The Ayah and Amah International Research Network


III Assistant Professorial Research Fellow Dr Shalini Grover has spearheaded 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.

Members

  • Shalini Grover 
    Assistant Professorial Research Fellow, International Inequalities Institute (III), London School of Economics (LSE), UK. 
    (Previous, Associate Professor in Anthropology, Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi)
  • Niti Acharya
    Manager of Hackney Museum London and PhD candidate at the University of Lincoln, UK.
  • Swapna M. Banerjee 
    Professor of History, Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY), USA.
  • Satyasikha Chakraborty 
    Assistant Professor of History, The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), USA.
  • Srishti Guha
    PhD Candidate, University of Newcastle, Australia.
  • Victoria K Haskins
    Professor of History, University of Newcastle, Australia.
  • Samia Khatun
    Senior Lecturer, Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS, University of London, UK.
  • Charmaine Lam
    Research Assistant, Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants of Australia and Britain, Australian Research Council Discovery Project, Australia and the USA.
  • Claire Lowrie
    Senior Lecturer in History, University of Wollongong, Australia.
  • Farhanah Mamoojee
    Feminist Activist engaged in a project to recognise the Ayahs’ Home in Hackney with a blue plaque and Client Strategist at Sotheby’s, UK.
  • Samita Sen
    Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge.
  • Nitin Sinha
    Research fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin, Germany.
  • Florian Stadler
    Senior Lecturer in Literature and Migration, University of Bristol, UK.
  • Jo Stanley
    Writer & Consultant on maritime diversity. Research Fellow, at Blaydes Maritime Centre, University of Hull, UK.
  • Rozina Visram
    M Litt Edinburgh University; BA Hons. History, London; Dip. Ed., Makerere

More information about our members is available here.

Seminar Series

2022 Seminar Series Programme

Violet Beri – An Ayah from the Hackney Ayahs Home (24 May)

Speaker: Sam Leigh

Chair: Farhanah Mamoojee

Sam Leigh’s great-grandfather on his mother's side married an ayah from the Hackney Ayahs home. Her name was Violet Beri. She came to London via sea and was listed on a ship passenger list as an ayah. His great-grandfather lived in Hackney and married Violet in the early 1920s but she died of tuberculosis seven years later. Sam is still in the process of researching and is happy to share anything he has found.

 


 

Concubinage, Race and Law in Early Colonial Bengal (16 September)

Speaker: Ruchika Sharma

Chair: Shalini Grover

Dr. Ruchika Sharma has been exploring themes like Interracial domesticities in early colonial times through legal archives, Nautch women in European colonial writing, Figure of Sakhi and Duti (friend or messenger) in Riti poetry & service culture, etc. She is the recipient of 'Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Book Writing Fellowship’ in 2019. She is also a Kathak dancer and performer, trained in both Jaipur and Lucknow Gharana (styles).'

 


 

Gendered Mobilities: Chinese Wives, Maidservants, and Sex Workers in British Malaya in the Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries (14 October)

Speaker: Sandy F Chang

Chair: Satya Shikha Chakraborty

This talk examines the migration of over one million Chinese women who travelled as wives, domestic servants, and sex workers to British Malaya between 1877 and 1940. Although historians have often argued that global Chinese was predominantly a masculine enterprise, I illuminate how women’s intimate labor networks served as linchpins that sustained the overseas migrant community and the regional economy. From makeshift brothels to polygamous households, migrant women engaged in adaptive labor strategies and intimate relations across the Malay Peninsula. I argue that Chinese women’s mobility across the South Seas was deeply consequential: it laid the foundations of early border control practices and left an indelible mark on Malaya’s social landscape. These women’s movement across national and colonial borders transformed traditional households, labor relations, and intimate practices.

 


 

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).

Upcoming and Previous Public Events and Media

Public Talks

  • Niti Achary, Satyasikha Chakraborty, Claire Lowrie, Aisha Shukat-Khawaja and Jo Stanley - Ayahs and Amahs: Following Asian nannies around the world, Public talk for Royal Museums Greenwich, 21 June 2022.

    Get more information here.

  • Farhanah Mamoojee, Niti Achary, Shalini Grover, Rozina Visram, Florain Stadler, Claire Lowrie and Jo Stanley: The English Heritage honoured the Ayah’s Home at 26 King Edward’s Road with a Blue Plaque on July 16th 2022. For our talks and contributions to this event see our Youtube video and Facebook video.
    The Ayahs Home is known to have housed hundreds of destitute ayahs and amah’s, especially Indian and Chinese women who made voyages to the colonies from 1900-1942. The event was marked by a Flag inauguration with Meera Syal (independent filmmaker) and Anita Anand (BBC journalist) and had a large public turnout.

