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The Ayah and Amah International Research Network


III Research Fellow Dr Shalini Grover and LSE Global Economies of Care Theme are involved in a novel collaborative project with interdisciplinary scholars from the UK, Australia and United States.

The Ayahs and Amahs International Research Network researches the historical lives of South Asian ‘ayahs’ and Chinese ‘amahs’. Ayahs and amahs were domestic workers employed as child carers, nannies and wet nurses in private households in India, China and Southeast Asia during the British colonial period. Significant numbers of these women travelled with their employer families to Australia, Britain and Europe. Some spent time at the Ayahs’ Homes in Aldgate and Hackney, London awaiting return journeys to Asia. Our research network is seeking to understand the practices and mobilities of these female caregivers across disparate time-zones and destinations. 

Photograph of the interior of the Ayahs' Home in Hackney, London 1904.   
 

We are also interested in the experiences of contemporary domestic workers engaged in care-work for children, older people, and disabled people in private homes. Like their predecessors, the domestic workers of today are extraordinarily mobile, travelling within a country and transnationally for work. The intimate labour of marginalized, poor and minority women who for over centuries have provided essential services pertaining to nurturing and caring remains significantly undocumented in non-western contexts. Our network aims to respectfully address the many omissions. 

We run a regular seminar series and engage in collaborative publications and grant applications. The project is also engaging with the wider community and using social media. Three of our members hold a current Australian Research Council Discovery Grant titled ‘Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain, 1780 to 1945’ The founder of the network is Niti Acharya (Hackney Museum Manager and PhD student at the University of Lincoln and British Museum). Ayah studies in the UK were first inspired by Rozina Visram.

More information about our members is available here.

Events

2021 Seminar Series Programme:

Indian Ayahs in British Imperial Visual Culture (21 May 2021)

Speaker: Satyasikha (Shikha) Chakraborty (The College of New Jersey, USA)

Chair: Jo Stanley (Blaydes Maritime Centre, University of Hull & Liverpool John Moores University)

Shikha will be talking about the visual representation of Indian ayahs in British imperial family portraits, Company paintings, children’s fictions, postcards and photographs. In the process she will discuss how and why the de-sexualized and sentimentalized figure of the Indian ayah got visually constructed in British imperial imagination. Shikha is working on a book manuscript (The “Faithful” Indian Ayah: Gender, Race and Caste of British Empire’s Intimate Labor) based on her PhD dissertation on the social and cultural history of ayahs.


Locating Ayahs: From Representation to Agency? (25 June 2021)

Speaker: Swapna Banerjee (Brooklyn College, City University of New York, USA)

Chair: Claire Lowrie (University of Wollongong, Australia)

Any subject of investigation from the past requires historicization. Some subjects, needless to say, are easier to document than the ones who are on the margins. Our topic of study, namely the ayahs and amahs, are one of those liminal figures who compel us to rethink the evidence we are using to recover and restore them as crucial historical actors. This brief presentation has a threefold objective: a) to identify the sources that help us locate the ayahs in history; b) to retrieve information on the social, ethnic, and religious backgrounds of the ayahs; c) to interrogate the connection between the varied representations (mainly visual) of the ayahs and their agency. Attendant to these queries are the questions of linkages between indentured and domestic labor; the connected histories of different European powers inhabiting the subcontinent; and more importantly, for our Australian Research Council funded project “Ayahs and Amahs,” the colonial history of the Indian diasporic labor population. The presentation seeks active support of the audience to fill in the necessary gaps in this preliminary research.


Mrs Browne and the Bengalis: An early transcolonial story of domestic service (30 July 2021)

Speaker: Victoria Haskins (University of Newcastle, Australia)

Chair: Florian Stadtler (University of Bristol, UK)

In 1816, the Lucknow-born Sydney merchant and landowner, William Browne, brought a group of Indian servants into the New South colony to work for him. Three years later the colonial governor Lachlan Macquarie would hold a magisterial inquiry into the alleged mistreatment of these workers, and 35 Indian workers were then sent back to India. This episode in Australian history is regarded as one of the very earliest of the fleeting and failed attempts to experiment with indentured Indian labour. In this paper, I draw upon the 1819 testimonies of Browne’s workers – later deployed as evidence for a British inquiry into slavery under the East India Company – to focus on the key role played by Browne’s wife Sophia. Approaching the story from the perspective of women’s labour illuminates the often overlooked importance of carework in colonialism. By considering the fraught nature of the relationships between women within the Browne household, we can also see how expectations of mistress and servant were simultaneously transported and transformed in the journey from the British Raj to the Australian colonies.

