Monday, February 2, 2009

Women of the Raj

Margaret McMillan wrote Women of the Raj in 1998 and it was republished in 2005. It tells the story of the life of British women living in India particularly in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The East India Company had established trade with India in the seventeenth century and by the eighteenth century had established posts along the coast of India. The power of the East India Company grew and was supported by contingents of the British army as the importance of the Indian trade route increased. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the East India Company had become the Raj.

Increasingly British women travelled with their husbands when their husbands were posted to India where in India they faced an entirely different lifestyle from their way of life in Britain. The women largely kept to their own community and most tried to replicate the British lifestyle, especially food, clothing furniture, flowers and entertainment in an alien environment. There was a ready supply of cheap labour and the woman was expected to ensure that the household ran smoothly but she was not normally expected to do physical work. Entertainment included visiting other families, parties and sport. In summer, those who could afford to do so, retreated to the hills where the temperatures were cooler. However there were also threats including disease, snakes, heat that sapped energy and rapid dogs. After 1857 there was also the threat of another mutiny.

When children of British families were born in India there were concerns for the health of the children and also for their education. Consequently families in the position to do so sent young children back to England to be cared for by family. Wives faced the choice of abandoning their children or abandoning their husbands.

Women of the Raj provides a number of case studies illustrating the lives of British women in India providing a different perspective of the British in India as well as interesting background information for family history researchers with family in India at the time.

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