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She–Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen

by on 21 November 2019

Curious Etiquettes and the Rights of Passage

She–Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen

by Katie Hickman

Arts Richmond, Richmond Literature Festival, at Duke Street, Richmond until 20th November

Review by Eliza Hall

For the first time it is hard to discipline myself to write this review when all I want to do is read Katie Hickman’s intriguing and very accessible book! Nevertheless, hearing her talk was captivating, delightful and engaging. Katie Hickman is the easy raconteur, the careful and thorough researcher and a writer who is as easy to read as she is to listen to.

Starting off by reminding us of the birth of the East India Company in 1600, she set the context by reading a horrifying report of a story that almost entirely destroyed the small seagoing vessel that was India – bound several years later. Reading to us the description of the storm at sea, experienced by Charlotte Barry as recorded by her ‘husband’ William Hickey, our speaker gave us, the audience, a vivid picture of the dangers and horrors faced by anyone travelling to India in the seventeenth century. Charlotte died only a few months after arriving.

Perhaps many of us already knew that sailors believed that a woman aboard ship was considered to be unlucky and as our raconteur explained that for some women the hazardous journey and their lives, if they survived at sea, would have been challenging and often different to our preconceived ideas of life in India. There was no doubt, as our speaker, Katie Hickman made it clear from her research, that women were not particularly welcome on arrival in India either. In fact were blamed for the loss of their male dominance there. What we all began to realise was that the women who lived in India were changed by the lives they lived there.

In order to survive and to make a new entirely different life for themselves often depended on their individual, and as the author stated ‘rich and varied’, motives for travelling in the first place. Our writer explained her own belief that their motives were more robust than those natural wants of marriage and giving birth, fragile those these could be ‘but something more robust : the quest for a better life and a fearless spirit of adventure’ (p 19).

Some might have been looking for a husband, our own previous assumptions, perhaps, but Katie Hickman explained and retold the stories of several women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who went to make money through trading and producing articles, others to explore and record flora and fauna or the geology. Some might have been maids in England or a woman’s companion, who rose to status denied them at home, others risked their lives to make financial gain which they took with them back to the British Isles.

Katie Hickman bookKatie Hickman’s own research for She–Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen involved, as she said, digging in the British Library and explained that her research involved reading diaries, letters, memoirs. She mentioned Samuel Purchas, an English cleric, who published volumes of reports by travellers to foreign countries, including his interview with Mrs Frances Steele, the wife of Richard, who had plans to design the waterworks in Agra. Mrs Steele had been a maid and companion to another woman travelling to India, but who, when married, became rich and influential. At one point she was summoned to visit the widow of a brother of Emperor Jahangir. Our speaker then read the description of the clothes of this Indian lady. It is thought that this is possibly one of the first ever descriptions of an Englishwoman’s visit to a high ranking Indian woman in her own home.

All of our speaker’s tales were contextualised in the development of India by the colonialists, from her descriptions of the curious etiquettes and the rights of passage, including the ‘setting up’ ceremony. By the eighteenth century the East India Company had gained access and control of other parts of the country and Ms Hickman described the effect of the Evangelical Movement and the changed mental landscape that developed. English women were beginning to be accused of loss of control of parts of India. Not to say that it was due to the fact that women were intrigued by the lives of their servants and the mysteries of Indian life from which they were kept so separate. Nevertheless it was often the women who took an interest in the music, the religions, dress and cultural traditions of the country. Katie Hickman told us of Fanny Parks’ India diaries, how she travelled, learned languages, ate the local foods and played the sitar and clearly adored Indian women’s lifestyles and encouraged friendships. British interests were not reciprocated and were only understood when women began writing their letters and memoirs, which according to Katie Hickman were hard to find in the seventeenth century and did not really happen until nearly a hundred years later. Plenty of women were writing by the nineteenth century and attitudes and interests were made more transparent. The alien cultures of both prevailed.

As Ms Hickman said, both in her introduction and in answer to questions from the audience, these diaries and letters, some published, others still in manuscript form, were intended only for private readership and addressed in the most part to family members. Katie Hickman stated that the British Library contains ‘an extraordinary rich collection of female voices’. Those early adventurers probably did not see themselves as colonisers, even though in the early days of colonialisation the East India Company advertised from Leadenhall Street for specific types of women for soldiers who could prove their present ‘sober and civil lives’. Others were not so lucky and Katie Hickman cited girl orphans from Christ’s Hospital being sent, possibly as young as twelve years, who would be on board ship for eight months. One can only surmise what such an experience was like. We were told how Hickey, based in Calcutta as it was called or mispronounced by the British in the seventeenth century (now Kolkata), apparently wrote about different women, including dress makers and milliners, bakers and other trades that entrepreneurial women were able to invent or develop for themselves, as slowly the establishment of a colony emerged. Our own preconceptions on arrival at the evening’s talk were delightfully reduced. To quote Katie Hickman on p6 of her book: ‘The history of Englishwomen in India has turned out to be not at all what I was expecting it to be.’

Katie Hickman had asked the questions as to who these British women were and how had they come to be in India and what their lives like? What was their relationship to the vast country and its people? These questions she poses in her Introduction (p13), and in answering through detailed research, has produced a fascinating book that invites us to discover for ourselves, thanks to this writer’s ability to research and write and to hold our attention as a speaker, so engagingly.

A fascinating story and a fitting speaker to end the three evenings presented by Arts Richmond.

Eliza Hall
November 2019

Photography courtesy of Arts Richmond

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