Searching for Women in Between the Lines

Research Reflection by an Undergraduate Research Assistant for Summer 2021

“[N]o lady, native of India, even though her father should have been of the highest rank in the King’s or Company’s service…is ever invited to those assemblies given by the governor on public occasions.” 

Capt. Thomas Williamson, East India Vade Mecum1

As the East India Company expanded its influence over the Asian subcontinent, the disparity of the demand for female companionship compared to the availability of eligible Englishwomen led to men depending upon the sexual labor of young local girls. This kind of cohabitation was both common and risky, since some men who became embedded in local familial systems were described derogatorily as “going native.”2 In many situations, these British men developed significant affection for their native lovers, even dedicating sizeable portions of their estates to these women. However, the acknowledgement of interracial relationships during this colonial period often rests solely in wills published following the deaths of these men, reflecting a culture of shame around intimacy with native women.3

Norms of the time promoted the idea of a proper English family, which Indian concubines threatened to damage. On one hand, getting involved with local women opened potential cooperation with leading Indian merchants and families crucial to the establishment of the E.I.C.’s business in the region, as well as fostering a sense of belonging for those far from home.4 The Company, though, ensured via policies and protocol that there was little public awareness of these practices to avoid scandal.

Rarely did Company men officially marry into the surrounding culture, but many did engage in decades-long monogamous relationships with native women.5 It was also common for British men to father children with native women; however, businessmen with mixed-race families were expected to espouse European values and raise children as thoroughly British. With little regard to their Indian heritage, children were routinely sent back alone to England by parents to receive an education and experience a typical English lifestyle.6 Those few mothers who were acknowledged by their white partners assumed similar expectations and embraced the culture and religion of her male counterpart.

The life of the woman known as Elizabeth Sharaf-un-Nisa presents a rare case study of a native woman successfully assimilating into British society. Presumably having followed her children to Europe to maintain her status as a mother, her transition into Mrs. Elizabeth Ducarel, lady of the house allowed her visibility despite her background and heritage. She was an outlier, since most women in India who entered partnerships with Europeans never surpassed their position as concubine. Speaking of her assimilation as a “success,” on the other hand, does not reflect the immense struggles she must have faced to obtain such a placement. Mobility of this sort certainly entailed Elizabeth’s willingness to let go of her native culture and disposition in favor of adapting to the world of her husband, even following his death in the early 19th century. This project’s focus on the archives of Sharaf-un-Nisa showcases an important perspective often overlooked in the study of imperialism in South Asia, and only encourages further inquiry into the intersection of feminism, migration, and identity in the British colonial context.

As someone deeply interested in both the history of imperialism in South Asia and archival research, I am looking forward to gathering more information about Sharaf-un-Nisa and examining all records and photographs on file. I have already been enjoying the work with metadata and transcribing items such as her penmanship book, which provide such an interesting perspective into her adoption of the English language and social customs. Having little prior experience working with any archives, this has been an incredible learning experience so far as someone studying History and wanting to dig more into colonial records. All I can say is thanks to PURM and Professor Robb for what should be a great summer!

Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Emma Roberts, Scenes and Characters of Hindustan: with sketches of Anglo Indian Society (London: Wm. H. Allen and Co., 1835).

Thomas Williamson, East India Vade Mecum or complete guide to gentlemen intended for the civil, military, or naval service of the Honourable East India Company (London: Black, Parry and Kingsbury, 1810).

William Dalrymple, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-century India (London: HarperCollins, 2002).


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