She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India
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The first British women to set foot in India did so in the very early seventeenth century, two and half centuries before the Raj came into being. In stark contrast to the languid memsahibs of popular imagination, these women were tough adventurers, their voyages extraordinarily daring leaps into the unknown. Those who dared the nineteen-month sea voyage, often confined to the lowest bowels of the ship, were at risk of hurricanes, shipwreck, and even piracy. While for some it was a painful exile – in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it could take more than three years to receive and reply to letters from home – for many others it was an exhilarating opportunity to re-invent themselves in the often decadent and socially porous British enclaves.
While it is well-known that women went to India to find husbands, what is almost unknown is that they also worked as traders, cloth merchants, milliners, bakers, dress-makers, actresses, portrait painters, maids, shop-keepers, governesses, teachers, boarding house proprietors, midwives, nurses, missionaries, doctors, geologists, plant-collectors, writers and travellers. India was the British ‘wild east’, and many women succeeded in building a new and often independent life for themselves. Based upon diaries, letters and memoirs, Katie Hickman reveals the life and times of hundreds of women who make their way across the sea and changed history.
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