The Overview

Servants’ Pasts is very delighted to share the overview of the project published in the latest issue of EU Research Magazine. The overview gives the summary of the conceptual and methodological aspects the project has used and devised in the last three years. It also chalks out the main lines of inquiry which the project has pursued so far and intends to do so also in the future.


Conference Videos, February 2017, Delhi

These are the links to the select panel discussions and presentations held at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi in February 2017.

  1. This panel ‘Across Temporalities’ consisting of three presentations and the subsequent discussion highlights the role of domestic servitude and its various forms in the social history of South Asia. Three leading scholars of their fields, who are prominent experts in their time periods (Uma Chakravarti for ancient, Sunil Kumar for medieval, and Samita Sen for modern and contemporary) discuss a wide range of issues related to slavery, servitude, identities, households, resistance, and not least, law.


2. This panel ‘Bibis and Ayahs’ takes up the issue of ‘sexual labour’ of bibis as well as waged-work of ayahs in the Anglo-Indian households of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The presenters, Ruchika Sharma, Satyasikha and Nitin Varma, through the use of a variety of sources – visuals, wills, testimonies and divorce trials – address the question of servants’ proximity to their masters and mistresses while at the same time also highlight the historical process of the making of the category of ‘domestic servant’, which is tied to the process of sexual and moral labour performed by female domestics in these households.


3. In the panel ‘Who are Servants?’, the speakers, Nitin Sinha and Lakshmi Subramanian, focus on colonial Calcutta and colonial Surat of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to talk about the social and juridical identities of domestic servants in Anglo-Indian and Indian mercantile households respectively. By way of doing it, they also highlight the importance of judicial archives and of other sources in the writing of the servants’ pasts.


4. In the panel ‘Across Popular Cultures’ Ravikant (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi) Ramu Kaka vs. Raheem Chacha: Cinematic Servants’ Cultural Moorings. Camille Buat (Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen & Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po, Paris, France) Labor Market Segmentation, Circulation and Representation of Work: Exploring the concept of Naukri in the Bidesiya tradition.

Report on ‘Servants’ Pasts’, 2nd International Conference, Berlin April 2018

This is a detailed panel-wise report on our recently concluded conference in Berlin. A shorter will also appear soon.

Conference Report

This report gives details of the three-day 2nd international conference on “Servants’ Pasts” that took place from the 11th to 13th April 2018 at Humboldt Universität, Berlin. The conference was part of the European Research Council funded project, “History of Domestic Servants in Colonial India”, ERC-Stg DOS, 640627.

The conference brought together around 45 scholars, graduate students and interested general public on the questions and issues related to domestic servants. The conference packed with formal presentations, panel discussions and informal dialogues aimed at addressing the lacunae in the historiography on domestic work and domestic servants in early modern and modern South Asia.

Welcome and Opening Statements, 11.04.18

 Nitin Sinha, after making the opening statements, highlighted the significance of the research project “Domestic Servants in Colonial South Asia” hosted at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient and Re: work (both in Berlin) and gave a brief summary of the project’s scope and objectives. He briefly mentioned his own research focus, which is the histories of domestic servants in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century India. He then introduced Nitin Varma, who in this project is a postdoctoral candidate and have been working on the late-nineteenth and early-postcolonial history of domestic servants. He finished his welcome note by emphasizing the necessity of understanding the long-term associations and developments of terms, concepts, and practices entrenched in the social pasts of South Asia, especially those that deal with forms of service and servitude.

Panel 1: Servants, Slaves, Merchants & Royalty I

 Sweta Singh in her paper investigated the role and position of servants and slaves within the Jewish community dispersed across the Mediterranean and Malabar region from 1000 to 1300 C.E. The paper explored letters written by the Jewish merchants who moved with an entourage of slaves and servants. She emphasized the crucial role played by the servants inside and outside the domestic sphere aiding the commercial activities of the merchants.

Neha Vermani advanced the discussion on master/servant relationships by focusing on practices of food consumption in Mughal courts. The sufrajis (officers and men who managed matbakh and provided food) who served in the Mughal courts were expected to be upright individuals for the job, displaying wisdom, honesty and loyalty. She focused on the architecture, organization, and functioning of matbakh (imperial kitchen) which was a contact space where the master-servant relationship was enacted and reproduced. She showed how food became the means through which the servant came in contact with the master’s body. The paper underlined the everyday practices and functioning of matbakh that shaped the master-servant relationship.