This paper, to be delivered (pre-recorded) at ICAS12 Kyoto 2021, is part of an ARC Discovery project, Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945, led by Victoria Haskins (Newcastle), with Claire Lowrie (Wollongong) and Swapna Banerjee (Brooklyn CUNY).


Ayahs, Inter-Racial Servitude and the Christian Dominance: Historical Transitions and Contemporary Caregiving in India (3 September 2021)

Speaker: Shalini Grover (London School of Economics, UK)

Chair: Victoria Haskins (University of Newcastle, Australia)

The paper is built around the opening chapter of my forthcoming book (work-in-progress) that foregrounds gendered caregiving transitions from the colonial past to the globalized present. In this seminar, I will draw on the history of female domestic workers reproductive labour as ayahs and caregivers in the colonial era. I will then highlight current gaps, primarily how the racialized labour of female domestic workers is remiss for globalized India. Thus my key question is, has the gendering and racializing of domestic service changed over time? The gender-race-class historiography and the connections I attempt to make across time-zones are by no means exhaustive. More so, and in connection with the above, I will set out to explore the theme of inter-racial servitude through the contemporary social spaces of the Church. The ‘Christian dominance’ represents the Tamil domestic worker community, Christian Euro-American employers and Christian transnational alliances. I will argue that female domestic workers economic, religious and spiritual sociality as regular Churchgoers, cultivates the Church’s role in inter-racial servitude.


Domesticity, Agency and the pitfalls of representations - Ayahs in literature and visual culture (8 October 2021)

Speaker: Florian Stadtler (University of Bristol, UK)

Chair: Swapna Banerjee (Brooklyn College, City University of New York, USA)

This paper discusses how ayahs have been represented in literature and art to further examine how particular persistent cultural tropes about these domestic workers were perpetuated or challenged. The paper will consider examples from both the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries and, though mainly focused on travelling ayahs, will also consider non-travelling ayahs as well. In particular, it will focus on Tanika Gupta’s play The Empress to analyse different modalities of representation that challenge some received notions associated with ayahs, especially pertaining to their perceived ‘docility’. It will also consider how the play works with key source materials and the historical record to bring the story of ayahs to life. Important to these considerations, in the absence of direct testimony from ayahs themselves, is how these texts develop the societal position of the ayah, negotiate questions of agency, and make, albeit in fictional form, their voices resonate.


The Amahs of the SS Marama: Chinese nursemaids travelling from the Straits Settlements to Britain in the aftermath of the First World War (12 November 2021)

Speaker: Claire Lowrie (University of Wollongong, Australia)

Chair: Charmaine Lam

On the 9th of May 1919, eighteen Chinese amahs docked at the Port of London following a month-long journey from Singapore. They travelled aboard the SS Marama, a vessel of the New

Zealand Union Steam Ship Company. During the war, the Marama had been converted into a hospital ship fitted out to treat and transport injured troops. In its voyage from Singapore, however, there were few soldiers onboard. Instead, the passenger list consisted of hundreds of British women and children desperate to return home from Malaya now that it was deemed safe to do so. The Chinese amahs onboard the Marama were employed by well-to-do British families to care for infants and children during the long voyage.

In recent years there has been growing academic and popular interest in the travelling Indian ayahs (nursemaids) that traversed the route between India and Britain in the company of imperial families. The presence of Chinese amahs in Britain has also been acknowledged. However, there has been no detailed analysis of these women’s working lives and experiences. This paper represents a first step towards addressing that gap, concentrating on amahs that travelled from the Straits Settlements to Britain in the years following the First World War.

This paper is part of an ARC Discovery project, Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945, led by Victoria Haskins (Newcastle), with Claire Lowrie (Wollongong) and Swapna Banerjee (Brooklyn CUNY).

Publications & Recordings

Articles about ayahs and amahs on ships:

Event recordings:

 

For further information contact Dr. Claire Lowrie (University of Wollongong, clowrie@uow.edu.au) and Dr. Shalini Grover (LSE, s.grover4@lse.ac.uk).