Problem” to promote “the use of gas for cooking, heating, and hot water supply”. In early 20th century Western consumer discourse, the new home technologies were hailed as the solution for the growing “servant crisis”. UNIVERSAL Home Needs presented their home appliances as “the big UNIVERSAL solution to the servant problem”, which not only “made it easier to get and keep good servants”, but also made it “easier to get along without them”. Thus, “Housewives need not worry over the Servant Problem”!


Early 20th C advertisements of domestic appliances as “Auto Maids” and “Electric Servants”


British Commercial Gas Association and UNIVERSAL Home Needs technological solution to the “Servant Problem”

While servants were declining and being replaced by new domestic technologies in Britain, early 20th C India, on the other hand, was witnessing a great boom in domestic service. The 1931 Census of India showed a phenomenal increase in the number of domestic servants from 1921 and 1911. Domestic service became one of the largest sectors of employment in the colonial cities of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Delhi. More than 70% of the entire female workforce in 1931 was engaged in domestic service. British households in early 20th C India employed large retinues of domestic servants. Memoirs and household guides suggest a hierarchy of menservants – from khansamahs (butlers) and khidmatgars (table-servants) to bawarchis (cooks), bhistis (water-carriers), masalchis (light-bearers), dhobis (washermen), darzees (tailors), darwans (guards) and mehtars (sweepers). Despite the feminization of domestic labour in early 20th C India, British imperial households continued to primarily employ menservants; the ayah (nurse) and sometimes a female sweeper or mehtranee were the only maidservants. Why did British families – who were welcoming new domestic technologies in their metropolitan homes – continue to employ numerous “native” servants in their imperial homes?

“Native servants” in British imperial homes

An obvious explanation for the persistence of domestic servants in India may seem that colonial policies stagnated industrialization; the lack of manufacturing industries meant there wasn’t easy access to household gadgets, while there was a large supply of cheap male labour. It may also appear that infrastructural constraints – lack of steady supply of electricity and running water – made it impractical for Britons to import labour-saving gadgets to their temporary households in India. While all this is partly true, colonial municipal records and memoirs show that by the 1890s, the British sectors of Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay and Madras were provided with electricity. And by the turn of the 20th C, electric power generators and hydroelectric plants were installed in the British hill towns of Darjeeling, Shimla and Mussoorie. Anticipating the non-availability or high costs of electric fans, cheap portable non-electric fans run on kerosene oil or gas were also marketed for the British in India, like the Jost Fan or the Ky-Ko fan, often by companies that simultaneously manufactured electric fans. These fans were advertised as “noiseless and odourless”, “produces cool breeze at low cost”, “will run all day and night without attention”. A Jost fan ad from 1908 even boasted: “no more annoyance through sleepy punkah coolies”.


Kerosene fan advertisement by the Jost Co., which also manufactured electric and hot air fans. Image source: Antique Fan Collectors Association

Mechanical fans and thermantidotes, however, remained subsidiary and supplemental to the pervasive labour of the punkah-pullers. A 1908 Electrical Record and Buyer’s Reference complained that the mechanical fans lacked “the peculiar jerk which is given by the native” punkah-walla by alternately jerking and relaxing the rope, a “virtue” and “instinct” that he had inherited from his ancestors – who had all been punkah-wallas “for many generations”. Others argued that the mechanization of this form of labour would take away the unique charm of India and the nocturnal entertainment provided by sleepy punka-wallahs jerked awake by the sudden hurling of slippers. A 1908 Literary Digest, for instance, noted that “The substitution of electric power for sleepy Hindu servants in its propulsion will probably conduce to greater comfort, though it may interfere with some of the romance”. It is worth asking to what extent the need to display imperial authority through domestic violence and control of “native” servants, and the desire for a romanticized Oriental lifestyle, perpetuated “native” servant labour in British imperial households even when mechanical contraptions for cooling and lighting were gradually becoming available. The labour of dhobis (washermen) and bhistis (water carriers with their traditional goat-skin mussacks) was still deemed indispensable in early 20th C British households even though running water and  filtered water was supplied to the British sectors of the Presidency towns from as early as the 1870s.