Panel 2: Servants, Slaves, Merchants & Royalty II

 The first presentation by Lubna Irfan began with a historical debate on the presence of middle-class in Mughal India. While locating her research within this debate, Irfan attempted to identify the ‘counterparts of the present-day servants in the Medieval Indian social fabric’. Her paper focused on the servile class that served the king and royalty. The servants were divided into three categories, the female servants (sahelis), the male servants (included slaves and chelas) and the eunuchs (khwaja saras). Irfan’s paper largely encapsulated the nature of servility and the importance of servants in master’s life in Mughal India.

The next panelist, Nicolas J. Abbot, focused on the competing discourses about eunuchs and masculinities in the kingdom of Awadh (1722–1856). The paper focused on how a shared consensus about eunuchs and their effeminacy was fostered by both the colonial authorities and members of the royal dynasty. These discourses, however, differed from the way eunuchs described themselves as ideal fathers and householders. While men and women of Awadh mocked their bodies and perceived effeminacy, the eunuchs constantly tried to lay claim to elite masculinity and fatherhood. These discourses and contestations eventually challenged the legitimacy and economic autonomy of eunuchs and weakened the dynasty over time.

Rochisha Narayan in juxtaposition to Abbot’s meta-narration concentrated on developing a narrative account of Ummat Bahu, a matriarch and a widower of Bishamber Pandit, who along with his brother Beniram Pandit acquired huge wealth as a consequence of their services as intermediaries to the English East India Company in North India. The story of Ummat Bahu from Benares effectively showed how a widower attempted to negotiate with the colonial masters to retain her estate. Bahu, deployed two methods to defend her rights, on the one hand she reminded the colonial state of the loyal service she and her family had rendered to further the company’s interests, and on the other hand the duty and the obligations she had to fulfil towards her servants and retainers, which required her to possess the estate.

Panel 3: Regulation and Domestic Work

Akanksha Singh began the third panel with her presentation that explored the ambivalence expressed towards the domestic servants both in the private and public spheres in colonial India. She contended that within the bourgeoisie household, the servants were simultaneously valued and feared. They were valued because they were the markers of the class status but also feared for their subversive potentialities. In general, the servants were not arrogated a single definition. There were multiple and often overlapping terms used to describe domestic servitude. Slavery, wage labour and debt-bondage were used to describe the same phenomenon.

Prinisha Badassy began her presentation by identifying gaps in the history of Indian workers and domestic servants in South Africa. She argued that the personal histories and individual accounts are missing in much of the existing historical narratives. The paper focused on the cases of rape crimes and indecent assaults filed against Indian domestic servants in Natal between 1880 and 1920. These cases showed how the sexuality of white women was strictly regulated which made the domestic sphere even more significant as it became a zone of contact for racial tensions but also of overt sexual liaisons and romance.

Fae Dussart in her paper analyzed the use of violence in the domestic sphere in colonial households to uphold colonial control. She maintained that the relationships within the private sphere became a form of negotiation between the Anglo-British colonizers and the government. The colonial household, so imagined, became a frontier, where power and control were instrumental. She narrated the story of a syce, who died as a result of a violent beating by a British employer. The death of a syce, Fae contended, should not be seen as an accident; rather such violence was instrumental in sustaining colonial authority outside the private sphere as well.

Panel 4: Castes of Food

The first panelist, Vidhya Raveendranathan, problematized the overt focus on grain markets and bazaars in early colonial India. She argued that the Company’s efforts to regulate markets for products such as meat, betel nut and alcohol were basically attempts by the sovereign power to protect its citizens from the rampant corruption of the domestic servants. By looking at the space of the bazaar the paper sought to flag two main points. First, the space of the bazaar offered certain possibilities for outcaste domestic servants to unsettle the hierarchical power relations of the household. Second, bazaars constituted the site for the breach of racial boundaries, which was most evident in the case of taverns and arrack shops. Colonial anxieties were expressed regarding the corrupting influences of servants in either supplying spurious alcohol or breaching the ideological and inviolable space of the cantonment in Madras.

Salma Wasi’s paper looked at the role of cooks in the British army from 1900 to 1946.  She used 1900 as the starting point to index two broad changes: One the elimination of native cooks from the service of the British army and two the enrollment of remaining cooks (langries) and water carriers (bhistees) under the army regulations. By looking at the caste and communal identities of cooks as well as their experiences, she tried to trace the processes that contributed to the menialisation of the cook as well as their role in providing the necessities of the soldiers at multiple fronts.  She argued that the inferior status ascribed to the cooks in the military was also replicated within the bungalows where the cooks served the white masters.