    The event was widely covered in by the international press (BBC, BACSA, First Post, Times of India)

  • Jo Stanley, 'Anything like Lascars? Race, Gender, and Ayahs as working passengers, 1850-1950'. Webinar at Blaydes Maritime Centre, University of Hull on 16 November 2021.
  • Jo Stanley, Female, proud- and precarious: Asian ayahs voyaging 1850-1950. Black History Month talk, in Maritime UK’s Ethnicity in Maritime Network on YouTube, 4 October 2021.

Interviews

Exhibitions

  • Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Journeys - launched 8 September 2022 and runs till June 8, 2023. Research by the team: Victoria Haskins, Claire Lowrie, Swapna Banerjee, Srishti Guha and Charmaine Lam, with digital curator Lauren Samuelsson.

Prizes and Grant Awards

  • The Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Journeys exhibition recently won the 2022 Addi Road Multicultural History Award (NSW History Council).

  •  Florian Stadtler (Co-I, Bristol), Sumita Mukherjee (PI, Bristol), and Rehana Ahmed (Co-I, Queen Mary University of London) have secured a major AHRC standard grant for the project, ‘Remaking Britain: South Asian Networks and Connections, 1830 to the present’. In partnership with the British Library, ‘Remaking Britain’ will build a new digital and educational resource charting South Asian networks and connections across the UK. It will link archival resources, oral histories and research findings in a new publicly accessible database. Positioned at the intersection of the digital humanities, history and literary studies, ‘Remaking Britain’ will intervene in current debates about migration, diaspora and belonging and highlight the complexities of the lesser-known long intersecting migration histories of South Asian settlement in Britain. The project will run from January 2023 to September 2025.

Social Media

Member Publications

Blogs

Articles and Book Chapters  

Books

  • Banerjee M, Swapna recently published her monograph Fathers in a Motherland: Imagining Fatherhood in Colonial India (Oxford University Press, 2022). This book breaks new ground by weaving stories of fathers and children into the history of gender, family, and nation in colonial India. Focusing on the reformist Bengali Hindu and Brahmo communities, the author contends that fatherhood assumed new meaning and significance in late nineteenth and early twentieth century India. During this time of social and political change, fathers extended their roles beyond breadwinning to take an active part in rearing their children. Utilizing pedagogic literature, scientific journals, autobiographies, correspondences, and published essays, Fathers in a Motherland documents the different ways the authority and power of the father was invoked and constituted both metaphorically and in everyday experiences. Exploring specific moments when educated men, as biological fathers, literary activists, and educators, assumed guardianship and became crucial agents of change, Banerjee interrogates the connections between fatherhood and masculinity. The last chapter of the book moves beyond Bengal and draws on the lives of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to provide a broader salience to its argument. Reclaiming two missing links in Indian history—fathers and children—the book argues that these biological and imaginary “fathers” assumed the moral guardianship of an incipient nation and rested their hopes and dreams on the future generation.

    See the book here

    Banerjee also co-edited a volume with Padma Anagol and Paula Banerjee, Mapping Women’s History: Recovery, Resistance and Activism in Colonial and Postcolonial India (Stree-Samya, 2022). This volume of essays by noted scholars of India and the US honors Professor Barbara Ramusack (Charles Taft Professor Emerita, University of Cincinnati) and Geraldine Forbes (Distinguished Teaching Professor Emerita, State University of New York, Oswego), who charted the field of Indian women’s history for a global audience and acted as exemplary mentors to their students. Ramusack and Forbes launched their research and made field trips to India in the late 1960s, and the editors and contributors look at the forgotten histories of those global connections. Thus they restore lost knowledge of international networks and alliances along with struggles of this generation of women scholars and activists from both hemispheres. The work of scholars and their peers from UK, USA, and India who have been influenced and motivated by Ramusack and Forbes are presented here.

    In four parts: I Recovery and Reminiscences; II Feminism, Agency, and Resistance; III Activism; and IV Reflections, the book engages South Asian feminism and contributes to sociology, history, psychology, law, political science and women’s and gender studies. By historicizing the emergence of Indian women’s history, especially in the US academia, the volume breaks new ground.

    See the book here
  • Visram, Rozina updated her school book — The History of the Asian Community in Britain -- bringing it to the present at the request of the publishers, Wayland. It came out in 2021.
  • Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History. Pluto Press, 2002.
  • Visram, Rozina, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes:  The story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947. Pluto Press, 1986.


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