Though visual technologies were changing, the visual stereotypes of Indian domestic servants – from early colonial ethnographic sketches to late colonial photographs – remained largely unchanged. Sets of “native” domestic servants on mica painted by “native” artists were popular collectibles of East India Company men returning to Britain. (The British Library holds several such sets of Indian servants.) By the early twentieth century, these Company Painting sets gave way to postcard sets of Indian servants, in which traditional occupational tools continued to be markers of what was understood to be the various “castes” of domestic servants. Illustrated and photographic postcards of Indian servants were mass-collected and mass-circulated by imperial Britons at a time when domestic servants were being replaced by domestic technology in British homes. In this postcard series (printed in Germany) by the Moorli Dhur & Sons, class and race differences between Indian servants and their British employers (who were the target consumers of these postcards) are expressed through a temporal difference, designed to evoke a contrast between the electrified modern home in Britian and the traditional timeless caste-based domestic labours in the imperial home.


Early 20th C postcards of Indian servants by Moorli Dhur & Sons (Printed in Germany)

New Gadgets and servants as markers of status

Early 20th C British domestic manuals advocated the use of labour-saving devices for scientific management of the home. Though gender historians suggest that domestic appliances increased the labour of British housewives by raising the standard of domestic hygiene, in early 20th C household engineering discourse, mechanization of the household was believed to considerably save middle-class women’s domestic labour. Domestic gadgets promised freedom and leisure to wives/mothers, like Hotpoint electric ovens, which advertised: “This Electric Maid frees the Modern Mother”, or “This Electric Maid cooks while the modern mother is Free”. Not just freedom, household technologies like electric ovens and washing machines also symbolized wealth, cleanliness, and modernity, and were crucial for middle-class status.


Hotpoint Electric oven ads from the 1920s stating that “Electric Maids” free the “modern mother”

In British imperial households in India, conjuring a similar image of leisure and status required the presence of labouring bodies of “native” servants as props. In the early 1900s, menservants were particularly rare & expensive in Britain due to the availability of better-paid industrial work and the increasing perception of domestic labour as feminine work. Only upper-class British households could afford male butlers and footmen; majority of middle-class British families depended on a maid-of-all-work, commonly called an all-rounder. For imperial Britons coming from modest backgrounds, photographing themselves amidst an entourage of Indian menservants became a crucial way of projecting their authority. Inflicting violence and pain on Indian menservants – kicking, beating or hurling slippers – not only provided domestic amusement as the anecdotes about punkahwallas indicate, but also boosted imperial masculinity and authority. Indian menservants were routinely emasculated and depicted in submissive roles in early twentieth century imperial photographs and postcards, which were geared to demonstrate British control and colonial consent. The manual labour of subservient Indian servants in the imperial home became the foil for British leisure. “Primitive”, “traditional” tools of Indian servants, like straw punkahs, or bamboo palanquins highlighted the sahibs and memsahibs’ modernity. Constant complaints about the unhygienic unscientific habits of Indian servants further underlined the cleanliness and modernity of imperial Britons. Domestic servants in the empire, thus in many ways, functioned similarly as domestic technologies in the metropole, in highlighting the status, prestige and modernity of British men and women.



Indian servants highlighting the status of British employers in early 20th C postcards

Caste – the British rationale for large retinues of Indian servants

The ubiquitous explanation of the British for the large retinue of servants in their Indian households was the caste system. It was caste, they argued, that made so many servants indispensable, as each servant caste – dhobi, mehtar, bhisti, darzee – allegedly only performed their caste-ordained labour. Combining work meant inflicting on “native” servants the risk and dishonour of losing caste.  Successive editions of Chamber’s Popular Encyclopaedia explained: “the man who fetches water cannot wait at the table, nor the man who cooks the dinner, serve it up; neither will the person who attends the table sweep the room afterwards, and so on…” Muslim servants also pretended to lose caste though they had none, was another recurring complaint. Muslim servants would not cook pork or serve wine, for which low caste Hindu servants had to be separately employed. Hindu servants refused to cook or serve beef. Upper caste servants refused to do work that was stigmatised as low. It was caste again that prevented the introduction of new technologies, the British argued, as Indian servants would lose their caste-based livelihood if Western domestic technologies were imported. An article titled “Electric Calcutta”, in a 1900 weekly review of The Electrical World and Engineer, noted: “when one considers that four punkah pullers are included in the bag and baggage of every white man in India, the Indian labour question assumes a very complex position in view of the introduction of our Western methods of breeze-manufacturing. Every electric fan imported into India means depriving four natives of their means of subsistence.” Indian servants were so accustomed to their caste sanctioned labour; the British argued that a change of profession or use of new implements would make no sense in their religious worldview. An anecdote from a 1922 missionary text Christianity and Progress, for instance, recounted: “An Indian punkah-puller, urged by his mistress to better his condition, replied: “Mem Sahib, my father pulled a punkah, my grand-father pulled a punkah, all my ancestors for four million ages pulled punkahs, and, before that, the god who founded our caste pulled a punkah over Vishnu”. How utterly lost such a man would be in the dynamic movements of our modern Western life!”