Carolyn Steedman began her keynote by qualifying her focus in time and space and by doing so laid out the scope of its applicability. Her presentation focused on two cases of domestic servants in Britain who fought against their masters and parishes for their rights. In her case studies the legal consciousness of the domestics comes out in stark contrast to the cases presented before. Steedman argued that English domestic servants knew about the laws because they were about them. At the end of eighteenth century, contract had become a dominant means of regulating private relationships. This was a world of new possibilities; the old age vassalage system had given way to new “freedoms” which existed, theoretically, between “independent persons”. Essentially, contract created superiority and power on the one hand and obedience and duty on the other hand.

Her presentation led to an intense discussion on the applicability of legal-regulative frameworks for doing the history of domestic servants in India as well as broadly on the question of imperial linkages, historians’ location and the attempts to hear and recover the dead voices from the past.

Second Day, 12.04.18

Panel 1: Male Domestics

 Swapna Banerjee’s presentation focused specifically on the figure of domestic male servants in colonial India. She began her paper by taking cues from Ray and Qayum’s argument about the ability of the male domestic to speak about their ‘compromised masculinity’ and failure ‘to be men’ as their families expected them to be. By focusing on the colonial period, her paper based on literary sources, attempted to retrieve male domestic servants through their intimate labour that was constitutive of their manhood as well as their employers. To establish her point, she argued that employers represented servants in various ways in order to forge their own class and gender identities. Through the stories of male domestic subalterns such as Majam, Rupo and Raicharan, she looked at the middle-class and community formation in the colonial period.

Nassima Mekaoui further developed the subject of male domestics by recounting the case of Abdallah Benamuer in colonial Algiers around 1910. Benameur was an indigenous domestic servant of Sir Colombani, a coffee owner in Mostaganem. The case revolved around his complaint against Sir Masse, the chief of police in Mostaganem, for arbitrary arrest, illegal detention in the municipal jail, violence and assault. The paper showed how the police officials who were supposed to implement law, enjoyed impunity for their own actions. Benameur used his agency against the police chief by writing and pleading directly to the Minister of Justice. The ultimate denial of his case is not unexpected in the case, but the fact that he used the legal path to confront the assault he faced from the police chief brought out the servants’ agency and their capability to use the instruments of law.

Ritam Sengupta offered a historical account of the rise and demise of services of pankah-wallahs. He traced the manner in which the pankah wallahs became dispensable with changes in the material and technological advancement in colonial India. By referring to the slow demise of the pankah wallah, rather than a dramatic transformation by mechanical fans, the paper identified three phases in the industrialization of cooling and ventilation: First, he talked about the emerging colonial weather science that supported the push towards hiring more and more pankah-wallahs. Second, with time there was a huge standardization of pankah-wallahs’ labour, resulting in labour-shifts that continued 24/7. Third, the increase in the availability of labour resulted in cheap hiring of pankah-wallahs.

Panel 2: Bungalows and Jungle

John Basy Paul began his presentation by recognizing the bungalow as a space that had imperial roots. Nonetheless, it served as a refuge for the poor also. The missionary bungalows were instrumental in converting the natives and establishing Christian denomination in India. These bungalows needed servants to sustain its presence; the jobs were to be carried out both within and without.

Tresa Abraham examined the representation of domestic servants in Behind the Bungalow (1889), a collection of papers written in the late nineteenth century on the subject of the Indian naukar by a colonial government servant, E. H. Aitken. The book was intended as an educational manual for griffins or new entrants into the city and informed them about the practices of hiring and maintaining servants. Abraham looked at the colonial attempts to reproduce the bourgeoise ideal of the English households in Bombay as well as the anxieties inherent in this project.

Ezra Rashkow in his presentation urged scholars to historically re-conceptualize jungles and forests. These spaces cannot be seen only as wild spaces rather were domesticated in the past by the colonizers during their hunting trips. The domestication of these places was essentially carried out by the labour provided by domestic servants to their colonizers. His paper effectively problematized the boundaries of domestic sphere by clearly showing how it can be extended to places where domestic labour was employed.

Panel 3: Mobile Intimacies

Swapna Banerjee chaired the third panel that included two panelists focusing primarily on issues related to female domestic servants. Satyasikha Chakraborty’s paper presented early twentieth century white European and American cultural representations of nursemaids across colonies and the American south. She focused primarily on African-American mammy, the South-Asian ayah, and the Indonesian baboe. To analyze cultural representations, she focused on pictorial representations in the form of postcards. Her analysis revealed remarkable similarities in the representations of these female caregivers. She contended that the pictorial representation of these female servants was mythical, desexualized and sentimentalized.

