Hickman has a real talent for recounting the stories of individual people with sympathy, clarity and verve. The book is a genuine pleasure to read. Nearly all the figures she writes about, though, have featured in works by William Dalrymple, Linda Colley and others, while the character-driven approach can sometimes leave one craving richer context of the sort provided by Margaret MacMillan’s accessible social history Women of the Raj (1988). One also senses Hickman struggling to fit her material into a chronological structure, when several recurring topics – such as anxieties about children’s health and wellbeing, or the challenges of setting up and running a household – might benefit from thematic discussion...The result is a book that, for all its good intentions, does for imperial history a bit what a package tour does for travel: it lets readers glimpse an “exotic” location without requiring them to think too much about the people who actually live there.
Hickman deftly negotiates the shifting politics of time and place, though her subtitle gives a slightly misleading impression that the whole colonial period will be addressed. She is reluctant to take us much beyond Queen Victoria’s installation as Empress in 1876, explaining that the “arrogance and racism of the British” became too unpalatable after that. This is a shame; it would have been illuminating to continue to 1947.
Hickman spares us no details of the mutiny, nor the ferocious reaction of the British. It was a tragic episode which showed up the profound differences between the two peoples, with much mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides.
Hickman gives us a wealth of entertaining details of domestic life: in 18th-century Calcutta, one English household dined on 'a soup, a roast fowl, curry and rice, a mutton pie, a fore-quarter of lamb, a rice pudding, good cheese, fresh churned butter, fine bread and excellent Madeira'. After that, unsurprisingly, came siesta.
Happily for her readers, Hickman then takes us where her research leads her, lifting the lid on a world of pirates, palanquins, nabobs, concubines, chaukidars, attar of roses and the “bloody flux” (aka dysentery). In the early days of the East India Company, the passage from Portsmouth could take up to a year or more. Women were unwelcome passengers, seen by sailors as unlucky; in 1784, Eliza Fay was allowed to go on deck only five times during the entire journey. Those arriving at Madras, where no ship could dock, underwent the terrifying initiation to India of being carried across the pounding surf on the backs of slippery, semi-naked fishermen.
Why no one has made a film about such an extraordinary life is a mystery. But then one could say that about most of the fearless females featured in Katie Hickman’s book. There have been other studies of the British memsahibs but none so focused on the adventurous and unconventional, and none more conscientiously researched, historically sound and compellingly written. An excellent book, then, despite its unmanageable title.
Katie Hickman’s book about British women in India is a breathless, quite interesting, account, with two large, obvious gaps in its narrative. It doesn’t examine how Indian observers viewed these new arrivals; no non-English sources are quoted, though Indians were extremely curious about Europeans. Nor is Hickman interested in the ways Indian culture itself wanted to advance the status of women... To view the Raj through the experience of women is an interesting exercise, and She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen addresses its subject with a good deal of enthusiasm. Another couple of years’ work, including research in the Kolkata archives and conversations with Indian scholars of the subject, would have produced something memorable.
Hickman does not shy away from the difficulties of writing about women who were, as she puts it, ‘members of a colonising race’. ‘It is striking how few of them, if any, questioned their right to be there, and perhaps it would be anachronistic to hope otherwise,’ she writes. The self-righteous missionaries of the late 19th century, intent on converting heathen Indian children into clean and perfect Christians, are as distasteful today as brown Windsor soup. And while some of Hickman’s subjects relished their new lives in India, many others found their existence there unimaginably hard. Forced to leave their children in England or send them home alone, plagued by fear, loneliness and boredom, intense heat and unfamiliar diseases, these women faced the challenges of life in a new country with courage and determination, if not always open-mindedness. She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen doesn’t take the story much beyond the uprisings. Perhaps Hickman was unwilling to address the more recent past, or perhaps she wished to avoid the well-rehearsed history of the ‘Fishing Fleet’. The last women we read about are nurses in Bombay at the turn of the 20th century. But what about the years leading up to independence? Did British women play no important role in the final decades of the Raj? This caveat aside, there could be no better guide to the world of British women in India, of kedgeree and cantonments, of pet mynah birds and punkah wallahs, than Hickman, whose warmth, wit and erudition sparkle on every page.
I was swept along by Hickman’s concise chapters and her crisp, wry style. With the lives of individual women at its heart, her book opens with that surprisingly mixed-race and mixed-class episode from the early 1600s, and carries us through two centuries of increasing racism and snobbism, via the horrors of the Indian Uprisings of 1857 in which fastidious English wives found themselves caught up in an extended nightmare. Hickman combines a strong streak of amusement at the claustrophobic, mosquito-ridden, socially excruciating discomforts endured by the sheltered women she writes about, with an equally strong streak of empathy for them as they struggled to survive and keep up appearances in the crippling heat and dust, many of them either mourning children who had died of disease or (later in the book) pining for them if they’d been sent back to school in England.