How do we understand Indian servants’ claims of caste for declining certain forms of labour or new technologies, as imperial archives repeatedly emphasise? Why did Indian servants supposedly use caste as the rationale to refuse to perform certain kinds of work or use certain domestic appliances in British homes? Was it some deep-seated anxiety of losing caste? Was it the anxiety of losing work if one servant did the work of others? Was it the fear of getting replaced by domestic gadgets? Employing separate servants for supposed caste-ordained labors was a common practice in British imperial households, whereas urban middle-class Indian households usually employed one or two servants to do all kinds of domestic work. This is true of early 20th C Bengali middle-class households in Calcutta, as Swapna Banerjee has argued, as well as local elite households in Delhi and Lucknow, as Heena Ansari’s blog post points out. Why then did British colonial households feel compelled – purportedly by caste reasons – to employ several servants? In the political backdrop of Swadeshi, Gandhian rejection of Western technology and Indian nationalist boycott of British industrial manufactures, the concept of caste perhaps allowed the British in India to make the benevolent claim that despite incurring heightened costs and reduced domestic comforts, they were still sacrificing the technological comforts of their metropolitan homes and employing “native” servants out of respect for “native” traditions.

(Postcards used are from the author’s personal collection)

By Satyasikha Chakraborty.


Domestic Servants: Sources in Urdu and Persian

It is perhaps relatively easier to locate and work with English language sources on domestic servants in the colonial period (mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries). We are, however, constantly attempting to go beyond them. The availability of printed materials in Urdu and Persian from the mid-nineteenth century onwards is something which we wish to reflect upon in this post. The collections range from contemporary newspapers and journals, to autobiographies, didactic texts, and novels, written primarily in Urdu and/or Persian. In our brief engagement with them, we look at the period from the 1820s to the 1930s.

One may start by looking at the newspapers of the time, such as Jam-e Jahan Numa (from 1822) and Tilism-e Lucknow (from 1856). This material share and reflect a fairly conventional perception of servants being either faithful or cheats, chaotic or dependable and helpful or worthless. Jam-e Jahan Numa was a colonial state-sponsored newspaper edited by Munshi Sadasukh Mirzapuri. It was first published in 1822 from Calcutta in Persian (though there was an Urdu edition as well later). Arguably, this may well have been the first published Urdu newspaper. Tilism-e Lucknow on the other hand was an independent newspaper, edited by Maulavi Mohammad Yaqub Ansari. It was published from the Firangi Mahal, Lucknow from 1856. Both the newspapers had specific goals. Jam-e Jahan Numa was meant to be a record of the activities related to Shahi Darbar (Royal Court) and British officials. It also carried news (verbatim) from English newspapers of the time. The Tilism was an independent newspaper highlighting contemporary issues such as the effects of the annexation of Awadh (February, 1856) by the British and the consequent popular dissatisfaction in the native population. Leaving aside the specific political purposes these newspapers carried numerous references to the world of servants when representing the social and elite life of North India. We get several references to servants who were attached to royal households as well as other elite households.