Raffaella Sarti’s presentation was dedicated to apprehending the power relations and cultural exchanges that materialized through the figure of white governesses in nineteenth and twentieth century Asia. She began by contextualizing the practice of hiring maidservants within Europe since the eighteenth century. The importance of nannies/in imparting the language and culture of dominant powers was a practice present in Europe as well. A case in point was Milan in the late eighteenth century under Austrian rule, where German-speaking nannies were highly sought after. For Sarti, the memoirs of housewives are an important source through which personal insights of hiring maidservants can be ascertained.

 Discussion Panel

 Nitin Sinha led the panel discussion. He began by summarizing the forms of sources that were used by different panelists, which included poetry, memoirs, postcards, personal diaries, novels, short stories, movies, and photographs. But before putting forward some questions for an open discussion, he emphasized the significance of mobility within the life cycle of servants, and how caste and gender identities inflected the masculinity and femininity of domestic servants.

Pankaj Jha broadened the discussion by urging the participants to look at historical continuities and transformations between early modern and colonial periods. He contended that by doing so the binary of colonizer and colonized will be problematized, as it has the potential to obfuscate a variety of relationships. While referring to pre-modern times, he added that the location, sources and contexts are significant for any analysis. Lastly, in the lack of any overt political will to regularize domestic work in India, he deliberated whether this political silence could itself become a methodological entry point for both historical analysis and understanding the contemporary.

Third Day, 13.04.18

 Panel 1: Narratives, Imaginaries & Servants

 Jana Tschurenev chaired the first panel of the last day that consisted of three panelists. The panel primarily focused on literary representations of domestic servants in different languages and regions of the world. Ruchika Sharma commenced the first panel presentation by introducing the figure of the duti in Sanskrit Riti Poetry.  The duti was a domestic maid, a messenger between the hero and heroine as well as a confidante. By looking at courtly and erotic Sanskrit poetry, she analyzed the different forms of intimate labour practiced by the duti, her multiple and overlapping roles as the speaker/poet and listener/reader. Through literary representations of the duti, as the confidante, friend, advisor, messenger she tries to understand the different layers of relationships played out with the heroine and the centrality of her role in the poetic tradition.

.Dele Maxwell Ugwanyi shifted the focus away from India to Africa, which proved to be an interesting juxtaposition for the discussion between two similar yet different cases of colonial and postcolonial pasts. He highlighted the postcolonial reality of Africa, which is dominated by intercontinental migration. He argued that servants and slaves as different categories are necessarily a ‘semantic issue’. In his presentation, he tried to recapitulate how the “migrant metaphor” and “domestic servitude” are represented in the literary works of African writers.

The last presentation of the panel by Charu Gupta juxtaposed literary and vernacular representations of servants with legal and official sources in early twentieth century Uttar Pradesh. By doing so, she tried to connect the mundane social histories of middle-class domesticity in which everyday disciplining of servants played a crucial part, along with the court cases and legal trials where the servants acted autonomously speaking on behalf of their mistresses. In literary and vernacular didactic texts, male Hindu upper-caste publicists were vocal in instructing the mistresses about the need for punishments and exercise of power over servants, in order to discipline and educate them. In contrast, the selected legal and official sources showed servants as mediators and representatives of their mistresses in the public sphere thus indexing their multiple role.

Panel 2: Urdu Literature & Servants

 This panel was chaired by Pankaj Jha, which brought forward the representations of domestic servants in various Urdu literary forms written primarily by middle-class Muslims. Ufaque Paiker’s paper focused on the eighteenth century Muslim zamindars dealing with their diminishing financial and material possessions. She argued that the atmosphere of decline and degeneration was so stark that a new genre of poetry called Shahr Ashob, meaning requiem of the declining city took its form. Simultaneously, a large number of memoirs by the Muslim Ashrafiya classes emerged. Through these literary forms, Paiker attempted to ‘listen to silences in representations of domestic servants’. Domestic servants served as a means through which Ashraf identity was constructed.

Christina Oesterfeld advanced the conversation by presenting texts dealing with social life in North Indian Muslim households of the second half of the nineteenth century. Her examination was primarily based on didactic tales, letters, guidebooks and an autobiographical narrative. She cautioned in the very beginning that the representations in the forms she analysed were primarily from the perspective of masters and that her textual samples are not a complete portrait of the textual sources available. She found a similarity in her variety of sources with regards to master-servant relationship; the minors/slaves/servants/subjects were expected to be obedient and loyal and in contrast, the elders/masters/rulers were supposed to be kind, compassionate and protectors.

