Black History Month: Ayahs at Sea

Unknown Ayah: artwork by Jo Stanley

Unknown Ayah: artwork by Jo Stanley

September 4 1892:  She’s Asian, she’s female, she’s just landed in England – and it’s a period when few working-class women of any colour speak up. But Asian nanny Minnie Green took her white employers to a white court. And won.

After a traumatic voyage from India, Minnie Green, whose name, of course, had been anglicised, successfully used the British judicial system against her violent and disrespectful employers. She was described by Lloyds Weekly Newspaper’s court reporter as ‘an intelligent Hindostani wearing pearls either side of the nose.’  On the voyage from Bangalore and on arrival in London she had been hit and underpaid by Harold and Grace Denton.  She had been employed to look after the coffee planters’ baby during the voyage, for £7 a month (excellent pay at the time).

 ‘Arriving at the docks they [the Dentons] proceeded to the South of London in search of some friends and then got drunk on the way, she taking charge of the baby. In the Borough they quarrelled and Mrs Denton turned around and struck her on the face. On the voyage, the poor woman added, she had suffered from the violent conduct of the prisoners.’ Southwark court restored the three shillings wage Minnie Green was still owed ‘for which she appeared very grateful and turning to the Bench said “I have much to thank you for – you gentleman.”’ 

 However the Dentons were not charged with assault. And indeed how could such systematic disrespect ever be re-dressed, and real justice won?

‘Minnie Green’ was one of hundred-odd ayahs (private nannies) who sailed the seas, mainly from India to UK and back, looking after other people’s children on the journey, from 1850 to 1939.  Why are these early ‘business travellers’ of any interest to us today? Because they were show how ‘racially inferior’ women were able to transcend fixity, albeit in limited ways. Ayahs were people who seized exceptional mobility and acted with agency, despite three obstacles: gender, class and race. Ayahs not only dared to leave their country, and get on risky ships. Some sailed with additional bravery because crossing the ocean was against their religious rules. They had the determination  to leave their own families, and the courage to sail to a cold and unknown country whose treatment of black people was sometimes reprehensible. Ayahs can truly be celebrated. 

We can divide them into ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ and professional ‘travelling ayahs’. The usual pattern was that ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ sailed to Britain with the family they worked for in Asia, to help with the children on the voyage. The families were either returning home on furlough, or to re-settle.  The ayahs then waited in Britain, sometimes at the Ayah’s Home in Hackney, for a new family who would engage them for the trip back to Asia.

‘Travelling ayahs’, by contrast, specialised in the crossing, working continually for different families, almost like frequent flyers or people couriers.  Mrs Antony Pareira did at least 54 trips. A 1922 mission magazine article describes her as: ‘a past mistress in the peccadilloes of the high seas: an adept at doctoring in stubborn mal de mer; and as much inured to the customs and routine of  a trim liner as any gold-laced skipper who ever paced a bridge or used a sextant.’ [1]

Significantly ayahs very seldom had their own passports or travelled under their own name: they were designated as part of their employer’s ‘family’, for example  ‘Ayah Smith’. This reflects their complex and ambiguous position. They were non-white members of races that some employees saw as inferior, but they had huge authority over the children, who usually adored these ‘almost mothers.’ This brought contestation with parents, especially when the children’s first language was the ayah’s.

I research gendered mobility at sea, so I’ve looked at the history of many sorts of women on ships.  It appears to me that in ayahs’ cases, tensions about race and about who had authority over the children emerged acutely on voyages. Here cooped-up people experienced a version of air-rage. The trip could take up to six months, and involved coping with storms; rocky ships without stabilisers; marshalling seasick or over-daring children in a hazardous situation; dealing with the confusing racist hierarchy on ship; and being too much under the eye of the children’s parents who could be fractious, anxious, and bored with the interminable trip. It was even worse if the ayah herself was suffering mal-de-mer; feeling uneasy with her employers; getting nervous about what would happen at her destination; and worrying about her own family back home.

Rosina Visram brought ayahs to UK attention in her seminal Asians in Britain (Pluto, London, 2002). But nineteenth century British newspapers online: http://newspapers.bl.uk/blcs now offer further information. The first sort is in advertisements. Placed  by ayahs’ employers, would-be employers or ayahs themselves, this one in the Glasgow Herald of 8.6.1857 is typical:

‘A native female of India, about to return to Bombay, is anxious to be EMPLOYED by a lady going there, either via the Cape or by the overland route. Is well adapted for the care of children and can be highly recommended. Address “Ayah” Herald Office.’

The second category of information is newspaper articles about ayahs. There are two main themes: maritime and personal disaster at sea, and destitution/injustice in ports. Disaster articles show that at least eight ayahs were in ships that sunk. At least four died. Injustice articles summarise the plight of those ditched by employers and left destitute (at least one ayah ended up in the workhouse). My favourite articles are those that show, impressively, that three ayahs were very assertive in using British law against employers . Minnie Green was one.

Jo Stanley is the author of ‘Ayahs who travelled: Indian nannies voyaging to Britain in the nineteenth century’, Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter, January 2011, pp.5-8. She has longer articles are in progress. For more information, see her website: http://www.jostanley.biz/


[1] AC Marshall, ‘Human Birds of Passage’, London City Mission Magazine, August 1922, pp.104-6.