One important aspect of the master-servant relationship that emerges from the close reading of these newspapers is the oft-mentioned practice of gifting.  In the local elite households, servants supposedly received gifts on every important occasion. Domestic harkaras (messengers, peons, orderlies, spies), saees (horse groom), kochban (coachman), darbans (doorkeepers, watchman), khansaman (butler, cooks, stewards), mashalchi (torch bearers) and others were bestowed with material rewards on the occasions of community or religious festivals, marriages, birth, and other similar social events. Most often, these gifts were given as sadqa, implying a relationship based upon ideas of charity and rewards. (The master gave servants sadqa in expectation of divine protection for himself and his family from worldly troubles. Sadqa is a religious tradition in the Muslim world, a voluntary offering to please Allah, to get blessings/protections on both happy and sorrowful occasions). This practice of obliging the servants on special occasions was so intrinsic to the social life of that period that many considered it their right to make special requests according to their needs and wishes. The tools of obligation thus could be turned around into some socially sanctioned acts of demand, which is one example of how the nature of the master-servant relationship could be constantly negotiated from both sides in spite of the clear structures of hierarchy that tied them together.

By this point in time, the British had almost flattened the idea of gift in South Asia to ‘oriental’ debauchery, corruption and a manifestation of an irredeemable greed. Bakshish (reward) had seemingly transformed into extortion. The practice of gifting provides a useful gateway to look at the nature of master-servant relationship in a more comparative way, i.e. between elite native and colonial households.

If gifts symbolize a relationship based on patronage and reward, the description of punishment tells us about the control and discipline that also marked the master-servant relationship. A majority of sources refer to the typical attributes of servants being guilty of petty crimes such as stealing, drinking or being untrustworthy and creating chaos in the household. As a result, a mention of these servants often comes up in relation to punishment and fines. Jam-e Jahan Numa mentions the kinds of punishments, which varied from solitary, corporal, simple, and rigorous to that of fines (both in money and kind). The nature and procedure of punishment varied according to the crime, position and the location of the servants. Sometimes the local ruler would directly punish the ‘culprits’. An example from Jam-e Jahan Numa shows that two servants (khidmatgars) were given physical punishment (25 koras, lashes each) on account of being absent from the Court. Another one was ordered a punishment of 50 koras for singing in the court, which was considered disrespectful to the king/court. Some of these cases were referred to the British Resident in the city (Delhi). Thus, a khakroob (sweeper) who had killed his brother was punished by Mr Fraser with five years of imprisonment and a fine of 30 rupees. However, it is not clear if the Resident was following a judicial procedure (in case of servants) or giving summary punishment. But it is quite clear that cases with severe crimes like killings were sent to the British authorities while minor cases were dealt by the native rulers themselves.

Modes of control and punishment were tied to the more violent manifestations in the master-servant relationship. Tilism-e Lucknow, for example, has a reference of a bitter tussle between a master and his servants, and the latter’s fight over wages. It details the domestic upheaval, wherein the servant killed his master because he was kept captive for days without salary. The newspaper presents such incidents as a result of economic and social problems created by the annexation of Awadh. The news report, in this way, link the changing domestic set-up to the new political setting. It lamented the loss of loyalty on the part of servants. Servants, it claimed, were loyal to their masters during the good old days of the native rule but now with the political change they had been looting the same households. The severe economic impacts and chaotic condition of the society due to political changes forced people to take advantage of the situation.

The contemporary biographies and autobiographies are another useful corpus of material for reconstructing the world of servants. A range of themes can be addressed through them: master-servant relationship, servants’ relationship with other members of the master’s family, issue of wages, and not least, a rudimentary sketch of servants’ daily habits. Works like Yadgar-e Rozgar: Tazkirat Kamilan-e Patna [Memoirs of Employment: References to Experts of Patna] by Syed Badrul Hasan (1931) and Dilli ki Chand Ajeeb Hastiyan [Some Extraordinary Personalities of Delhi] by Ashraf Sabohi Dehlavi (1989) are two such examples. Yadgar-e Rozgar for example contains the histories of various characters, both rich and poor, who were attached to the author’s own life. In this way, the character of many servants, who were significant in the author’s life, are discussed. A comparison between the relationship of the servant with the master on one hand and with other members of household on the other is possible: it was paternalistic with the master but exhibited elements of envy towards other members of the family. There are references to the daily activities of the servants, even if they are conveyed with the intent of highlighting the weaknesses of the character of the ‘domestic class’. Hence, for example, the practice of drinking copious amount of tea is remarked upon as a constant necessity for the domestic class to accomplish their daily assigned tasks. The author brands servants as a whole untrustworthy but at the same time acknowledges the positive experiences he shared with his own servants, who often helped him at times when his family members denied support to him. Dependence and remonstration went hand in hand.