 Panel 3: City & Servants

 Laura Wilks paper investigated the dynamics of the relationship between the lived-out and part-time domestic workers in Calcutta and their employers. She maintained that the transactional and contractual labour may have brought greater autonomy and bargaining power but had attendant ambivalences and tensions that constitute the relationship between the servants and the employers. Wilks contended that the domestic servants (commuting women workers in her case study) simultaneously valued intimacy with their employers and independence that the contractual wage labour entails.

Nargis Vasundhara interrogated the changing dynamics of servitude in India.  Her paper tried to capture the experiences of a sizeable proportion of the part-time live-out female domestic workers who constituted a substantial section of the unorganised informal economy in India. Unlike the live-in domestic workers of the earlier era, these women living in urban slums are the mainstay of the domestic service economy in cities. A large number of these women migrated from villages to cities to find opportunities for employment. Vasundhara, based on her ethnographic research in Delhi, focused on the formation of personhood and identity of women in the process of becoming domestic servants.

Muge Özbeck’s paper took the discussion back to the second half of nineteenth century Ottoman Empire, where the legal grounds for the absolute authority of masters over their domestic servants had been curtailed concurrently with the demographic, economic and social changes in the cities. She argued that a restraint on the total authority of masters was countered by a paternalistic discourse by the masters that attempted to control the lives, labour and sexuality of their servants. Particularly in the case of female servants, this also meant that their male relatives, husbands, brothers, and fathers tried to apply the same paternalistic discourse to control them.

Panel 3: Politics and Power

 Lokesh’s paper addressed the relations of power between the domestic servants and their masters in contemporary Noida-Delhi. Her case study provided a perfect example of state’s complicity in preserving the interests of one class at the expense of another. The story of Abdul Sattar and his wife Zohra Bibi, who went missing after going to work at their employer’s house in the Mahagun Moderne housing society, presents a microcosmic picture of a meta-level exploitation and power structure. The story clearly showed that the agency of the domestic servants was curtailed and suppressed by their master in alliance with and the help of the state.

Sonal Sharma presented the last paper of the conference that focused on the public sphere as the site of politics in contrast to the overt emphasis on private sphere. In his paper, he employed Pierre Bourdieu’s (1985) approach to classification to examine how domestic workers have been classified in census records, parliamentary debates, and trade union literature in India. Under this theoretical method, the ability to categorize becomes an act of power. Sharma’s research encapsulated the historical evolution of categorization of domestic labour in India. His analysis of the official discourse on domestic workers shows that more than the ‘lack of recognition and visibility’, the absence of domestic servants in policy making and its categorization as non-work/unproductive work reflects a history of misrecognition.

Discussion: Concluding Remarks

 Nitin Sinha opened the concluding discussion by making some brief remarks. First, he underlined the significance of a long history of regulation of domestic work, which he asserted could be used as an entry point for historical research on servants and service. Second, he suggested that for servants’ pasts, it is important to develop a long-durée understanding of social structures and institutions, namely, caste, gender, class, and family. Third, he stressed the significance of material objects in exploring master-servant relationship. The histories of commodities and everyday objects tell us about the forms of dependencies and ties of command. Fourth, he suggested that beyond law and regulation, other social practices related to language, body, touch, dirt, and filth also explain the quotidian nature of the master-servant relationship.

Nitin Varma added to the conversation by underscoring the significance of the sources that historians use. He referred to his own research on the divorce trials of Europeans in early nineteenth century, which revealed the importance that ayahs acquired in these trials, as they were the ones who could become witnesses of adultery. These trials became a source through which the long biographical trajectory of domestic figures such as ayahs could be developed. So, his experience revealed that the sources of historical analysis could at times reveal unanticipated accounts.

Raffaella Sarti added to the discussion by bringing up the question of the historian’s responsibility to overcome the dualities doing servants’ pasts through the use of state-ly and master-ly narratives. She argued that the hierarchies within the domestic servants and the solidarities between the mistresses and the maids clearly show the limits of simplistic analytical binaries. She noted that a historian does not occupy the subject position of the colonizer or the colonized. Historians must overcome such dualities as ‘citizen of the world’. If such dualism were reproduced in historical research then the purpose of the conference would be compromised.


Written by:

Jamal Ali Mags

M. A. in Global History

Frei University, Berlin

Project Assistant

Domestic Servants in Colonial India

‘My Faithful Servant’: Concubinage and Service in early Colonial Households

‘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.

Boulone Lisa

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.


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