She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen
‘Sharply observed, snappily written and thoroughly researched, She Merchants provides a fabulous panorama of a largely ignored area of social history. Katie Hickman successfully challenges the stereotype of the snobbish, matron-like memsahib by deploying a riveting gallery of powerful and often eccentric women ranging from stowaways and runaways through courtesans and society beauties to Generals’ feisty wives and Viceroys’ waspish sisters. It is full of surprises and new material and completely engaging from beginning to end’ William Dalrymple
The first British women to set foot in India did so in the very early seventeenth century, two and a half centuries before the Raj.
Women made their way to India for exactly the same reasons men did – to carve out a better life for themselves. In the early days, India was a place where the slates of ‘blotted pedigrees’ were wiped clean; bankrupts given a chance to make good; a taste for adventure satisfied – for women. They went and worked as milliners, bakers, dress-makers, actresses, portrait painters, maids, shop-keepers, governesses, teachers, boarding house proprietors, midwives, nurses, missionaries, doctors, geologists, plant-collectors, writers, travellers, and – most surprising of all – traders.
As wives, courtesans and she-merchants, these tough adventuring women were every bit as intrepid as their men, the buccaneering sea captains and traders in whose wake they followed; their voyages to India were extraordinarily daring leaps into the unknown.
The history of the British in India has cast a long shadow over these women; Memsahibs, once a word of respect, is now more likely to be a byword for snobbery and even racism. And it is true: prejudice of every kind – racial, social, imperial, religious – did cloud many aspects of British involvement in India. But was not invariably the case.
In this landmark book, celebrated chronicler, Katie Hickman, uncovers stories, until now hidden from history: here is Charlotte Barry, who in 1783 left London a high-class courtesan and arrived in India as Mrs William Hickey, a married ‘lady’; Poll Puff who sold her apple puffs for ‘upwards of thirty years, growing grey in the service’; Mrs Hudson who in 1617 was refused as a trader in indigo by the East Indian Company, and instead turned a fine penny in cloth; Julia Inglis, a survivor of the siege of Lucknow; Amelia Horne, who witnessed the death of her entire family during the Cawnpore massacres of 1857; and Flora Annie Steel, novelist and a pioneer in the struggle to bring education to purdah women.
For some it was painful exile, but for many it was exhilarating. Through diaries, letters and memoirs (many still in manuscript form), this exciting book reveals the extraordinary life and times of hundreds of women who made their way across the sea and changed history.
A history of the bolshy, pioneering British women who sailed for India * The Times * Eye-popping and extremely readable -- Jenny Colgan * Spectator * A welcome corrective to Raj-dominated, male-heavy histories of Britain's relationship with India * History Revealed * Hickman deftly negotiates the shifting politics of time and place . . . Hickman has a novelist's touch -- Jane Robinson * Times Literary Supplement * Rich in detail and full of astonishing stories * Country Life * [A] colourful, witty and elegantly written new perspective on British India through the eyes of some of the women who were there . . . Hickman gives us a wealth of entertaining details * Daily Mail * [A] fascinating and informative book -- Virginia Nicholson * Sunday Times * Thrilling tales of some of our wild colonial women . . . 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 -- John Keay * Evening Standard * Fascinating . . . I was swept along by Hickman's concise chapters and her crisp, wry style * The Times * Goes beneath the surface of imperial male history . . . a cast of extraordinary women. Wonderful -- Anita Anand Absolutely brilliant . . . remarkable women, until now almost unknown. I was so gripped I couldn't put it down -- Antonia Fraser Sharply observed, snappily written and thoroughly researched, She Merchants provides a fabulous panorama of a largely ignored area of social history. Katie Hickman successfully challenges the stereotype of the snobbish, matron-like memsahib by deploying a riveting gallery of powerful and often eccentric women ranging from stowaways and runaways through courtesans and society beauties to Generals' feisty wives and Viceroys' waspish sisters. It is full of surprises and new material and completely engaging from beginning to end -- William Dalrymple
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