Tea was a new commodity in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Indian social life. Dependency on tea tells us something about the changing material and social practices of the domestic class. The author further blames servants for aspiring to imitate British officials’ lifestyle, especially their attires. Through the author’s words we can hear the conversations taking place among servants on the nature of work in British and Indian households. A British household needed separate servants for separate work; in the local elite household, a single person could do all the work. Finally, these vernacular sources also potentially tell us about the region-based description of servants, who already were highly mobile since the late eighteenth century.

Similarly, Dilli ki Chand Ajeeb Hastiyan is a description of a variety of local individuals of Delhi, which includes insane women and men, kababi (kebab sellers), bhatyarey (bakers), raqabdar (pantry-man), poor princes, pahalwan (wrestlers), aged takiyadar (keepers of the grave) and others who were living in their own specific styles. The work of Zahir Dehlavi, Gadar Ke Chashmadid Halat [The Eye-Witness Account of the Revolt], also mentions a number of servants who were active during the unrest of 1857, not only in the houses of the ashraf [elite Muslim] class but also within the Mughal palace.

These sources allow us to reconstruct, albeit patchily, the nature of master-servant relationship as well as the everyday life as situated within the family and households. Thick descriptions of households raise an important question of identity and definition. Some of them were clearly marked as servants, others were tied in the relationship of service. Dancing and nautch girls of Awadh who earned handsomely is one such group that destabilizes the strict definition of the servant. Umrao Jan Ada was employed on a retainer allowance of 75 rupees per month by a Nawab, who was of 70 years age. Umrao was expected to provide companionship for about two hours in the evening to this Nawab. The novel Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa (1899) talks about prostitutes who, apart from working independently, were also employed by members of the elite class. They were employed not only as sex workers and for entertainment but also as persons who would teach adab and etiquette to the children of the household. Some of the famous courtesans would have their own establishments full of people working for them.

We also have some historical-cultural works like Qadeem Lucknow ki Akhri Bahar [The Last Spring of the Old Lucknow] by Mirza Jafar Husain (1981), which contains a detailed account of domestic servants and the variety of services they would perform. This text highlights the male-female separation of household servants, which was not specifically based on work. Males were responsible for cooking for other men, cleaning and other heavy tasks while female servants were appointed to take care of the female arena. There is a description of salaries, perks and endowments given to these servants and the services they were supposed to maintain in accordance to their salaries. A separate section is dedicated to the people (always male) involved in the entertainment business like murgbazi [cock-fighting]. Such descriptive accounts enable us to understand the hierarchy within these serving groups.

The arena of ‘domestic work’ or the services provided within the household enlarges once we enter into these households through vernacular materials. Tailors, grave keepers and prostitutes were serving the house in one way or the other, even if they might not be in direct personal contact of the master. The inclusion of these distant groups into the domestic arena is significant to understand the concept of domesticity from the perspectives of a) the employer, b) the household and c) the work based relationship. The prostitutes, for example, were employed to teach etiquettes to the small children and for performing dances on special family occasions. However, this was not the case for the economically less well-to-do households or for the houses of the English officials. This aspect to indirect domestic work is very important to unravel the ties of work, service, hierarchy, household and the changing times of the political.

By Heena Ansari (with inputs from Nitin Sinha)

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

The Story of Ramonee or writing Servant histories through Divorce Trials

On 21st August 1818 Ramonee, a thirty-year-old woman from Patna, appeared before the Supreme Court at Fort William, Calcutta. Ramoone, who worked mostly as an ayah (nanny, lady’s maid), was brought as one of the witnesses in a case brought forth by her employer Major Cunliffe (a military captain stationed in Cawnpore in north India) accusing his wife Louisa for adultery. A charge of adultery directed against wives, as it was also prevalent in England at that point in time, enabled husbands to sue for damages against the accused adulterer. This was followed by proceedings in the ecclesiastical side of the court for a separation from bed and board (similar to legal separation). A full divorce (which itself was extremely rare and privilege of the rich and influential) required a private act of the British parliament and usually cost a fortune.

