historical writings

Husband-hunting in the Raj: Here’s the advice British women received when traveling to India

What to wear on the journey to the India and how to decorate your home once you’ve settled in.

In the age of sailing travel was slow, leisurely, full of danger and anticipation. A voyage from Britain to India took between three to four months; ships stopped at St Helena in the western Atlantic, the Cape of Good Hope, Aden or Socotra (Yemen), before finally reaching Bombay. There was the unexpected too, not least the prospect of shipboard romances. Warren Hastings, on his second appointment to the East India Company, met the love of his life, the Dutch-born Baroness Imhoff, on board the Duke of Grafton.

By the mid-19th century steamships that were smaller and faster, sailed via the Mediterranean and the Red Seas toward the East. The Suez Canal reduced travel time yet further and there were more travellers. Men who came east to serve the British Empire and then, as the 19th century wore on, more women travellers. The latter sailed out with their husbands, but most came to find husbands, constituting as Anne De Courcy writes in her book, Husband-Hunting in the Raj, the “fishing fleet”.

As the historian Alison Blunt writes, from a handful of Portuguese women travellers who came to Goa in the 1620s, by 1810, there were around 250 European women in India. In 1872, in North West Provinces (present day Uttar Pradesh), there were around 5,000 British women, and in 1901 British women numbered 42,004 in a British population of around 1,54,691. During this period, a certain social segregation and imperial distancing was already in place in India and British men were encouraged to marry their own ilk.

Travel advice books covering myriad subjects, from travelling in comfort to household management and cookery, became a popular genre from the 1870s onward. They ranged in style from the mere pedantic to those gossipy and amusing; they were also fancifully titled and dedicated. For example, Flora Annie Steele and Grace Gardiner’s book on household management was dedicated to those girls who would be house mothers in our Eastern empire.

Most such books appeared from the 1880s onwards and many went through several reprints. A Few Words of Advice on Travelling and its Requirements Addressed to Ladies by HMLS saw its fourth edition in 1878. Other examples are: Indian Outfits & Establishments: Practical Guide for Persons About to Reside in India (1882) by an Anglo-Indian (a compilation of articles published in the magazine called Bazaar); In 1909, Maud Diver’s The Englishwoman in India, that in its epigraph extolled the British woman in India, without whom the Empire would have been impossible; the pseudonymous Chota Mem’s The English Bride in India, and Topical Trials: A Handbook for Women in the Tropics by Major Leigh Hunt and Alexander Kenny. Catering to a growing group of solo women travellers was Lillias Campbell Davidson’s Hints for the Woman Traveller at Home and Abroad (1889).

The auxiliary steamer County of Sutherland at sea under steam and sail. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]
The auxiliary steamer County of Sutherland at sea under steam and sail. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]

For the voyage Eastward

In the late 19th century most ships to Bombay left from Southampton, Southwest of London, a journey of around 28 days with stoppages. They sailed via Gibraltar to Malta before reaching, four days later, Port Said in North Egypt. The journey from the Red Sea to Aden was described in most advice books as trying. There were those who preferred to travel overland through Europe by first taking the steamer from Dover to Calais and then the train through Paris, Macon, to Turin, before taking the steamer from Brindisi in Sicily to Alexandria.

Late autumn was the best season to travel out, for then one arrived in Bombay in time for the mild winter. It made, if required, the later rail journey through India easier to endure than in summers when it could get very hot.

HMLS provided advice on what to wear for the journey:

“…choose a simple dress of soft warm tweed, of a dark grey colour, made in the Princess form and buttoned down the front from the neck; the skirt must be furnished with pockets on either side, made deep enough to hold little things likely to be required whilst lying on the berth, such as a few pocket-handkerchiefs, smelling-bottle, eau-de-cologne, small brush and comb, scissors, etc. A more stylish dress must be worn for landing…It is a good plan to use very old underclothing, such as can be thrown away when soiled.”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/charmainezoe/5378486399
https://www.flickr.com/photos/charmainezoe/5378486399

Travelling solo

For the likes of solo intrepid women travellers who journeyed on their own, Lillias Campbell Davidson offered some special advice in her Hints to Lady Travellers.

Besides essentials such as bath and bath towels, medicines, a reading lamp, light reading material (to also not increase luggage weight), Davidson suggested some safety measures as well: “a door-wedge which is a great convenience”, a railway-key that allows access through train compartments, and a compass vital for the traveller “who has to be her own guide.” And there were quirky health essentials too, such as packing along an eye-stone to pick off dust in one’s eye. This was inserted below the eyelid, and the eyeball rolled along with the stone, the dust mote then stuck to the stone and then could be easily retrieved.

All advice books were unanimous about not carrying or packing too much – either as hand baggage or for use in India. The parcel post and friends who traveled often allowed for things to be quickly dispatched from England.

British men and women in India during the Raj. Photo credit: LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD India]
British men and women in India during the Raj. Photo credit: LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD India]

In praise of the durzee

As for clothes for the memsahib, the book, Indian Outfits and Establishments stated, “Enough at starting should be taken for a year, or even two years; for in India fashions do not succeed each other so rapidly as at home, and even in last year’s bonnet or hat you will not feel yourself demode.”

Photo credit: Wikimedi Commons [Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0]
Photo credit: Wikimedi Commons [Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0]

HMLS added that most things could also be stitched in India. There were several advice books that provided guarded praise for the durzee or the tailor. In Outfits and Establishments, there was more detail:

“The durzee is a reliable, good impersonator but on occasion not to be trusted. The Indian durzee is a very clever worker, good at imitating, but bad at originating. Give him a good pattern (and) you can get new ones by post from home as often as necessary and he will turn out a dress very nicely, with strong, neat workmanship.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]

Advice books listed some essentials and HMLS made especial recommendations about formal wear.


“The black silk dress has to be really a good one and I should advise, as well as two bodices, two skirts also…in fact you should be able to make two costumes out of one dress. Your evening dresses you will be able to alter with the occasional addition of little extras, such as flowers, ribbons, and so on. If you can afford a lace dress (I should prefer it of white), so much the better; it will outlast many other evening dresses, and lace, even if not of an expensive kind, is always useful, and can be made up over and over again on different coloured slips.”

The memsahib had to be cautious when handing out clothes for washing;

“(Y)our linen should not be trimmed with work; the washerman (dhobie) is….is a creature with rough hands, and on dainty laces and trimmings works his sweet will; he has apparently a malicious pleasure in tearing off buttons and strings, and at the very first wash reducing handsome linen into untidy dilapidated garments.”

Men too had their own travel guidelines. What they needed most were white suits, ideal in the heat, and then the wide-rimmed and sturdy “solar topee” that could be easily bought on arrival.

British men in India during the Raj. Photo credit: LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD India]
British men in India during the Raj. Photo credit: LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD India]

Interior decoration

It was best to hire furniture in India considering that the husbands were transferred every few years. Cane furniture however could be bought in India as it was cheaper and a lot of it could be prettified with “enamel paint and cretonne cushions”.

It made far more sense to buy pianos. The historian Alison Blunt cites the letters of Frances Wells, a British woman to her father in England. Pianos in India were made to suit local conditions. Frances Wells wrote that her piano was “bound completely in brass, so as to stand the climate, with a packing case lined with tin, and a red wadded cover which is necessary in India and four glass insulators to keep white ants off.”

Instead of blankets, Outfits and Establishments recommended the razai or “ressaie”:

“There are issued to the troops in India a most useful sort of light mattress, which can be used either to lie on or as a covering. It is called a ressaie, and can be procured cheaply in almost any station, or even where there are no troops. It will last for years.”


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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.