Who Were Ayahs? Backbone Of Childcare For Memsahibs In Colonial India

Ayahs were a distinct occupational group in India during the late 18th century, coinciding with the arrival of British wives. These women, called "memsahibs," relied heavily on ayahs for childcare. This is their story.

Ishika Thanvi
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Ayahs first appeared as a distinct occupational group in India during the late eighteenth century, coinciding with the arrival of British wives. These women, known as "memsahibs," relied heavily on ayahs for childcare, establishing ayahs as a crucial element in British households in India. 


Ayahs: The Backbone of Childcare for British Families

In the wealthy British households of colonial India, ayahs became indispensable. They provided comprehensive childcare, from nursing infants to entertaining children with stories and games. The close relationships formed between British children and their ayahs often led to the children becoming fluent in Indian languages and familiar with local cultures, inadvertently breaking racial barriers. However, this cultural exchange was viewed negatively by Victorian society, which feared that British children were being "culturally contaminated" by what they considered a "weaker race."

The Mobility and Challenges of Ayahs

As the British Empire expanded, so did the responsibilities and travels of ayahs. Many accompanied British families on long sea voyages to Europe, Australia, and Britain. Despite their essential role, ayahs often faced harsh conditions during these travels, including sleeping on deck among other non-European passengers. Upon reaching Britain, some ayahs stayed with their employer families, while others were left stranded without work or a place to stay. To mitigate this, Ayahs' Homes were established to provide temporary accommodation and support until they could find employment or return to India.


The Integral Role of Ayahs in British Colonial Society

Ayahs not only cared for children but also played a pivotal role in supporting the global mobility of British families within the Empire. The memsahibs, who often moved to India after marriage, depended on ayahs to manage household duties and ensure their children's well-being in the harsh climate and challenging conditions of India. Unlike the male-dominated servant workforce among the wealthy Indian population, British households preferred female servants for childcare, making ayahs a unique and essential part of their domestic life.

The bonds formed between ayahs and the children they cared for were strong and enduring. Many British children, upon being sent to boarding schools in Britain, fondly remembered and missed their ayahs. These childhood connections highlighted the significant impact ayahs had on their charges. However, employer attitudes towards ayahs were often unkind, with employers encouraged to treat them condescendingly and criticize their nurturing methods.

The Changing Role of Ayahs

Advancements in travel during the nineteenth century, such as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and improvements in shipbuilding, reduced travel time between India and Britain from several months to about three weeks. This made it more feasible for British families to travel frequently, often taking their ayahs along for the journey. Ayahs who accompanied families on these trips were required to have good sea legs and be exceptionally trustworthy, earning higher wages and additional allowances for travel-related expenses.

Ayahs in Britain: Stranded and Supported

Upon arrival in Britain, some ayahs continued to serve their families, while others were temporarily housed in Ayahs' Homes until they could secure new employment or return to India. Portraits from the early twentieth century, such as Helen Allingham's depiction of a memsahib, children, and an ayah at the seaside, illustrate the presence and role of ayahs in British life, even if they were a less common sight outside major cities like London. Many ayahs made multiple trips between India and Britain throughout their careers, sometimes travelling independently with children.

Ayahs were more than mere caretakers; they were integral to the daily lives and upbringing of British children in colonial India. Despite facing numerous challenges and societal prejudices, they formed deep emotional bonds with the children they cared for, leaving a lasting legacy. Today, the history of ayahs continues to reflect the complexities of cultural exchange and the human aspects of colonialism.

childcare colonial India Ayahs memsahibs