There was another problem for the British residents in India even if they wished to or were capable of taking this route. The witnesses necessary to establish the charge (often servants, other household members, friends, acquaintances and colleagues) could not technically travel to England in each and every case to submit before the parliament. A particular change in regulation (in 1820) where the Supreme Courts of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were permitted to summon witnesses and collect evidences to substantiate these allegations made by the husbands (directed by a warrant issued by the British Parliament) came into force that made divorces possible in India.


 The recorded evidence and the details of the trial were then forwarded to the parliament for a dissolution of the marriage. The details of this particular case and Ramonee’s testimony, therefore, became available because of this change in regulation when Major Cunliffe applied for a full divorce in 1823.

Here I am less concerned with the new anxieties around adultery and the practices of divorcing (interesting in itself) but the possibility this legal procedure (i.e. divorce trials) opened. To us historians it gives a unique chance to hear servants as they were summoned by the court to testify in support of their masters’ claim that their mistresses have committed adultery. I have been able to collect around thirty trials spanning a period of 40 years (the early 1820s to early 1860s) held at the Supreme Courts of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Ceylon.

The testimonies of the servants, numerous as they are, do not in any way directly reveal their personal biographies and work experiences but by the nature of questioning are narratively framed towards establishing the guilt of their mistresses. An attempt to understand the nature of domestic service and domestic relationships in the nineteenth century British households through an examination of divorce trial does not intuitively appear as a productive research strategy. So why divorce trials?

There are a few immediate reasons for this. The nature master and servant relationship as described in the literature (both contemporary and historical) is often an interrogation of perspectives which can broadly be described as employer’s. This literature depicts how the European household in India was marked by a vast retinue of servants, showing occupational segregation and hierarchical organisation. There is a substantial exploration of the anxieties of the master with respect to their servants in which their dependence and proximity towards them are shot through racial, class and colonial tensions. Such perspectives, though crucial in understanding the nature of master/servant relationship, is heavily loaded in favour of interrogating the experiences and notions of the employers. The nature of material through which these histories are written offer little to examine any other perspective but the employer’s.

My initial research on ayahs heavily relied on this material but I was also struck by how little I could tell about women who worked as ayahs in European households. There was a lot of material (textual, visual, and literary) to describe how the employers celebrated and feared ayahs but I could hardly assess if the so-called ayahs shared those views or could have some other take on this relationship. Were they sharing the sense of intimacy with the memsahibs and infants and were they also anxious about the violation of caste and racial boundaries? In an attempt to probe these issues further I took the advice of good old social historians and particularly what came to be described as micro historians: who read the judicial archives carefully and creatively to write the history of the marginal. Here I am thinking of the classic works of Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis. Again, the disproportionate presence of servants in a set of published trials of divorce drew my attention towards it. Like most other cases in the archives in which servants appear, they are not the protagonists but their presence in courts as witnesses offered some new possibilities.

 Coming back to the story of Ramonee: she briefly worked as an ayah in the household of Robert Cunliffe and Louisa. In early 1817, Louisa Cunliffe went to Calcutta by boat with two of her older children who were being sent to England. This, as we know, was a common practice of children leaving their parents based in India to attend school in England. On her way back to Cawnpore, Louisa Cunliffe was accompanied by one Mr and Mrs Loftus with their young infant child. Loftus was taking charge as an army captain in Cawnpore and it appears that Louisa Cunliffe was an older acquaintance or even a friend. The arrival of the Loftus family with an infant required an ayah and Ramonee was hired through a reference (another ayah), working in Cawnpore. The families lived together in the same bungalow which allowed Ramoonee to often notice the movement of Mr Loftus towards Louisa Cunliffe’s bedroom late in the night.

Her evidence in the ecclesiastical court in 1818 was therefore crucial in establishing the affair between Mr Loftus and Louisa Cunliffe. When the case came up in 1823 for a divorce (which was available for British subjects from 1820), the supreme court of Calcutta ordered the witnesses to be re-examined. It was quite evident that Ramonee’s account was the most pivotal in establishing the details of the case and therefore she was summoned to appear in court. But Ramonee in the meantime had left the employment of Cunliffe and could not be immediately traced. A search for Ramonee at the behest of the court and Mr Cunliffe gives us some details about her life from 1818 (when she first appeared in court) until 1823 (when she was expected to reappear).

