Ayahs were experienced caregivers who served as nannies and nursemaids to British children in colonial India and even travelled with the families to England. Upon reaching England, many were dismissed without any pay or a ticket to go home and were simply flung out and left to fend for themselves in a strange, cold country that turned a blind eye towards them.
Lured by the British Raj’s colonial prosperity, the British families who relocated to India faced many challenges in this new and mystic land. They found India's climate particularly unforgiving as it made young British children more susceptible to illnesses. The memsahibs (mistresses) found it a daunting task to take care of young, ill children during the scorching summers of this strange land and culture. They sought help from experienced local women, the Ayahs, to care for their children. They were typically older, widowed women who were more suited for their jobs as carers because many of them had already had children of their own. The word ‘Ayah’, which has Portuguese origin 'aia’, means nursemaid. They not only served as nannies but also as domestic servants and nurses, and they were also expected to be skilled sailors so that they could travel with the family to Britain. But little is known about this group of women who served British families and became key factors in British households.
The Intercultural Fusion
The British children were looked after, entertained, fed, rocked to sleep, and told stories by their Ayahs. The children spent so much time with their ayahs that they learned to speak the language of the colonised servant instead of English, which was seen as a very undesirable outcome. Fearing further cultural contamination, the children were sent to England to boarding school before they turned seven, and many would never see their ayahs again. Because of their close relationship with their ayahs, the children grew up with a sense of hybridity in their culture and lacked the sense of imperialistic complexity and superiority of a true Britisher.
Role of Religion
In the process of hiring Ayahs, religion played a significant role. Initially, there was a preference for Christian Ayahs, but this later posed a challenge. Since it was considered undesirable that a shared religion would obfuscate the distinction between the colonised servant and the colonial masters and elevate them to religious equality. They considered Hindu and Muslim ayahs to establish a clear imperial hierarchy at home. Muslim ayahs were given more preference over Hindu ones. Because of its polytheistic nature, Hinduism was perceived as primitive, inferior, and superstitious by the British. The shared monotheism of Islam with the Evangelical faith of the Memsahibs was viewed as a safer choice but still different enough to have a clear distinction to uphold colonial superiority. To prevent too much cultural contamination, many attempts were made to regulate the Ayahs to make sure the future generations of British children born in India would maintain a sense of cultural purity. The Memsahibs acted as strict imperial agents towards the ayahs so that the children understood the distinction between class and religion starting from their own homes.
The Plight of Ayahs
The British families often travelled back to visit their homeland to escape the harsh Indian summers and took their Ayahs with them to help them with the long sea voyage. However, sometimes, the Memsahibs found that their role as an Ayah was not working as well in England as it did in India. So, many were dismissed without pay or a ticket to return home. Without any formal contract of employment, the abandoned Ayahs did not have any other choice but to fend for themselves while waiting for employment. Some even resorted to begging on the streets. The Ayahs felt extremely isolated and lonely in this strange, cold country that overlooked their plight until Christian charities took notice and opened The Ayah’s Home in 1891. This facility acted as a temporary home for abandoned and destitute Ayahs and Amahs (Chinese nannies). The home functioned as an employment exchange for the Ayahs, where they could find a new family to work for and travel back to India. Recently, after heavy campaigning by the Ayahs' Home Project, a blue plaque was awarded to the building that housed the home on 26 King Edward's Road, London, commemorating its historical significance. British society saw the Ayahs as lazy, inefficient, unclean, and corrupt. British officials characterised them as ignorant, unscrupulous, crafty, and devious, with some descriptions even suggesting opium addiction among them. But their legacy was forever immortalised as loving carers in the letters, diaries, fiction, and memoirs of the British children raised by them. While their sacrifices were overlooked, their contributions to the British families they worked for and to society cannot be ignored. They were more than just nannies and domestic servants; they were the marginalised insiders in colonial British homes. The Ayahs’ story serves as a stark reminder of the importance of telling the story of silenced and forgotten voices in colonial history.
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