In this particular case, the fact that Ramonee went missing, led to a search which allows us to reconstruct some biographical details about her. This would not have been possible if she was immediately found. This search was conducted through servants of the household who knew Ramonee from work. A couple of them had even accompanied her when she came to Calcutta at an earlier stage of the case. One of the servants, who accompanied Ramonee on a boat journey from Cawnpore to Calcutta, mentioned in the court that Ramonee insisted on making a stopover in Patna as she wanted to visit her ‘family and relations’. After making this particular halt in Patna, Ramonee along with the fellow servant visited the house of Imam khanun, described by him as a Muslim woman of repute. Ramonee referred Khanun’s household as her home. This might be a sisterhood household, where single women possibly outcastes or widows could find refuge.

Ramonee after having stayed there for a couple of days proceeded to Calcutta. In Calcutta, Ramonee along with her fellow servant stayed in the house of Mr Hunter (an acquaintance of Mr Cunliffe) and later took up an employment there. After the initial trial, the other servant left for Cawnpore but Ramonee stayed on in her new job. Working with these leads, another servant was sent to find her in Patna and he again visited the household of Imam khanun. She mentioned that Ramonee had left her job in Calcutta and had returned to Patna around 1819-1820. This was the time of a raging cholera epidemic and Ramonee having fallen ill moved out of the house with another female inmate of the house (a Hindustani woman) and could not be traced any further.

Let me briefly recap this story. Ramonee, a thirty-year-old woman from Patna, working through references (she was employed for Cunliffe in Cawnpore through reference and also her job in Calcutta was based on her reference from her former employer) found work as an ayah in the household of Europeans. Ramonee moved in the region from Cawnpore to Calcutta frequently going back to what she described as her ‘home’ in Patna, that is, the household of Imam khanun. We know little about her social and marital background. Was she ever married or was widowed? It seems she was a Muslim or a lower caste woman. Again we know very little about the circular migration of single women like Ramonee in early nineteenth century eastern and northern India. The magisterial survey of Buchanan-Hamilton covering this region in the early part the century offers little to explain their presence. Did the setting up of European households in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century with a demand for household servants based on gender, caste and religion create a market for wages for women like Ramonee? Again how do we situate the household of Ramonee: a sisterhood of single women which included lower castes, Muslims and widows?

It seems that ayahs like Ramonee and others ayahs who appeared in other cases rarely had a long-term engagement with a particular household and their working lives were marked by a series of short-term employments and even periods of a break from work before they would take up future employment. There were other instances of kin members (often daughters) substituting in times of absence or transfer of the employer. It does not seem that ayah work was a lifecycle employment as women would work as ayahs through their working careers mostly in several short-term engagements. Again it appears that ayahs working in European households sought employment in another European household (through references and the developing chit system) and there was little movement of servants between European and non-European homes. The nature of the employment seemed to be highly specialised as ayahs were hired either to take care of infants and in that case termed as child’s ayah or to attend to the mistress and then referred as lady’s ayah. This specialised nature of work also explained the shorter stints of employment. Some ayahs were specifically hired during childbirth and would often be discharged after a few months of delivery, or ayahs taking care of smaller children would find themselves out of work when the kids were sent to England for school which usually happened when they turned five.

This specialised nature of work also allowed for a particular personalization of authority when ayahs attending the lady and the children were seen attached to the mistress and would move with her in instances of the mistress leaving the household due to marital discord. The male servants, especially bearers, were seen as under the master’s command and seemed to have been employed for longer periods in comparison to ayahs. The question of intimacy becomes relevant in this context. Did these short-term engagements allow a possibility to develop close and intimate ties? For instance, did Ramonee who took care of the infant in Cawnpore felt attached to the child? Was her leaving the job marked by emotional trauma and pain? It is difficult to offer a conclusive answer but at least we are alerted to the limits of the representation which celebrate deep loyalty, attachment and fondness between ayahs, mistresses and children.

I have tried to suggest the limits of the material on which the histories of domestic servants and service relationship are usually constructed and the possibility the divorce trial can offer. This material, however, presents its own set of challenges. It is necessarily directed towards a particular kind of interrogation. Individuals appear briefly and within the limits of this inquiry. Yet the possibility of reconstructing the relationships existing within the household and also biographies of some individuals working as servants, as we have seen in the case of Ramonee, appears to be probable.

By Nitin Varma